How To: Trim Nails

Trimming your pet's nails for the first time can be a scary experience.  However, with a little practice and proper technique, it can become a quick and painless ritual for both you and your pet.

There are many different brands and types of nail trimmers available for your pet.  However, they usually fall into one of two categories: Guillotine type and Scissor type.

The guillotine type are better for smaller nails (small dogs and cats), and they are generally easier to use and safer.  The scissor type are better for thicker nails.

Getting Ready

  • Try to get your pets used to having their feet handled when they are young. For puppies, have them sit quietly in your lap as you play with their toes, examine their nails, feel between the pads, left the feet, turn the foot over, and generally get intimate with every bit of foot anatomy. They will soon find this procedure boring and allow you to do it without getting stressed.
  • Get your kitten used to lying quietly on his back on your lap while you play with feet, extend the claws and press on the pads. As with puppies, this is best done when the kitten is sleepy, rather than when he wants to play.
  • Make a quiet sneak-attack.
  • Try not to make it a big production of noise and over-restraint.
  • Be mentally prepared to make a mistake, and know what you are going to do in the event that you cut too short.
  • Invest in some kind of styptic or coagulant powder to use when you hit the quick, and have it open and ready whenever you trim nails. This stuff comes in many brands, usually with descriptively gory names like "Clotisol" and "Kwik Stop". 
  • Do not make a big deal out of the event if you do nick the quick. The dog or puppy will likely wince or yelp, but the discomfort will be short-lived and he will forget about it in a few seconds. If you make a huge deal of it and fuss over him like you've just amputated his leg, he will believe it is a big deal and start to react and carry on. Not what you want!
  • If your puppy struggles for no reason (you haven't just hurt him), try not to let go and give up. Most puppies will test your resolve. If they can squirm and whine and make you let go, they have won. You are rewarding the naughty behavior (whining, pulling away) by letting go of the dog and giving him his way. He will remember this for a looooong time, and put up a fuss every time thereafter. Don't let this start! If you can hang on for 10-20 seconds (the average tantrum duration) until he calms down, you will have won. At that point I usually make the symbolic gesture of at least trying to trim another nail before putting the foot down and praising the puppy grandly for such good behavior.


Trimming the Nails

 

First of all, let's get familiar with some landmarks. You can't just get in there chopping away willy-nilly or you will cause a problem.

Everyone who has ever contemplated trimming nails is familiar with the term "the quick". It's not really anything mysterious. The quick is just the center of the nail where the nerves sit and where the blood supply for the nail cells lies.

Not surprisingly, when you cut into a structure with nerves and blood vessels, it hurts and bleeds. We like to avoid doing this as much as possible, but everyone hits the quick once in a while unless they are leaving the nails long or doing a tip trim.

Cats are easier because the nails are transparent and they have a more distinct shape for landmarks. The initial photos here are of cat nails, so I can point out landmarks and so you can see where the quick is. Dogs with clear or white nails also have visible quicks.  It's the black and brown-nailed dogs that present the problem (but we'll help you with that, too).

OK, here are pictures of cat nails to get us started. First thing to notice is that the front and back nails are slightly different shapes. The front nails are more curved, the better to sink into prey.  The back nails tend to go out straighter from the toe. Also, take a good look at the base of the nail. Can you see the pinkish triangle? That's the quick.



Here is the same photo, doctored a bit to outline the quick in each nail.

All you have to do is avoid this pink area when you cut. Easy, huh? Well, not quite so fast. What if you can't see the quick because the nail is pigmented or dirty? There are a few landmarks that will tell you approximately where the quick lies even in black nails.

The first thing that I do is imagine a straight line coming out from the bottom of the toe, following the natural "underline" of the nail. I have drawn this line in red in the picture here. This is the underside of the quick. Where this line intersects the nail itself is usually the furthest extent of the quick down the nail, and this is usually where I will trim the nail.

 

 

Another way to look at the nail is to see where the underside of the nail transition from straight to the downward "hook". This is most obvious in the front nail because of the more pronounced curve, but you can see it in the back nail, too. I've pointed this out with the red arrows below. You can see that the place where the red arrows point and the place where the line hits the nail (previous picture) are pretty much the same. I will use either or both of these landmarks for trimming the nail.

 

 

 

And, finally, I trim at about a 45 degree angle on the nail.

 



This dog (below) was in dire need of a trim. Most dog nails won't be this long. I've marked the bottom line (red line), as well as where I would aim for to do the trimming (white line). In reality (see the photo on the far right in this little series) I made my first cut a little bit further out than my goal - just in case. The quick was still far away, so I made another cut along the white line and all was perfect.

 


Here's a picture of a dog nail that doesn't really need much of a trim. You can see the quick inside the nail, and the angle underneath. The picture beside it is an end-on shot of the nail after trimming. This is as close as you can get the nail without causing bleeding. The quick is the pink circular area in the center of the nail. (Most of the time we don't want to trim this short. It's nicer to leave a small layer of nail covering the quick.)

 

Okay. You have been getting your dog used to having his feet handled, you know where to cut the nails, and you have trimmed a few. This nail trimming stuff ain't so bad.

Then disaster strikes. You trim a nail too short. Your dog doesn't react much, but you see the blood welling up on the nail. Your heart begins to hammer. Have you just killed your dog? Will his toe get infected? Will he limp? Will he hate you forever?

Relax. He will be fine, and so will you. Especially if you are reading this ahead of time instead of holding your bleeding dog in your lap in front of the computer, which would be a little weird. There are a couple of things to remember that will make you feel better.

  • Nothing bleeds forever.
  • Dogs are very forgiving.
  • A little bribery goes a long way.

How to stop toe nail bleeding

1.  Stay calm. If you lose it, the dog will get excited, his blood pressure will go up, you won't be able to control him, and he will track little spots of blood all over the kitchen floor. Much tidier to stay calm.

2.  Hold the dog's foot up where you can see the end of the nail. Press a tissue on the end of the nail with one hand (usually the non-dominant hand) while obtaining a healthy pinch of powder with the other. In one graceful move roll the tissue off the exposed quick and press the pinch of powder directly on the bleeding bit. If you can't be graceful, at least be swift.

3.  Hold it on there for a few seconds, pressing firmly but not mashing it. Take a quick peek to make sure you've got the bleeding part all covered, then hold again. Get another pinch and apply again if you need to. if you get good coverage and aren't miserly with the powder, one shot should do you. Hold it for 20-30 seconds.

4.  That should be it. Let the dog have the foot back, and continue with the rest of the nails. When you are done, take another look at the bleeding nail just to make sure it didn't start up again. If it does, just apply more powder.

5.  Most coagulant failures are caused by being too shy about pressing the stuff into the blood. You can't just sprinkle the stuff on like fairy dust; you need to hold and press it on so it absorbs the blood at the end of the quick and helps it clot.