Lessons From a Groomer: Nail Clipping, Ear Cleaning, & Baths
Cutting Dog Nails Safely
In this article, I will describe how to clip a dog's nails, clean his ears, and give him a bath.
It's a bit hard to describe where to clip a dog's nails, so I have included a few images for reference. All dogs have a blood vessel inside their nails called the quick. For dogs with white nails, the quick is visible—it looks like a pink filling. Clip off the excess nail about a quarter inch past the end of the quick. The cut should be angled at about a 45-degree angle (see the image below). For most dogs, the quick ends abruptly within the nail, so a quarter of an inch should be enough of a margin to prevent bleeding, which we call "quicking the nail."
However, some quicks do not end abruptly. I have personally found that pugs, springer spaniels, and border collies are breeds that are more likely to have quicks that taper off. These quick become so thin, you cannot see where they end, even in white nails. We call this "having long quicks." I have no idea why this occurs or why it's common in these breeds, but those are my findings after being a dog groomer for 11 years.
With these breeds, I recommend trimming a little off the end at a time until you find the quick on one nail. Usually, how much you cut off of one is the same amount you will be able to safely cut from the rest, so trim the rest of the nails to be just a little longer than the one you quicked (so as not to quick them as well). Watch for nails that appear to be more worn down than others. Not all dogs walk/run correctly all of the time, which may cause uneven wear to their toenails. If you discover a worn down nail, you must make an educated guess as to whether any more needs to be cut based on how long it is compared to the length of the other nails.
The reason a lot of dogs hate having their nails done is that there is a nerve surrounding the quick that can be sensitive. Imagine the rings on a cut tree trunk. When cutting the nails, you can actually train your eye to see the layers within the nail as you get used to doing this. Cut a little and look: The whole cross section looks solid or sometimes flaky. Cut a little more, and if you see a layer that looks like the consistency of a very thick gel. That is the nerve coating that surrounds the quick. Don't cut anymore. If you do go barely too far, it will start to bleed a tinsy bit. You'll notice a red bullseye center, the thick gel-nerve layer and then all the outer flaky layers. Don't panic. You can easily fix this with some styptic powder (QuickStop) or even corn starch or flour.
Don't give up; as long as you go slowly and carefully, you can successfully learn to do this. It's not the end of the world if you quick your pet accidentally. Just reassure your dog calmly and continue as if nothing happened. If your dog reacts and you feed into it with a whole bunch of emotional nonsense, you are making the situation worse and telling the dog that it's okay to be nervous and fear having this done. That creates a no-win situation where the dog is now afraid and you can never clip his nails because you will give up.
Cutting Black Nails
For black nails you can't see a quick. Instead I use different technique to tell where to cut.
I want you to picture a very dirty old bathtub with "bathtub rings." There are similar rings on the outside of black nails: You should cut at the bottom of the "ring" closest to the tip of the nail.
I have a few theories as to what causes the rings and why this works:
- Past where the living blood vessel stops, the rest of the "dead" nail isn't well nourished, thus producing the rings.
- As the animal walks, the excessive "dead" portion of the nail (which also should have no feeling) gets pushed into the dirt, grass, whatever, up to the living part of the nail causing damage to the nail in the form of the rings.
It doesn't really matter if these theories are correct or not, I just know that cutting at the "bathtub rings" works.
I have one more technique for you to consider, and I can honestly tell you that using this one, I can safely cut nails with my eyes closed! That's right, eyes closed, because this technique is about feeling the shape of the nail as a clue of where to cut.
If your dog has nails that are thick at the base and then extend into a long thin hooks (either black or white), you can cut off the entire long hook with no worries! The quick ends where the thick part of the nail ends and the thin part begins. These are the easiest ones to do. With the dog straight in front of me, facing me, I put the nail clipper around the nail and slide the bottom edge of the clipper against the underside of the nail. The clipper will catch against the hook of the nail and I clip right where it catches. Easy.
Sanding Nails for a Scratch-Free Finish
For the finishing touches and to prevent your dog from scratching you with those freshly cut, sharp nails, you can use a Dremel tool or PediPaws nail filer to quickly file the nails to a smooth finish. You can also use these as a cheat to get even closer to the quick if you are nervous of cutting too much nail off with a nail clipper.
Hint: It's easiest to do correctly if you have the barrel spinning away from the pad, in a clockwise rotation if you are right-handed. Opposite for lefties.
Cleaning Your Dog's Ears
Just before you give a dog a bath, you should clean his ears.
When cleaning your pet's ears, you will want to either buy a good ear cleaner, use witch hazel, or make a 1:1 solution of vinegar and water.
Apply the ear cleaner as directed and then gently wipe inside the ear with cotton balls to remove any and all excess wax and dirt that may have built up. You can also use cotton swabs to clean in all the nooks and crannies; but do not insert the cotton swab into the ear canal.
If you use the water-and-vinegar solution, it can also be used as an ear flush. Gently pour the solution in the ear canal, then massage the ear and down the side of the cheek (the ear canal is located directly behind the skin). Allow the dog to shake its head to empty its ear of solution. After you're cleaned the ears, you can place cotton balls inside of them to keep water out during the bath. This is not a must, but if your dog has chronic ear problems, you won't have to worry about him getting water in his ears.
Now, before we move to the tub, go ahead and apply the eye protectant if you will be using one.
Bathing Your Dog
First, one of the most important steps of bathing is to get the dog completely wet before applying the shampoo. Two reasons for this are:
- The shampoo forms suds and distributes more easily.
- If you are not getting the entire dog wet, it is doubtful that you will get the entire dog shampooed thoroughly, and then you will still have a dirty dog with clean spots instead of a clean dog.
Secondly, be very careful not to spray water into the dog's nose and ears. Hold the dog's muzzle so that the nose points at the floor of the bathtub and position the sprayer above the head. This will ensure that you can saturate your dog's face face without getting water up his nose and ears. As a further precaution, you can also hold the ear flaps down with your thumb and first finger as you point the nose down.
Thirdly, turn your pet around in the bathtub while you are working on him to ensure that you are getting both sides wet, shampooed, and rinsed. It is easier to work on the sections of your pet that you can see rather than assuming you can do it without looking.
When applying the shampoo, use as much as necessary to achieve a good lather (some lather more easily than others). Apply it to several areas of the body and then work it in with more water from the hand shower. If you have one, use a rubber curry comb to get the shampoo through the hair down to the skin. Rubber curry combs are especially effective for dogs with extremely short hair (pit bulls, labs) or extremely thick hair (Akitas, huskies). The bath is a great time for bonding with your pet. Rubbing the shampoo thoroughly through the hair is a great excuse to give a nice massage at the same time. Elderly and disabled pets will greatly appreciate this comforting touch, and any normal dog will love the extra rubdown too.
Now while your pet is all sudsed up, it is time to pay attention to the areas around the eyes and the anus. Work on the eyes first, using your flea comb or toothbrush to remove any eye boogers. Then then move to the anus, using the same tools removing any real matter. Do not do this in reverse order. You don’t want to accidentally carry fecal matter to your dog’s eyes.
Never yank and pull. Soften any foreign matter with shampoo and water, and comb gently until you have removed it. If you know how and want to express the anal gland, this is the best time to do that. Many animals experience much relief after having their glands done and, although a stinky chore, it is definitely a part of your pet's health that shouldn't be ignored. Small dogs suffer more from anal gland problems—including impaction, explosion, and, subsequently, infection—than larger breeds. If your dog has been scooting around on its butt, it's not worms, but an anal gland problem that is ailing your friend.
Next, rinse well and then apply the shampoo all over again. Reapplying the shampoo is very important to getting a pet really clean. Think of the shampoo as a bunch of little shovels. Each shovel full will only remove so much dirt. When you take the time to do a second shampooing, all those little shovels remove an extra shovel full of dirt and ensure that the pet is squeaky clean. This is especially true if your pet started out extra dirty. Don't be afraid to use more than one type of shampoo during this process. A good rule of thumb is to use a good cleaning shampoo first and your medical, oatmeal, or conditioning shampoo second. Don't forget to read the label on each one for directions as to how long it should be left on the skin and coat to be effective.
The last step of the bath is to rinse and rinse and then rinse some more. Did I say rinse? It is crucial that you rinse all of the shampoo off of the skin and coat. Shampoo left in the coat is the number one cause of itching, hot spots, and supposed allergies. Look at the water coming off of the dog as you are rinsing. If it is suds free and looks like clear water, not discolored at all, you have probably rinsed correctly. Clear water draining off of the dog during the rinse is also an indication that you did in fact remove all of the dirt from the dog. Do not forget to keep watching the water as you recheck hard-to-reach areas such as armpits, the anus, the groin, and the face. When you are satisfied that your dog is clean and has been rinsed well, finish by gently squeegee-ing the water from your pet. Finish off by towel-drying your pet using a pat-and-squeeze method, never a vigorous back-and-forth rubbing unless your dog is short-haired. On long-haired breeds, this will help you avoid matting the hair by accident.
Congratulations, my friend! You have just washed your pet like a groomer.
The next lesson in my dog-grooming series will be all about drying your pet. There's more to it than meets the eye!
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This Lesson Is Part of My Dog-Grooming Series
- How to Use Scissors and Clippers
Learn about different types of scissors and clippers, how to choose the correct tools for your pet, and what is worth your money.
- Decoding Groomer Speak (What's a Teddy-Bear Cut?)
In my experience as a pet groomer, I have learned to speak the language of groomers and interpret my clients' needs and desires. It sometimes be hard to understand the terms groomers use, so here are some common cuts defined and shown in pictures.
- Shampoo Selection for Fleas, Dandruff, and Other Skin Issues
Learn about different shampoos and when, why, and how to use them. You don't have to be too picky about the kind of shampoo you use on your dog, just make sure to get a shampoo that is made for dogs, not humans.
- Clipper Tips and Tricks
Learn the basics of clipper handling and how to cut hair so that you use your tools safely and effectively.
- How to Dry Your Pet Correctly
To blow dry or not to blow dry, that is the question. Well folks, the answer is: to blow dry. Why you ask? For several reasons.
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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© 2009 Willow Mattox