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Pet Care at Home: Nail Trims

Alex is a lover of animals, and an experienced licensed veterinary technician with a BS in Biology and and AS in Veterinary Technology.

Some Pet Owners Can Do It Themselves

Part of being a veterinary technician is client education and advocation for pet health. I believe very strongly that pet owners can do more than they think they can. Not only can you save money by being able to do certain routine services on your own, but you will also be more aware of what is normal for your pet. This will allow you to notice changes faster. Not to mention your vet staff will be able to devote more time to sick and injured pets if they have fewer technician appointments for nail trims and ear cleanings. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with having your pet's nails trimmed, but I've had so many owners mention that they didn't think it was something they could do at home.

I like this diagram because it's simple and gets the point across. This is a dog nail, however the cat nail is very similar. I do often find that cats have a shorter quick.

I like this diagram because it's simple and gets the point across. This is a dog nail, however the cat nail is very similar. I do often find that cats have a shorter quick.

Nail Trimmers

A lot of owners are intimidated by trimming their pets' nails at home. Dark nails on dogs make the quick hard to see. Cats have retractable nails. I get it; no one wants to hurt their pet.

A lot of owners have a misconception that it takes a lot of people to trim their dog's nails. That's not always the case. Of course I have met my fair share of pets that have had horrible experiences with nail trims and do require full sedation because they are so fearful. I've been able to do nail trims on mastiffs alone just as easily as I can trim cat nails alone. If you have an understanding of how to perform a nail trim, you will eventually be able to trim your pet's nails with confidence.

My first recommendation is to get a good pair of nail trimmers. Everyone has their opinion on what kind of trimmers they like. You may not like what I do. I'm not a fan of using the guillotine style trimmers that are popular for trimming cat nails. I don't like that the nail can get stuck in the trimmer and it is possible to remove part of the toe if the trimmer is large enough to go past the nail. I'm also not a fan of how you need to insert the nail into the trimmer while the open trimmers allow you to position them any way you like.

My second recommendation is to ask for a demonstration. Some people are visual learners. That's perfectly fine. Watching a video on YouTube may be enough for you get the hang of the technique, or you may want to have your vet tech or assistant show you how to trim the nails. I've had many clients request that I teach them how to trim their pet's nails. I love the one-on-one teaching aspect of these appointments. I can show the client exactly where to properly trim the nails and what the "stop sign" looks like on the dog nail, and the location of the quick on clear nails and cat nails.

My Favorite Nail Trimmers

The Quick

If you are going to trim pet nails, you need to understand what the quick is. It is what supplies the nail with blood and there are nerve endings present. This means if you cut the quick, there will be blood and there will be pain. You do not want to cut the quick. I've seen far too many pets that have had bad experiences where they've had their quick cut and they no longer tolerate nail trims. It happens; people get in a rush and they try and get the nail trim done as fast as possible. Unfortunately, these dogs tend to move a lot for nail trims, which increases the chance of cutting the quick. Which will only reinforce their fear of nail trims.

I've had clients ask me to deliberately cut past the quick to get nails shorter. No. Absolutely not. If you do regular nail trims as close to the quick as possible but not cutting it, the quick will eventually recede. It's a slow process, but a little patience is all that's needed.

Trimming Dog Nails

Dogs with clear nails are easer for most people than dogs with darker nails. Why? You can see the quick. It is the pink line in the center of the nail. However, you can still absolutely trim darker nails at home without fearing of hitting the quick.

When trimming the canine nail you want to get it as short as possible without hitting the quick. Think about the natural curve of the nail. You'll want to cut with a slight angle, about 45 degrees, with the bottom of the trimmer towards the dog. This will mirror the natural curve of the nail. If the nail is clear or you are confident the quick is not present, remove as much as possible in one cut. If you are unsure of where the quick is, you can start by trimming away small pieces at a time, each time moving higher up the nail. Each time you cut take a look at the nail. If you see a little black dot, like the graphite in a pencil, you stop. This is the "stop sign" I mentioned earlier. If you go past this, you will hit the quick. Repeat these steps for all nails.

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Remember to hold the paw in a way that is natural for the dog to prevent a painful position for the dog. If you need another person to help you keep the dog still, that's fine. Do not force your dog to have their nails trimmed. Dogs do not understand that you are trying to help them; they do not have a concept of future so all they know if they are afraid in the moment. If you hold down your dog and forcibly trim their nails, you have an increased risk of hitting the quick by mistake, which will reinforce their fear of nail trims. Instead, you can trim a nail or two at a time. Do as much as the dog will tolerate, offer a treat, and stop. Then come back and do more nails later. This will help to condition the dog to allowing the nails to be trimmed and realize that you aren't trying to cut off their toes.

Trimming Cat Nails

Thankfully, cats have clear nails. This means you will easily be able to see their quicks. Which is great because cats have the added step of needing to extend the nail in order for you to be able to trim it. Extending the nail is an easy process. Simply apply gentle pressure with one hand on the center paw pad or on the toe you are trimming. The nail will appear. The nail is cut in the technique as trimming a dog nail. That's it!

Yes, it's that simple. I trim my cat's nails alone at home. I sit down and cradle her on her back in the crook of my left arm. I use my left hand to extend the nails and my right to trim. Now, of course I have many years of experience so I find this easy, but you may feel awkward doing this the first few times. You may even have a cat that needs to be held by another person, and that's fine. I find it easiest to have the other person hold the cat with the cat on its back,allowing for easy access to all four feet. Now, if you have a kitty that is particularly spicy, you may want to consider doing only a few nails at a time or talking with your vet about what options you have. You may be able to use some simple restraint techniques at home, but you want to make sure you are doing them properly to avoid injuries to you and the kitty. I recommend asking your vet team show you how to properly use a towel or cat bag at home, or maybe discuss what chemical restraint (drugs or pheromones) you can try.

My kitty loves treats just as much as my dog. In fact my cat will growl at me the entire time I trim her nails; she's spicy, but if I have someone giving her treats continuously while I trim her nails, she never makes a sound.

If You Feel Comfortable, Go For It!

If you feel comfortable trimming your dog or cat's nails at home, you should! If you would like to attempt to grind the nails, then go for it. Just understand that the grinder will make a noise, has a smell, and may be scary to the dog. If you go slow and work in stages, with frequent treats, you can eventually work up to being able to grind the nails.

As always, consult with your veterinarian if you feel something is not right or if you have any questions about your pet's health.

What Happens If You Hit The Quick?

This is the fear everyone has when they trim nails for the first time. No one wants to hurt their pet. I won't lie to you, there will be pain and there could be quite a bit of blood. You can stop the bleeding by applying a product like kwickstop, or you can just use what you have at home: cornstarch or flour. Just dip the bleeding nail the one of the mentioned substances, I like to have a little in a spoon set as side, and then use your finger to apply pressure for a few seconds. It's that simple.

It is possible that your dog may be so worked up from the sudden pain that the bleeding doesn't stop, even with pressure and clotting aides. Essentially, what is happening is their blood pressure is now elevated, from the fight or flight response, and the blood pressure is too high for a clot to form. It will be ok. Stay calm, it will help to calm your dog. Speak in soothing tones and stop trimming any other nails. The focus is to lower the blood pressure so that you can get the nail to stop bleeding. Keep in mind that even once the clot as formed they can easily remove it by walking on carpet or concrete so the nail may begin bleeding again up to a few minutes after you finished. If you happen to find little specks of blood on your carpet, first stop the bleeding, you can use a little hydrogen peroxide to remove the blood stains. It's totally what we use in the hospital if we get blood on our uniform or shoes. It does smell like eggs though.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

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