Penny A. Watkins-Zdrojewski
© December 2013
Many dogs, cats and critters don’t like to have their nails trimmed and display behaviors that make it nearly impossible to try. Working harder to get it done only increases your pet’s fear and your frustration, producing even worse results the next time. If you live with one of these animals, you know how frustrating and stressful it can be.
Are long toenails a major health hazard? Usually not, but they can be for some animals. Nails that are excessively long can affect an animal’s gait and balance, permanently deform the foot, or curve too far and puncture the paw pads. Long nails are also prone to snagging, breaking and tearing.
Check with your vet to determine your pet’s optimum nail health. Even if your pet’s health isn’t an issue, nails trimmed to the appropriate length are better for the overall wellness and comfort of a pet animal, as well as the comfort his human guardian.
What do you need to look for when trimming nails, and how can you make it easier? Here is some information to help you get started on the right foot – or paw. Read on to learn about toenail anatomy, types of equipment and selecting the right tool, how to correctly trim with clippers or a rotary tool, the importance of being comfortable, the best ways to introduce tools and help your pet accept them, and damaged nails.
TOE NAIL ANATOMY
Dog, cat, and mammalian critter toenails consist of: a nail bed, or germinal tissue; a nail shell; the “quick”; and, in the case of cats, a sheath.
The nail bed, or germinal tissue, is at the base of the nail, and appears to be part of the paw. The germinal tissue is the beginning of nail growth and affects the health of the nail. Toenails grow out from the base, downward in a curved arc.
The nail shell is hard and curved. It may be black, white, or translucent. Black nails make it more difficult to see the quick, and may be tougher to cut or file.
Immediately inside the shell is a darker, somewhat softer tissue, which protects the quick.
The quick is the soft cuticle in the center, which consists of nerve and blood vessels. If the quick is cut, it will bleed and cause your pet pain. As nails grow, the quick grows with them. The quick should normally be near the “hook,” or most curved part of the nail. If nails are not cut or filed on a regular basis, the quick will grow toward the nail tip, making it more likely for it to be damaged during trimming or if the nail is injured.
Dogs have fixed toenails and cats have nails that can be retracted into the nail sheath at the base of the nail.
TYPES OF TRIMMERS AND EQUIPMENT
Pet toenail trimmers come in a wide variety of styles, and each has its own use.
- Guillotine style clippers are mostly used for dogs. They require that the nail be inserted through a cutting hole and do not have a trim guard to prevent over-clipping. They may be less effective on larger dogs or dogs with very tough nails.
- Pliers (or “Miller’s forge) style clippers are commonly used by professionals and experienced pet guardians for most dogs. They come in a of range sizes, with and without a guard to prevent over-clipping.
- Scissor style clippers are the type most often used for cats. They can also be used for puppies and small dogs.
- A power rotary tool can quickly grind and file nails as an alternative to clipping.
- Human Nail Clippers can be useful for small kittens and puppies, rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, and other small critters.
- A metal hand file is sometimes used to smooth tips after cutting the nail, and can be helpful with some damaged nails.
When trimming nails, it’s good to have a clotting agent in case of bleeding. Styptic powder is common. Kwik Stop is styptic powder with Benzocaine, an numbing agent. In an emergency, plain flour can work.
SELECT THE RIGHT TOOL
When selecting a nail trimming tool, your first consideration should be whether it is an appropriate size for your pet. Tools that are too small will not cut well. If they are too big, they may break the nail or make it difficult to see and avoid cutting the quick. As pets grow, you may need to switch tools.
Any tool needs to fit well in your hand. It should also be comfortable and be easy to use.
If you choose clippers, it’s important they be sharp enough to cleanly cut your pet’s nails. Your pet’s tolerance for noise and vibration may be a factor in choosing a rotary tool. However it is generally possible to help them become comfortable with any tool, as explained below in “How to Introduce and Desensitize to Tools.”
THE PROCESS OF TRIMMING
Identify the Quick
If your pet has light or translucent nails, the quick should look pink, and should be easy to see. With dark or black nails, it is not possible to see the quick, but the anatomy is the same. If you look at the anatomy of the underside of the nail you will see a triangle. The end of this triangle is generally where the quick begins. When in doubt, cut or file just a little nail; you can always remove more in a few days or a week.
Trimming with Clippers
Ideally, you should make the cut 2-3 millimeters from the nail quick. With dark nails, where you can’t see the quick, trim a little at a time and check the nail. If the tip has a waxy look you are close to the quick. If it looks dry, you can remove a bit more. You can also look for a pale, third, inner circle, or a dark spot in the middle of the clipped nail. Stop clipping here.
If you go too far, the nail will bleed and cause pain. While you may feel like panicking, don’t worry. Apply styptic powder, Kwik Stop, or, in an emergency, plain flour. The nail will heal quickly. A common misperception is that a pet who has had their quick cut will never allow their nails to be trimmed again. While they may have some fear the next time, you can help to make them comfortable again, following the steps outlined in the section below on introducing and desensitizing to tools.
Remember to clip the dew claws located on the inside the legs. They can curl in and cause pain, and can tear easily.
Filing with a Rotary Tool
Guidelines for length, identifying the quick, and what to do if you trim too far are the same as for using clippers. However, the actual process for filing with a rotary tool is a little different from using clippers. The process and additional precautions are detailed in the next section. You may also need to take longer to introduce the tool, due to the noise and vibration.
USING A DREMEL® OR OTHER ROTARY TOOL
If your pet won’t tolerate having her nails trimmed with clippers, you might try switching to an electric rotary tool, such as the Oster Gentle Paws Nail Trimmer or a Dremel® tool from the hardware store. For animals whose nails tend to be brittle or fragile and break frequently, I highly recommend that you file the nails instead of clipping. Getting your pet used to the electric trimmer may be a long process, and you may have to put your efforts into it for a while. But the results, which are positive for most animals, will pay off your patience and effort.
Still, the electric trimmers offer a set of challenges as well. What can you do to help your animal learn to accept having its nails filed?
Select the Right Rotary Tool:
Do a little research and buy a high-quality (not necessarily high-priced) electric trimmer. You can find lots of specialized models in pet stores. Similar products sell for much less in hardware stores. The main thing to consider is how comfortable the tool will be for you and for your pet. Factors include: whether the tool is corded or cordless; how it fits in your hand; the motor noise; and the vibration.
Follow the Guidelines for Comfort and for How to Introduce and Desensitize to Tools below
How to File with a Rotary Tool:
Start by removing the curved tip until the nail is blunt. Next, file straight across until you are near the quick or at an appropriate length. Finally, round off any sharp corners to prevent snagging and scratching. Filing builds heat, so only trim for a few seconds on any nail. You don’t need to do each one start to finish, and can work on each toe several times during any given session.
It is important for both you and your pet to be comfortable. If you are uncomfortable, it will affect your breathing and your stress level, and frustration. If your pet’s foot or leg is being held at an odd angle, it will make her uncomfortable, she will want to move away, and you will both become frustrated and stressed. Some pets are more comfortable on a table or similar surface; others do better sitting next to you or in your lap.
Exhale frequently while trimming; this will help regulate your breathing and reduce your stress.
When possible, partner with someone. One of you can help calm and relax your pet while the other trims the nails. You and your pet will be more relaxed, and will make it easier for her to accept the process. Treats can help, but I highly recommend TTouch Ear Slides and other pleasurable types of touch.
HOW TO INTRODUCE AND DESENSITIZE TO TOOLS
The principal here is simple: turn something potentially scary and painful into something fun and pleasurable.
This process “chunks it down” – instead of trying to cut or file nails right away, each part of the introduction to the tool, including its effects, is a separate step. It’s very important to take things slowly, moving at your pet’s pace. At any point, if your pet starts to become distressed, back up one or two steps until he is completely comfortable again.
Using either clippers or a rotary file, let your pet meet and become comfortable with the trimming tool before you use it:
- Let your pet meet the tool. Allow him to sniff and explore it. If necessary, use treats to make it more interesting. Sometimes putting a little wet food or peanut butter on the tool will help him associate it with something good.
- Gently rub or massage your pet’s legs and feet with the tool. If he doesn’t easily tolerate having his legs touched, start with rubbing his back and shoulders, gradually moving to the legs, then returning to the shoulders.
- Lightly tap his toes with the tool.
- Lightly tap his toe nails with the tool.
- At this point, if using clippers, follow the instructions in #6; if using a rotary file, follow the instructions in #7.
- When Using Clippers:
- Put the clipper around your pet’s nails, one at a time, and remove quickly without cutting any nails. Repeat this for several days.
- When comfortable, cut one nail, and then massage the foot with the clippers. You may be able to cut more than one nail, but be aware of your pet’s comfort level. Repeat for a few days.
- Continue in this fashion, slowly building up the number of toes that can be cut and the length of time the clippers can be in contact with the toe, while decreasing how frequently you have to stop cutting and go back to massages and rubs with the tool.
- When using a Dremel® or other rotary file:
- Help your pet become comfortable with the rotary tool with the motor turned off. Start with an introduction, then massage legs, and feet and progress to tapping toes, all with the motor off.
- After your pet becomes comfortable with the tool while the motor is off, you will need to repeat the process with the motor turned on. She needs to be comfortable with the sound and vibration before filing any nails. First remove all attachments from the tool, so that your pet can’t touch any filing surfaces with his nose. Turn the motor on and repeat the steps: introducing, massaging, and then tapping toes with the body of the tool.
- Add the file attachment. Do some massage and toe-taps with the body of the tool. File just one toe for only 1-3 seconds, then switch back to massaging with the body of the tool.
- Continue in this fashion, slowly building up the number of toes that can be filed and length of time the grinder can be in contact with a toe, while decreasing how frequently you have to stop filing and go back to massaging with the body of the tool.
Regardless of what type of tool you use, you will accomplish a lot more, and you and your pet will be happier, if you have patience, take deep, frequent breaths, are consistent, and back up to easier steps at the first sign of stress. It’s is better to only file a few nails, or just one, in a single session, than to make your pet (or yourself) upset, or to break the trust you’ve built.
The best way to prevent damaged nails is to keep them trimmed or filed to a proper length. They are less likely to get caught in things and tear. Still, some pets have nails that are naturally prone to splitting, breaking and tearing, even when well-trimmed. Here is some information on common nail problems and what to do if your pet’s toenail becomes damaged.
Splitting and Breaking
Healthy toenails can split or break under ordinary circumstances, however, nails that frequently split or break may indicate a health or dietary issue. Brittle nails that are accompanied by nail deformities may be indicative of medical issues. If your pet’s nails appear abnormal or split and break frequently, take her to the veterinarian. Brittle nails, left untreated, can lead to tearing injuries. Dietary changes may also improve nail health. Consult a qualified nutritional counselor for advice.
The most common cause of a torn nail is it getting caught on something. Some pets have brittle nails that are more prone to tearing. Because of the way toenails are attached, dewclaws are the most prone to being torn away from the body. In any case, if a nail is torn, it will likely be sensitive. Here is what to do if your pet’s nail tears:
- Stop the bleeding with styptic powder, Kwik Stop, or plain flour. Determine if the injury requires the attention of a veterinarian.
- Keep the nail clean. Watch carefully for signs of infection, including swelling, sensitivity, and redness.
- If needed, wrap your pet’s paw with clean gauze. You may be able to secure this with self-sticking wound wrap, or cover the dressing with a snug (not tight) toy or infant’s sock.
- To help prevent excessive licking, apply diluted tea tree oil to the nail before wrapping. In addition to having an off-putting scent, the oil also has antiseptic properties.
Pets with allergies may bite their nails. Allergens can irritate the paws and nails, and licking or chewing helps them relive the itchiness. Controlling your pet’s allergies is the best way to prevent this. Often, a change in diet can help reduce allergy symptoms by supporting the immune system. Consult a qualified nutrition counselor for advice.
Some pets develop a habit of biting their nails for other reasons, and you may need the advice of a pet wellness counselor or behaviorist.
If a nail is sufficiently injured and the wound is exposed, it may become infected. Look at the area around the base of the nail for signs of infection which include redness, swelling, tenderness, and seeping. If there is infection, you will need to take your pet to the vet, who will prescribe an antibiotic. Removing the toenail is rarely enough, particularly for dogs. The bone in a dog’s toe extends out to the quick, reaching the blood supply.
Your veterinarian will give you instructions on how to manage your pet when you return home, and may recommend an e-collar to prevent chewing and biting at bandages and the injured nail. You may also be able to add some of the management techniques listed above.
In summary, there are a few steps to making toenail trimming easier. Start with selecting the right tool, and then properly introduce and desensitize your pet to the tools you choose. Understand the process of trimming, including identifying the quick and knowing where to cut. Most importantly, be comfortable – take deep breaths, have patience, and back up at the first sign of stress. With a little time and patience, you and your pet can turn nail trimming into a stress-free, pleasurable experience.