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Paws for Thought: Pet Toenail Trimming

No one likes long, ratchet nails. Well… maybe some people do according to a Pinterest search. But your dog and cat definitely won't. Besides all the whispers of questionable fashion sense that will go on behind their back, your pet will have trouble walking with toenails that are too long. If left alone, the nails will eventually grow around and back into the paw pad (ouch!), get caught on something and tear off (ouch!), or scratch you and the hardwood floor up (ouch!). Check out our Mani-pedi Emergency post for what to do with torn toenails.

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While you can pay someone to trim the toenails for you, you’ll end up paying enough to afford some really nice things other than nail trims (like your own ratchet nails). What’s the solution? You learn how to do this one on your own. You got this! We believe in you! (And we’re still happy to help if you just can’t get it done on your own).

Why Trimming Can Be Nails Scary

Well, unlike human finger and toenails, dogs and cats have a blood vessel (the quick) running through the middle of the nail. The quick, beyond making a frightening, bloody mess if you nick it, is going to cause pain to your dog or cat. The vessel has lots of nerves in it and it hurts if it's pinched, squeezed, or cut (ouch!). Besides frightening you when this happens, your pet is going to start avoiding you when the clippers come out.

Most pets also don’t like their feet messed with or being touched even when not trimming. Precisely hitting a moving target with nail clippers in an uncooperative pet is a real challenge. Why does your pet resist so much? It’s built into them. Holding a dog’s foot tight is a dominance thing in dogs and cats generally don’t like to be held down (feet or not). To get over this, you will need to work with your dog’s or cat’s psychology.

Then there are those pets with dark/black nails where you can’t easily see the blood vessel. Certainly a challenge to not cut what you can't see while trying to cut. Not to worry! We’re going to cover everything to do.

What I Do with My Pets

I once had a dog that was so stubborn that the dog trainer gave me my money back and said, “Good luck!” Tigger ("T-Eye-Double-Guh-ERR") was a sweet dog… just stubborn. And she did not like having her feet touched or held. Maybe she was ticklish too. We've found out dogs get migraines. Ticklish isn't so far fetched.

With a dog like this, spend quite a bit of time with their favorite activity or treat (baby carrots are a good, low calorie snack for dogs) and just touch, pet, and play with the feet. Get your dog or cat used to the activity and feeling when nothing else is going on. Spend some time watching Ridiculousness and just hanging out. Above all, associate some good memories (or at least some non-threatening ones) with you and their feet.

Feeding them a treat or playing after each toenail you trim can help keep them focused and motivated. It may take some time but your pet will eventually figure it out (even Tigger did). The key is to go slow and easy and to do this on a regular basis (every week to start). You need to convince your pet that nail trims aren’t such a big deal and can even lead to some rewards. For those pets that can’t be convinced, a helper is useful. Rarely do we need to sedate an animal to do a nail trim (but there are those special dogs and cats in the world that won’t safely allow a pedicure without some good drugs on board).

Picking the right tool for the job is also important to success. While trimmers work for some, Dremel or Dremel-like nail grinders work better for others. The key is to go slow and easy. Just take off a little bit of the tip of the nail when you start and then call it a day. This way you don’t risk hurting your pet’s toes and having your pet associate the nail trimmer or grinder with a bad time. Doing these kind of mini-trims regularly will help teach your pet that trims aren’t such a big deal and will also start encouraging the quick to get shorter (the shorter the quick, the shorter you can eventually get the toenail).

When you are trimming the toenails, if you see a darker or red spot in the middle of the nail or if your pet suddenly flinches or whimpers, stop. These things mean you are getting close to or are starting to squeeze the quick. If you do happen to go too short and cause some bleeding. It’s not such a big deal. Just use some styptic powder and the bleeding will (almost always) stop. But if this happens, you may need to start over on the "getting comfortable with the feet" thing.

Another option is taking some longer walks on sidewalks and other abrasive surfaces. But just like the nail trims, start out slow. If your dog’s feet aren’t used to doing much walking and are as soft as a newborn, starting off with long walks on the sidewalk likely won’t be fun for you or your pet. Skip the walk if it's hot enough to cook an egg on the sidewalk or cold enough to freeze your ramen.

In the end, work with your pet and try some techniques to learn what works for you both.

Regular trims or grinding by way of a nail grinding tool or sidewalk trips is the key to success in achieving short nails. The result will be a more comfortable pet without nail problems and lower bills by taking care of things yourself.

What I Have for Nail Trims (that I got at the pet store):

First, for an awesome overview of dog nail trimmer types and best use practices, check out:

Cat and small dog nail trimmers: You wouldn’t hang a picture with a sledge hammer. Don’t use large dog nail trimmers for little things.

Large dog nail trimmers: You can take lots off quickly… be careful.

Nail Grinder: Get your dog used to the sound and the vibration before you try to actually grind down their nails.

Styptic Powder: In case you cut a little too far and cause some bleeding.

When to See a Veterinarian:

If the toenail is growing into the paw pad and the tissue of the paw pad is red, angry, painful, has a pus discharge, or a bad smell, these are all signs of an infection and you should see a veterinarian.

If the bleeding doesn’t stop after a few rounds of styptic powder, see a veterinarian. I’ve diagnosed a few pets over the years with bleeding disorders after a nail trim went awry. You didn't do anything wrong, you just found an illness that you didn't yet know was there... nice work!

If your pet just won’t tolerate nail trims and may need some sedation (but this is an expensive option).

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