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Mani Pedi Emergencies! The torn toenail.

Updated: Mar 22

A dog at the nail spa wearing sunglasses.

If you’re not trimming your dog’s toenails regularly, there’s a good chance they will catch a nail on something: Grandma’s shag carpet, the space in between the boards on the back deck, a crack in the sidewalk... that sort of thing. When that happens, it hurts! And your dog’s reaction? They’re going to pull and twist the foot as hard as they can to get away from the hurt. What you now have is a dog with a painful, dangling toenail that is bleeding all over the place. It seems scary (and blood makes a frightful mess) but it’s usually not an emergency! Really!

In a hurry? Click here for “what I would do” and click here for the stuff I use to do it.

Why do they hurt and bleed SO MUCH!

A dog's paw pad and toenails

Unlike our toenails, your dog’s toenail grows around a blood vessel that most people call the “quick.” The quick has lots of pain receptors and a healthy blood supply. Where the toenail attaches to the skin usually isn’t such a big problem but can cause some discomfort if the loose toenail wiggles around. The longer the toenail, the longer the quick! But we have a saying in the emergency world, “All bleeding stops eventually!” (It’s our sense of humor that keeps us healthy). And while it’s possible that the bleeding won't stop due to some other illness (like hemophilia or an immune mediated thrombocytopenia), it usually will. I’ve seen a few of these odd cases in my career.

What would I do if it were my dog?

First, I’d see a veterinarian. That’s easy because I am one!

If the toenail is just dangling there and seems loosely attached, I would carefully grab the end of the toenail (no pain receptors there) with hemostats (fancy, tiny medical pliers), and give the toenail a swift yank just like a kid's loose tooth that's hanging by a thread. Try not to wiggle to toenail around when clamping onto the end of it because wiggling hurts. If there is any bleeding still going on, I would use some styptic powder (Kwik-Stop) or a silver nitrate stick if I had any, or some flour from the pantry if I didn’t (but there is a small risk of infection from raw flour). I’d then go about the rest of my day. That’s it. Really!

If the toenail still seems well attached, I’ll leave it alone and let the nail grow out. It will usually either fall off on its own in a few weeks or I will be able to start trimming it back then.

Depending on which dog we’re talking about, I may need to use a muzzle and solicit volunteers to hold my dog down to get this safely accomplished. But in the end, once that toenail isn’t dangling any more, the toenail is much more comfortable and the bleeding will almost always stop within a few minutes. Only once or twice have I needed sedation for a dog to get this done. And I’ve seen lots of torn toenails on emergency!

Finally, while I’m there, I’ll get around to trimming the rest of my dog’s nails... something that I, like you, have been putting off because there are never enough hours in the day and it’s a chore!

Doesn’t my dog need pain medication or antibiotics or something?

A dog pharmacist.

No. Not unless there is some other problem that we find. A few weeks ago, I saw a dog with nails so long that all of them had split and were painfully infected. That dog needed antibiotics, pain medication, and a recheck appointment to make sure we didn’t need to dig deeper for things like a yeast infection, a zinc deficiency, or some other medical problem.

If you are sent home with pain medication, it’s most likely gabapentin. And while that may slow your dog down some, gabapentin is really given so you, the owner, have something to do at home rather than worry about your dog. We’re “treating” your anxiety here and not your dog’s (it cuts down on the phone calls). I’d avoid aspirin type medications (Carprofen, Vetprofin, Deramaxx, Deracoxib, etc) since they can interfere a bit with the body stoping the bleeding and they usually aren’t needed.

Shouldn’t I wrap the foot or something?

A sleeping dog with an E-collar

Nope. Not unless you want to risk your dog eating the bandage and a return trip for us to cut the bandage out in a few days. I’ve also seen inappropriately placed bandages cause such severe tissue damage that we can see the bone. Sometimes less is more (and safer!).

If your dog really won’t leave the toenail alone, get an E-collar that extends a few inches past your dog’s nose from the pet section of Walmart or any pet store and schedule an appointment with your regular veterinarian... unless you like waiting several hours in the lobbies of Veterinary Emergency Facilities and have a few hundred extra dollars! In that case, come on in. Who knows? Maybe you’ll meet your new BFF there! And we usually have fresh coffee.

Should I get the toenail rechecked?

A dog getting her paw rechecked by a veterinarian.

If you’re worried about it. Sometimes, the toenail won't grow back correctly and will grow into the pad of the foot causing problems but this is rare. Take a peak at the offending toenail in a week or two and have your regular veterinarian check it out if you are worried or if your dog still seems uncomfortable. Sometimes the toenail won't grow back in normally (it’ll look funky and stubby) but it’s usually not a problem unless it’s bothering your dog.

So when should I see the emergency vet?

If the bleeding doesn’t stop after a few minutes despite using powders or clot stop sticks as mentioned above, if your dog continues to be in pain (without you messing with the toenail), or if you’re just really worried, see a veterinarian. We’ll see you as fast as we can, but as mentioned at the start of this article, torn toenails are rarely an emergency and so there’s a very good chance you will be waiting a while. It’s not because we don’t care. It’s because there are limited resources in life and we’re usually out of the most valuable resource of all: time! I promise, we’re not watching movies or having lunch (people get lunch at work?!?!?!). And I also promise that we haven’t forgotten about you (at least at all the modern ERs with electronic boards that regularly remind us we are 6 hours behind schedule and an attacked by bear dog is arriving in 10 minutes).

What Materials do I have in my first aid kit at home for this?

A dog in the snow with a first aid kit in his mouth.

Stuff I would use for my dog:

  1. Dog Nail Trimmers (head over to Youtube if you need some instruction)

  2. Depending on the dog, a muzzle during the yanking and the trimming

  3. An E-collar for a few days if my dog won’t leave the toe alone

I’ve found all of these things on, Walmart, and many pet stores. Hemostats can also be found at many Harbor Freights, Northern Tools, and fly fishing shops. For one-stop, same-day shopping, I’m a big fan of Walmart and their shopping app to check for in stock things at my local store. On the road, I’d do a curb-side pickup from an online order and take care of the problem in the parking lot.

How do I prevent this from happening?

It’s easy... but boring (which is why my dog’s nails are always too long):

Check out our Nail Trim post to learn how to trim your dog’s toenails regularly or take your dog on more and longer walks where they will wear the nails down naturally. That second approach will keep you healthier too! Regular nail trimming will also lead to a shorter quick and less clickity-clacking of your dog’s feet on the tile floor. If you need some guidance, head over to Youtube where you will find a wealth of advice on toenail trimming. “How to Trim Your Dog’s Nails at Home” by AnimalWised seems like a great start!

Let us know if you have any questions!

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