We often only notice our dogs’ nails when they’re getting a bit too long, and it can be easy to forget them until we can hear them clicking on a hard floor while they’re walking. Even the most loving and dedicated dog owners can be unsure of the correct way to trim nails, and the job can sometimes be a little challenging, especially if your dog doesn’t like nail clipping time. In this article we aim to demystify the art of nail-clipping, and help you with some simple tips.

No acrylics here…

Dogs’ nails, like horses’, come in different colours and it’s usually determined by the colour of the surrounding skin and hair, therefore dark fur is usually accompanied by dark nails and white fur with white nails. Some dogs have bi-coloured nails, and nail colour can sometimes change as well. Changing colour is usually due to a harmless change in the pigment, but it can sometimes be a sign of a health problem, therefore if your dog’s nails change colour, you should bring it to the attention of your vet.

Their nails won’t always need to be trimmed and the level of your dog’s activity will most likely have an influence on how long his or her nails grow. Walking, digging, and playing – particularly on rough surfaces – will naturally wear the nail down. Constant pressure on the nail quick will cause it to recede and this will also lead to shorter nails. Beware if you’re increasing this type of activity, as paws that aren’t used to it can sustain abrasions and blisters.

If your dog is quite active you may find that the nails on the back leg don’t require trimming at all. Back legs are used more for propulsion, whereas the front legs are used more for stability. This means that nails on the back feet sustain more wear.

Like our nails, but different!

Dogs’ nails, like ours, are made of a protein called keratin. The quick of dogs’ nails however, extend into the nail itself, unlike our nails that have quicks that stop at the finger tips. Because the quicks contain blood vessels and nerves, cutting one can be very painful and cause bleeding. This may be why dogs are often reluctant to get their nails clipped. Discomfort or unfamiliarity with having their paws handled, and the noise of clippers, may also contribute to their dislike of nail trimming.

An important thing to bear in mind is that dogs’ nails weren’t design for household surfaces such as tiled and timber floors; rather, they were designed to walk on natural surfaces. Consequently, they can have trouble gaining traction on smooth surfaces, and this problem can be exacerbated with they have long nails because they reduce their ability to create contact between their toes and the floor.

Keeping nails trimmed is essential

If nails are allowed to grow, they can curve when they become long and they can eventually loop, so that the nails grow in the direction of the paw pad. This can lead to the nail becoming embedded in the paw and can be very painful. Ingrown nails require veterinary attention.

What you need to trim nails

  • Clippers – There is a variety of styles of nail clippers, and their suitability may vary depending  on the size of your dog.  The types that are more like pliers and scissors are often better for larger breeds, while the guillotine style can be better for small breeds.
  • Rewards – A treat to reward your dog and reinforce nail clipping as a positive event, can help make the process less confronting… for both of you!

Using clippers, and preparing for the first time

For the inexperienced, nail clippers can be a little daunting, and your dog may sense your uneasiness. Start by checking that they’re in good working order before you take them near your dog. To get your dog used to the noise you can have a few “practice runs” before you actually start clipping, by holding the clippers near your dog’s feet but not actually clipping the nail. You may like to do this on several consecutive days before clipping day arrives.

Squeeze the clippers so that they become familiar with the sound, and praise your dog after every session to get them more comfortable with the process. When holding the clippers grip them firmly and separate your dog’s toes with your fingers.  You may like to ask your vet or groomer to demonstrate how to hold and use the clippers and use them to trim the nails.

How to Clip Nails Safely

  1. Go gently but decisively, don’t rush it, and remember that if your dog gets restless or scared – or if you lose your nerve –  not all nails need to be trimmed at once. You can come back to it later if necessary.

    As previously mentioned not all dogs will need their nails trimmed and in addition to wear, the dried tips of nails can flake away thereby naturally controlling the length. Some dogs, and certain breeds, may need more help however to keep their nails short. After a while you’ll get a feel for how long you need to leave between clippings, but most owners find that it’s usually around one-to-two months.

  1. Buy quality clippers that are sturdy and you can handle easily. The main part of the clipper should be placed in the palm of the hand, and the fingers used to control the moving part. When you squeeze the handle, you should be able to see the cutting blade slide across.
  1. Cut dogs’ nails from underneath. (Clippers for human nails cut from the top, so remember that for dogs it’s the other way around.) Gently slide the opening of the clipper over the dog’s nail, but no further than the pale part of the nail. The part of the nail that has a pink tinge to it is the quick i.e. the living part that contains the nerves and blood vessels.  
  1. Stay clear of the quick. The cut should be made by making a smooth yet quick squeeze of the clippers. Be sure to hold the clippers steady, and take care to avoid the pink part of the nail. There is no need to lever off the end of the nail, as it will fall off by itself.   
  1. You can file the cut edge of a nail but it’s not necessary, as wear will make it smooth. If getting your dog to remain still is a challenge, then filing will probably be out of the question anyway.  If you cut too far and cause bleeding, don’t panic, as the bleeding should stop in a few minutes. If it doesn’t seek veterinary advice.

What if you can’t see the quick?

Trimming the nails of a dog with dark nails and hair can be especially challenging, because you may not be able to see the pink where the live quick starts. If this is the case, check the end of the nail and you should be able to see the lighter “dead” area. As you cut deeper into the nail, the dark area will become visible i.e. the live part of the nail. Cut in small increments, and watch carefully for this warning sign. Stop when you start to see the dark part of the nail.

Another way to check for the quick is to view underside of nail towards the tip. It should form a triangular shape, and there is no quick at this point which makes it safe to cut. An alternative is to apply gentle pressure to the nail with the clippers at the point you think may be right to cut. A reaction by your dog of yelping or pulling away, will be a signal that you’re too near the quick. If this occurs, reposition the clippers closer to the nail tip and try again.

When you cut too short

If you’ve cut the nail too short and it starts to bleed, don’t panic. There are a few common household products you can use to stop the bleeding. These are cornflour, flour, baking soda or a bar of soap. With any of these products it’s important to remember to keep pressure on the nail while applying. If after approximately six or seven minutes it hasn’t stopped bleed then, check with your vet regarding the next steps.

Practice makes perfect

You and your pooch will gradually adjust to the routine of nail trimming; patience and perseverance will help you to build your confidence and learn where to cut, and your dog will build trust in your doing it. If you need help learning how to trim your dog’s nails, we’d be happy to show you how. Alternatively, our nurses or vets can do it for you.