Friday, June 09, 2006

The importance of trimming dogs' nails

Until I started participating in dog sports, I didn't realize the importance of keeping my dogs nails trimmed. In agility and flyball, trimmed nails are necessary for the dog's safety and comfort, as Steve Schwarz already mentioned a while back over at his (excellent) Agility Nerd blog.

But nail trimming is important for the long-term health of all dogs, not just canine athletes. Overgrown nails can break easily and below the quick, which can be very painful for the dog. Long-term overgrowth can cause difficulty with walking, pain and soreness and eventually contribute to the development of arthritis. So I put a small lecture on nail-clipping into my puppy class curriculum and decided to make a handout with detailed instructions. My goal was not just to explain the actual trimming of the nails so much as how to make this a task less dreaded and stressed over by people and dogs alike. Most dogs instinctively don't want anyone messing with their nails, particularly with strange objects like a clipper or rotary grinding tool. I wanted to teach my students how to use a positive process of habituation and rewards to get their dogs to relax and allow nail trimming. I've rewarded my dogs so much for participating that all I need to do is grab a baggie full of treats and head for the bathroom (that's where I always trim nails) and the dogs jockey to be the first one in.

I was hoping to find a ready-made tutorial on the web and hand it out (with proper attribution, of course!) Alas, the only one that seemed to take the approach I wanted, a guide by "Doberdawn" (click the tiny "How To Dremel Dog Nails" link on the left), is way too long to expect the typical puppy class person to read. (Some of them don't even look at the "homework" sheets I hand out every week summarizing what we covered and explaining how to practice it.) I needed something relatively concise, so that it could be handed out on a single sheet. I also wanted to include both common methods--clipping and dremeling, because I use them both (the Dremel for the little normal dog, clippers for the big scaredy-cat dog). Lots of dog folks insist that their way is the only way, but I know from experience that one size doesn't always fit all.

In the end I decided to write my own tutorial. It's still probably a little long and needs some more editing, but it covers the basics and fits on a single sheet of paper (front and back). Here it is:

How and Why to Trim Your Dog’s Nails
This information is not intended as, nor should it be taken as veterinary advice. You should consult with and follow the advice of your own vet who knows you and who has seen your dog.

Why should I trim my dog’s nails?
There are more than just aesthetic reasons to trim your dog’s nails--untrimmed nails can cause a variety of problems including broken nails, which are painful and bleed profusely. And unlike humans or some other animals, a dog walks on his toes like a horse, not the soles of his feet. Long nails can cause the dog to rock back on his paws, causing strain on his leg assemblies and interfering with his gait. Some dogs (particularly overweight ones) may may find it uncomfortable to put their full body weight on their feet with overgrown nails, causing sore feet, legs and hips. Over the long term, this can also contribute to the devlopment of arthritis.

Many people have their dog’s nails trimmed by a groomer or at the vet’s office, which is usually affordable and quick. However, it can also be a very stressful experience for the dog, because rarely do such places take any time to ensure the dog is calm or comfortable. Really, they’re probably only charging $10 or so for the procedure, so if your dog puts up a fuss they’ll just restrain him, perhaps muzzle him, and clip away. It would be far better, and nicer, for you to handle this frequent task with care and compassion, which is why I recommend doing it yourself.

Getting started
There are two popular methods of trimming dogs nails: using a clipper tool and using a Dremel-style rotary grinding tool, which is my preferred method. The Dremel method is increasingly popular among owners and groomers because it has several safety advantages (which I will discuss below), but it’s good to know the ins and outs of both methods before you choose the one that is right for you.

Whichever method of nail-trimming you decide to use, the first step is to make sure your dog is comfortable having his paws handled. If your dog is hesitant or fearful of allowing you to handle his paws, you may need several sessions (or more if your dog has ever had a negative nail trimming experience) of touching and holding your dog’s paws, praising him, and giving him food rewards for allowing this contact. It is very important for you to remain calm, reassuring and confident--your dog can pick up on your stress and will react accordingly. If you get frustrated it’s best to stop the activity and try later when you are calmer. Keep sessions short at first until you and your dog are both confident and relaxed.

Once your dog is allowing you to touch and hold his paws, you need to get him comfortable with the trimming tool, whether it is a pair of clippers or a Dremel tool. Start by having it near the dog while you are rewarding/praising him for allowing paw-handling. Then start touching the tool to your dogs nails while rewarding and praising him for allowing it.

Some handbooks instruct you to drape your body over your reclining dog so that if he tries to get up you are restraining him. This position may cause anxiety and some struggling by the dog because it’s a dominant position that feels threatening to some dogs. It is far better to slowly help your dog learn that allowing nail trimming brings rewards. Even if he never loves the procedure, using care and rewards will convince him to allow it without the necessity of restraint.

Trimming nails with clippers
Clippers may be a convenient nail-trimming choice because they do not require power to operate. They are also less expensive to purchase than a rotary tool, but their blades can get dull rather quickly and need to be replaced. There are two popular styles of clippers for dogs: scissors style and guillotine style. The style you choose is a matter of personal preference, but many owners/groomers find the guillotine style to be easier to use on a regular basis (although for dogs whose nails have been allowed to grow so long they are curling, the scissors style may be more practical.) The guillotine-style clipper has a stationary ring guide through which the toenail is placed, and when the handles are squeezed a cutting blade moves across to slice the nail. Scissors-style clippers are positioned at a right angle to the nail with one blade on either side; squeezing the handles moves both blades together to cut the nail.

Regardless of which style you choose, the biggest challenge with clippers is avoiding the quick, which is the name for the blood vessels and nerves that supply the nail. Cutting the quick can cause bleeding and considerable pain for the dog (and will likely undo much of the work you have put into getting your dog to relax for paw handling!) It is far better to cut small bits off of the dog’s nails and do it more frequently than to try cutting too much and running the risk of hitting the quick.

For a dog that is new to nail cutting, you may want to give a treat reward after every nail cut. For dogs that are more experienced and relaxed you can give fewer treats, but it is always important to make the nail-cutting experience rewarding for the dog: praise him and give him treats or play when it’s over for a job well-done. Most importantly: it’s best to avoid stress and strife that will make the experience unpleasant for your dog. If you become frustrated stop and try again when you are more relaxed. If you must get the nails cut soon, take your dog to the vet or groomer this time so he doesn’t associate you with the unpleasant experience, and continue working at home getting the dog to relax for you.

Trimming nails with a Dremel-style rotary tool
Clipping a dog’s nails with guillotine- or scissors-style clippers involves squeezing the nail and putting pressure on the sensitive quick, potentially causing discomfort and pain. There is also the risk, especially with dark nails, that you will cut throught the quick and cause considerable pain and bleeding--and perhaps make your dog afraid of nail cutting forever. The difficulty involved often makes the human stressed, which in turn stresses out the dog and makes the entire operation more nerve-wracking and prone to error.

A properly used Dremel (or similar rotary tool) involves no squeezing or pressure on the quick. Further, Dremeling makes it easier to check the nail as you grind so you can judge when you’re getting close to nicking the quick and stop in time. With the Dremel, you can also grind off all around the quick so that it recedes faster and you can get even shorter nails. The closer you can get to the quick, the more you can force it to recede and the more quickly it will recede. Finally, you can grind off all the corners and rough edges leaving nice smooth nails.

Remember that the first step is to help your dog relax and allow paw-handling. After this, you are ready to acquaint him with the Dremel too so he will not fear it. Start with the tool off, and leave it nearby in full sight while you handle your dogs paws and reward him. Then pick up the Dremel--keeping the power off--and hold it near him and allow him to sniff it. If he shows little fear or interest, touch the Dremel to a toenail or two and reward the dog for allowing it. (If he won’t allow, go back a step). Remember that making the first experiences positive is very important!

Once he’s comfortable with the Dremel off, you will need to habituate him to having it turned on. This is very difficult for some dogs and may take many sessions and some patience. Turn on the Dremel and hold it while praising your dog and giving it treats. Do not restrain the dog and force him to stay near the dremel. (If he’s on a leash, let him go to the end of the leash if that’s what he wants, but don’t use it to pull him back. You could try all of this in the bathroom with the door closed so they are always near enough to lure back.) Lure him with treats, the closer he comes or stays, the better the reward. Gradually work toward holding the running Dremel close and closer to a paw, rewarding and praising your dog for allowing it. The next step is to tap the running Dremel head against the end of each claw briefly and reward. You are not actually trying to trim at this point, just getting your dog accustomed to the idea.

Once he is comfortable with the touch of the dremel, you can start spending more time grinding each nail. The friction from the Dremel can generate a lot of heat, and so it’s important not to hold it too long at each nail. A few seconds on, a second or two off is a good pattern. Also, do not apply pressure to the nail with the Dremel--this will also make the nail too hot. The friction of the sandpaper and the spinning of the drum will do the grinding for you.

It’s better and more comfortable for your dog if you take very long nails to their desireable short length by doing more frequent grindings of small amounts than to try and grind large amounts all at once. Plan twice-weekly sessions and take a little bit at a time until you’ve reach your goal, and then keep a weekly or bi-weekly schedule to maintain it.

Dremel makes several corded and cordless models. Corded models may be best for large dogs and multiple dog households, but cordless models work well for many dogs, are great for traveling and are more maneuverable. (I use a cordless and it works very well.) If you choose a style that has more than two speeds, keep it on 1 or 2--any faster and you may generate too much heat too quickly.

  • If you have a dog with a longer coat, you may want to trim the fur on the paws before dremeling so it will not get caught and cause pain.

  • Styptic powder is handy to have in case you do nick the quick and need to stop the bleeding.


Sarah said...

everyone, pay attention to this! I didn't know dogs' nails had to be trimmed & therefore didn't do it for the first 10 years of my dog's life, and now it's a big problem. (Ok, I'm a bad dog mom, I admit it. I just didn't know this had to be done!) When the nails get long, the quicks do too, and then it's impossible to cut the nails short without hurting the dog. Now we trim her nails every 2 weeks in hope that the quicks will retract, but she'll probably never have normal short nails.

Lisa B. said...

You're not a bad dog mom, Sarah! You're actually very typical--a lot of people don't know that they should keep their dogs' nails clipped. A lot of vets don't tell their clients this, either. That's why I realized it really needs to be included in a puppy class.

I wish I had known about Dremeling when my dogs were puupies--I'm still trying to get Mr. Gomez to allow the Dremel near his paws!

Sarah said...

yeah, my vet never told me. It wasn't until they got a new vet at the clinic that I found out I was supposed to be trimming Thirteen's nails all this time. At least I knew before getting Jane, so her nails are in decent shape.

They said that if Thirteen ever had to have a general anesthetic we could have them cut her nails way back while she was under. But at her age I'm hoping that doesn't happen.

Mary said...

You can also make a board with sticky sandpaper attached to it and then shape your dog to scratch on the board. (I used the step treads for safetly ladders and stuck them to a board.)

It doesn't get all of the nails perfectly and several precautions are in order (don't leave the board on the floor unsupervised!). However I have found it to be a useful maintenance tool for a quick grind down on the front nails (I haven't shaped the back legs yet).

The dogs have no idea what they are doing! They just think it's a fun game.

Shirley Chong had a good explanation of this method on her web site.

Lisa B. said...

Thanks Mary! I will go look for Shirley Chong's site and find out more--this seems like it would be more fun for the owner as well!

Lisa B. said...

Here's the link to the Shirley Chong article:

The one caveat is that her instructions are for people who already know how to shape behaviors--owners who haven't trained with a clicker or bridge word would find the actual training part difficult.

Still, great idea--I think I'm going to try it with at least one of my dogs!

Moonchyldfyre said...

Hello this is a fabulous article, but are there anyways we can get a photo tutorial or possibly a video tutorial on cutting large dogs with black nails because I do have a Rottweiler and am trying to find a good site to find the proper way of cutting. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Lisa B. said...

Maybe this will help:

I've found that cutting small amounts more often helps. Instead of trying to cut as far as possible, make a small cut. The do the trims weekly to maintain, taking small cuts each time.

R. AthiƩ U. said...

Just wanted to let you know how useful your entry was =) thank you for taking the time to share this information with people who cares and loves dogs, like me ;)

Anonymous said...

Great article. My dog has long hair and I got a clear sandwich bag, punched a tiny hole in it and stuck his claw thru the hole before trimming to hold the hairs back. This was easier than trying to trim his hair first.

Lisa B. said...

Good tip! I've heard that some people use pantyhose, too

Anonymous said...

Hi Lisa,

Saw you emntioned you didn't find a good tutorial on nail clipping..I had just came across one before readin your post so I was able to find it a again:

Nice job on your posting!

Lisa B. said...

Thanks for the link, Griffin!

Anonymous said...

We've been using the Dremel 4000 for about five years (Lowes) and it does a wonderful job. We have two German Shorthaired Pointers and they both will lie still while using the tool. We started out with the cordless model but it always had to be charged and never completed the task prior to going dead. It really is easy to use and we have never had a problem getting into the quick.

Anonymous said...

I house/dog/cat sit for the same people every summer, and sometimes at Christmas, and have been doing so for about 5 years. The very first time I met their dogs, I noticed their older dog really needed to have his nails trimmed. I mentioned it to the owner, but she never did anything. I would have clipped them myself, but he lunges at anyone who tries to get ahold of his feet (probably because he's in so much pain - the nails are severely curled). I hate seeing their dog in pain, but I can't afford to take him to the vet myself. Other than this, they take very good care of all of their pets, but it still breaks my heart to see the older dog suffer. Any suggestions?

Lisa B. said...

Maybe print out an article about how bad untrimmed nails are and leave it lying around the house? Maybe they will read it and do something.

As for trimming them yourself, if it seems dangerous the only option I can think of is a muzzle. Above all, you need to be safe. You don't want to set yourself up for a bite.

I wonder why their vet doesn't tell them how bad it is to leave nails untrimmed? And you're right, it is heartbreaking.

Good luck!

Black And Lou said...

Thanks so much for this post. I have two dogs; Blackjack and Lucky.

Blackjack manages to grind his nails down himself, or they just don't grow very fast. Sadly Lucky's nails grow so fast, I can barely keep up with them and he hates getting his nails clipped so badly that it's a two person job and he cries, so his dad refuses to help. Because of this, I've decided to try a dremel and introduce it properly (I rushed clippers) hopefully he'll create a whole new relationship and not link the two different tools.

Well I just wanted to say your post is giving me a new track, thank you so much for taking the time to create it! Hopefully, in time, Lucky will thank you too. :-)

Lisa B. said...

I hope it works! I keep planning to write a little update on this post describing a couple of adaptations I've come up with for Pinky and Tally. I use a gentle under-my-arm restraint for Pinky's front feet because she was so terrified of the dremel. I just couldn't get her completely desensitized to it. I need to have someone take a photo so I can post it. Meanwhile, Tally lies belly up on my lap while I Dremel. It's adorable!

derek said...

I have been trimming my dogs nails for years but your right I did not realize untill they scratched me. However last night I cut the quick ony yellow lab and it would not stop bleeding for ages what is the beat way to stop the bleeding besides not cutting it in the first place

Lisa B. said...

Take a pinch of flour and shove it up against the cut nail. Hold it there for a minute or two. If the bleeding starts again, do it a second time. Usually twice does the trick. The blood soaks into the flour and clumps it there.

derek said...

What is the best way to stop the quic bleeding when u cut it

Anonymous said...

My dog is indoors most of the time, and fairly small (20 lbs). I unfortunately got to a point where I couldn't trim his nails without making him bleed, and I ended up going a long time without trimming. Now he is older and his claws are too long. I noticed you said you could trim every 1-2 weeks but that was for large dogs... what about a small dog like mine? How often should I dremel his nails to make the quick recede (a lot)?

Anonymous said...

How often can I dremel a small (20lbs) dog's nails to make the quick recede (a lot)?

Lisa B. said...

I don't think there's that much difference for a small dog. If you are dremeling you can probably do small amounts every few days if you want.

Lisa researching dog grooming said...

Thanks for sharing this! I've been looking for a good guide on how to cut my dogs nails and what steps and precautions I should take so thank you :)

Anonymous said...


Marie said...

man i have a lab pitt mix she has very weak nails they break EASY not only is she (Lexi) in pain i am too crying through the trimming but i use reg people nail clippers i dont have the money to take her to the vet to get this done her nails r weird they r thick but break so easy mostly so bad causing them to bleed is there something i can give her a.e. some kind of supplement to help her she is older but it kills me to see a nail broke so bad so bad its beading n pointing to the side i just rap it shes ok with it but than the nail falls off n i know shes still in pain :( thank u for ur time

Amela Jones said...

Do you subscribe to any other websites about this? I'm struggling to find other reputable sources like yourself

Dog Clippers

Anonymous said...

Sometimes it's easier to take your dog to someone for nails. They might have more experience or confidence to do it. Plus not everywhere is cheap. The vet charges $25 for a small dog where I live.