February 9, 2019
About a month ago, while out walking Kobe and Bella, I bumped into my friend Kathy and her adorable pugs Ruby and Rosie. Kathy was distraught; she’d just picked Rosie up from the local vet where she’d paid to have her little dog’s nails trimmed, but the vet nurse had cut one of Rosie’s nails too short. The nail in question was bleeding and Rosie was limping, stopping every so often to balance her little round body on three very short legs so that mum could apply some tender loving care and blood mopping to the offended toe.
Now you might argue that in the grand scheme of things, a nail cut into the quick is hardly the worst of injuries that might befall your beloved dog. I’m sure some of you were nail-biters in your youth – maybe you still chomp on your own keratin from time to time – and we’ve all seen (or been) kids who weren’t satisfied with their personal nail-biting until they drew blood. But voluntary and self-inflicted offences against one’s own nails are one thing; paying for the privilege of having an ‘expert’ temporarily maim your four-legged friend is quite another!
I don’t want to be the one to hurt them
Naturally, I asked Kathy why she didn’t just trim Rosie and Ruby’s nails herself. Her reply was interesting, and one that I’m sure many pet owners will share. ‘I don’t want to be the one to hurt them,’ she said. ‘They might not like me anymore.’ I get it. Who would willingly cause harm to their own pet? Who hasn’t suffered agonies of shame after accidentally stepping on their dog’s toe or tail? Especially if the offence is followed by a high-pitched yelp and a how-could-you stare. Heaven preserve us from that – guilt on tap, right?
Kind of reminds me of the time a few years back when I was refilling Kobe and Bella’s water bowl. It was high summer and I was wearing flip flops. Now I’m no scientist, but when it comes to the slipperiest surfaces known to humankind, the wet tiled floor/rubber shoe combo is definitely at the top of the list. I slid, dropped the bowl of water which clattered noisily to the floor and a few drops – not a deluge, just a few drops – spilled on Kobe. He wasn’t amused (I’m fine by the way, Kobe, don’t worry about the bruises on my knees) and has made a point, every single day since, of deliberately avoiding me when I’m on water duty! And they say an elephant never forgets …
The company of one’s owner is the sole aim and ambition every dog
Joking aside, I can’t think of much that would cause a dog to ‘not like’ its owner, as Kathy fears; certainly not anything meant for their wellbeing. Dogs want to love their owners – it comes with the dog territory and it is precisely this feature of the canine personality that has made them man’s (and woman’s) best friend for centuries. In my personal experience, Kobe and Bella have permitted me many liberties at their expense: the painful, the inconvenient and the downright embarrassing. For example, they have tolerated having horribly matted hair brushed to perfection or cropped into questionable haircuts; they have allowed the removal of foreign bodies from various body orifices; they have relatively uncomplainingly granted my shoving tablets down their throats. They have allowed this, and more, for the pure and simple reason that it means they get to hang out with me for longer. Do they love the brushing and trimming and poking and medicating? No. Do they love me? Without a shadow of a doubt. When I get home, they can’t wait to greet me, check out all my new and interesting smells and envelop me enthusiastically back into the pack. The company of one’s owner is the sole aim and ambition every dog. Generally speaking, the vet or dog groomer doesn’t get the same lavish treatment. So my question still is: why wouldn’t you trim your own dog’s nails?
To trim or not to trim
I’m the first to admit that I’m a low maintenance kind of dog owner. Not surprising really, since my canine pals have always been working breeds. These types of dogs have been bred to be hardy; to herd, hunt, guard, search, drive, lead. They can easily cope with a five mile walk in the morning and come back for the same later (after a good snooze in between of course). Not that I’m claiming personally to cover that sort of dog-walking distance every day; recent owner-led research suggests that an active working dog covers at least twice the distance its owner does during an off-leash walk, and this is a conservative estimate (Dolan and Griffiths 2016).
If you want to do your own research on the sorts of distances your dog covers, attach a tracker to your dog’s collar or coat and away you go. Let me know what you find. Don’t forget to include details about the dog’s age, breed and, of course, how much distance you covered compared to your dog. Some people jog with their four-legged friends. I have reservations about this if it doesn’t include time for the dog to sniff around on its own, interact with other dogs and pick the choicest spot to relieve itself. The exception is probably the husky, or any wolf-mix breeds; not running these dogs daily is a mistake and a waste of amazing dog potential. I am always amused when I encounter a husky at the beach, owner nowhere in sight, and the delighted and single-minded dog doing what is ingrained in its genes: running, running, running. Sand or snow underfoot; these dogs don’t care. Husky heaven!
a nail grinder is a great option to trim off the rough edges
The point I’m making is that if you are properly exercising a young, fit working dog on a range of surfaces, including concrete, tarmac, asphalt, gravel, sand, grass etc. you probably won’t need to trim his/her nails. Friction between the dog’s nails and different surfaces is usually enough to keep them at an un-problematic length. Such nails won’t look pretty, though, so if you own a show-dog or just want your dog to look great from top to toe, a nail grinder is a great option to trim off the rough edges (see below for details and my personal recommendations on these).
The same is not true of the nails of older dogs, housebound or sick dogs, smaller breeds or those who, for whatever reason, are less active than they used to be. In these cases, dog nails are likely to become overgrown and this can cause problems, ranging from pain to infection to permanent damage to the foot. Note: if your dog has overlong nails but doesn’t fit into any of the categories mentioned above, then you, dear owner, are most likely responsible. Up the amount of exercise your dog is getting; hire a dog walker if time is short; ditch the latest TV show binge; do whatever is required, but only after trimming the dog’s nails back to a healthy length first (see How To Trim Dog Nails below).
A couple of years ago I would probably have scoffed at the idea of trimming my dogs’ nails. Kobe and Bella get lots of exercise, on and off-leash. They spend most of their time outside. They are beloved, but not pampered pooches. Then I noticed that Kobe wasn’t as active as he used to be. Rather than patrolling the fence around the house for potential breaches in security: postmen, other dogs, the garbage truck, lawnmowers, marauding crows etc. he preferred hanging out with me in the house. He still happily goes for his twice-daily walks with Bella; still enjoys playing fetch; but can no longer cover the distances he used to, and tires more easily. What can I say? We all get older; we all eventually slow down. The same is true of our four-legged friends. While I work at the computer, there he is at my feet – a living, breathing foot warmer and blood-pressure-lowering device. Great for me, but not so good for Kobe’s nail health because nails still grow regardless of the amount of exercise he gets.
What’s more, as the nail grows, the dog nail quick also elongates, increasing the chance of cutting into it when trimming your dog’s nails – more on how to avoid this below. Prevention is always better than cure, so the message is simple: don’t let your dog’s nail become overgrown in the first place. Invest in the best dog nail clippers or best dog nail grinder you can find and engage in some dog nail DIY.
Another incident that convinced me to seek out professional dog nail clippers and learn all I could about trimming overgrown and injured dog nails came about after Bella had a run in with a feisty Jack Russell who objected to sharing the dog park with her. He came tearing over, covering a distance I wouldn’t have believed possible for such short little legs, at a speed that was truly remarkable for a canine of his diminished stature. He leapt on Bella before she got a chance to provide her usual canine meet-and-greet service, and before I knew it part of her dew claw had been ripped away, leaving a sharp, hooked remnant. It was bleeding at the time and although the bleeding stopped fairly quickly it was obviously very painful. For months afterwards she winced every time I even came near the paw in question, especially when I was putting her harness on.
I did some research and was quite shocked at what I found out about dog nail health. For one thing, overlong dog nails are painful, because they come into contact with the ground before the pads. This is the dog equivalent of a ballet dancer on pointe. No matter how graceful they are, ballet dancers’ feet toes suffer big time. No need to let your pooch suffer for his/her art. Your dog will be happy just being able to run around without pain. If dog nails remain overgrown for any length of time, the paw can become splayed, leading eventually to deformation and permanent damage to the tendons in the dog’s legs. Excruciating ingrown toenails (if you’ve ever had one, you’ll know I’m not exaggerating) and long-term strain on joints leading to arthritis are other possible problems arising from overlong nails. At best, overgrown claws will cause your dog to trip or slide because of reduced traction, and lead to unsteadiness that increases the risk of falls and resultant injury. Worse, overlong dog nails mean that a dog who trips is less able to fall ‘safely’, increasing the chance of fracture or significant injury after a fall. Remember my number one adage? That’s right: prevention is better than cure. For the price of really good dog nail clippers or dog nail grinders, and some of your time, you can save your four-legged pal a lot of unnecessary pain and your bank account from some serious veterinary bills.
I’m a great believer in learning new things. I also tend to be sceptical of so-called ‘experts’ who charge an arm and a leg for supposedly exclusive services. When you think about it, who better to trim your dog’s nails than someone your pet already knows and trusts? And top of the best and most trusted list is you. You’re already one up on the experts in the field. But that’s only one third of the dog nail-trimming equation.
The second part is a thorough understanding of the anatomy of the dog paw and the nail in particular (see illustrations). This is combined with technique – the how-to of dog nail trimming (see below). You should expect dog groomers, vet nurses and suchlike to be particularly clear about this, but as the experience of Rosie the pug shows, it isn’t always the case. This is why I always trim my dogs’ nails myself and why I’d advise all dog owners to do the same. But just as you wouldn’t attempt a fancy motorbike stunt without the proper training, you shouldn’t adopt a gung-ho attitude to trimming your dog’s nails. I did my research first. I read up on the topic. Watched videos. Got up close and personal with Kobe and Bella’s nails to see how they differed in shape and where the dog nail quick was located.
The third part of the equation is of course having the best tools for the job. So I tried different products to find the best dog nail clippers and best dog nail grinder on the market. I’d like to share my findings with my fellow dog-lovers. To all the ‘Kathys’ out there: don’t let anyone convince you that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. If an old dog like me can learn to trim overgrown, overlong dog nails using the best tools for the job, then so can you. Read on!
Anatomy of the Dog Paw
Fig. 1 shows the basic anatomy of dogs’ fore and hind paws, while Fig. 2 is a cross-section of a single claw.
By all means, impress your friends with your grasp of terms like metatarsal pad; feel free to call the toes digits and the nails claws if you want to get scientific about the matter. But the number one, must-have piece of dog-nail information that you need to grasp is what’s called the dog nail quick. Believe me, your dog won’t care if you don’t know the technical terms above; but he/she will care very much if you cut into the quick of the nail, causing unnecessary pain and bleeding, as both Rosie and Kathy found out to their cost.
The dog nail quick is located inside the hard outer nail. It contains lots of blood vessels and nerves that supply oxygen and sensation to the toe, and can be seen quite easily by looking up into the dog’s nail from below. It is pinkish in colour and appears circular from this position. Alternatively, shine a light (such as the torch on a mobile phone) onto the side of the dog’s nail. From this direction, the quick will look triangular/cone-shaped.
NOTE: if the end of the dog’s claw is close to the end of the quick, the claw probably doesn’t need to be trimmed. In this case, I would use a file (some of the best dog nail clippers e.g. Boshel Dog Nail Clippers and Trimmer include a complimentary file), or a dog nail grinder (see my recommendations on these) to even the surface of the nail, while minimising the risk of breaching the quick. As mentioned earlier, if dog nails become overgrown, the quick will also elongate. As the claw is trimmed back to a sensible length, the quick will gradually recede. Just bear in mind that it may take several dog nail trimming sessions to facilitate this and get the nails to their optimal length.
If your pooch happens to have black claws (all of Bella’s and Kobe’s nails are white) you’ll need to be extra vigilant about locating the dog nail quick. When looking from below, the quick on black-clawed dogs looks like a black circle, rather than the pinkish colour of his white-clawed relations. I’d therefore suggest working with someone else when trimming your black-clawed canine pal’s nails: one to shine a light onto the nail; the other to do the trimming. TIP: Once the quick has been located, use a metallic marker (non-toxic of course) to mark the maximum distance to which the nail should be clipped. The best dog nail clippers will incorporate a guard to limit the amount of nail that can be cut off at any one time; used in conjunction with the metallic marker should provide a foolproof method of trimming your beloved canine’s nails painlessly.
Pay particular attention to the location of dew claws (or dewclaws) on your dog. The dew claw is located on the inside of the leg above the foot. The majority of dogs have dew claws on their front legs only; a very small number of breeds e.g. the beauceron have dew claws on the back legs too; it is also possible (though rare) for a dog to have no dew claws. The dew claw is used for gripping bones and other objects, although the usefulness of this claw depends on how much muscle and bone attaches the dew claw to the leg. Whatever the case, the dew claw is easy to miss when trimming your dog’s nails, especially if you own a long-haired breed. But the dew claw grows like any other dog nail. In fact, it is more likely to become overlong, ingrown and potentially painful because it may never come into contact with the ground. Although dew claws never touch the ground when the dog is standing, they may do so when the dog is running and so wear down in a similar way to the other claws. You must check your own dog to gauge this, as every dog – even within the same breed – is slightly different. For example, Bella has very long legs and her dew claw is located much further up her leg than Kobe’s. She can run very fast, executing sharp turns, as is typical of her breed, so the dew claw likely provides extra traction then. However, in general I’ve noticed that Kobe’s dew claws (lower to the ground than Bella’s) tend to require less trimming, which suggests that his running style puts his in contact with the ground more of the time than Bella’s.
A related consideration is hair growing between the pads on your dog’s foot. Most groomers, according to my research, advise trimming this. Indeed, some show dog breeds, such as the poodle, are expected to have ‘clean feet’. However, I found no veterinary evidence to support the trimming of hair between the dog’s pads; by contrast, I did find research suggesting that hair protects the exocrine glands and skin folds between the pads. I’d therefore advise against trimming this hair, though part of your pre-dog-nail-trimming ritual should involve checking between the toes for debris, cuts or matted hair (in which case it should be removed). In fact, Kobe has very long hair on the tops of his feet and on his pads; this has never caused any problems, and his ‘canine Grinch’ look is rather fetching. My dog intervention aims to be functional rather than fashionable.
Okay, so you know all the parts of your pooch’s paw. You’ve learned all about the quick and dew claws. You’ve located the best dog nail clippers, or best dog nail grinder around. You’re good to go on your maiden dog nail-clipping venture. I’d say good luck, but luck has nothing to do with it, right? Demonstrate those skills then. Your dog will thank you for it.
Pawdicure aka How to Cut Dog Nails
Before you come anywhere near your four-legged friend with dog nail clippers or a dog nail grinder, make sure you get him/her used to having those sensitive paws handled. If you have a puppy, this is an easy habit to establish. Adult dogs may not be so willing. Just as some people dislike having their feet touched, some dogs have very sensitive paws. Others, like my two mutts, happily lie on their backs, paws akimbo, for high-fives x 4. Repeat. Admittedly, they aren’t quite so relaxed when having their nails clipped, but at least they are used to legs, paws and toes being manipulated.
If your dog is unwilling, combine handling with treats. Pick a time when your pet is relaxed and having a cuddle. Remember slow and steady wins the race. Be a tortoise, not a hare. Hares just get dogs overexcited! With practice, you should be able to touch and press individual toes (this is an essential part of trimming the dog’s nails). If done properly, your dog will not only tolerate having his/her toes touched in this way – he/she will actually find it pleasurable. Obviously, don’t do this when your four-legged friend is agitated or excited; during down-time after exercise, or in the evening when your pet is relaxed are good times.
- Dog nail trimmers (whether guillotine or scissor style) or dog nail grinder depending on your preference (see my recommendations on the best dog nail grinder and best dog nail clippers of various kinds)
- Scissors in case of matted hair
- Nail file if not provided with your dog nail clippers
- Plastic bag for nail shrapnel or sheet/towel if using a dog nail grinder
- Plenty of delicious dog treats (TIP: break treats into small pieces or you’ll end up with a perfectly pawdicured but pudgy dog)
- Styptic powder e.g. Kwik Stop. Styptic powder is an antihemorrhagic i.e. a product designed to stop bleeding by constricting blood vessels. Keep this on hand just in case you accidentally hit the quick. Styptics can sting – so look for one that contains benzocaine to numb the wound. Note: I’ve never had to use it. Follow the instructions here and use the best dog nail clippers or best dog nail grinder and you will never need it.
- A willing partner (especially if you have a black-clawed dog, or it’s your first time)
- Check each claw/nail beforehand (don’t forget the dew claws). Establish location of the quick, using a torch if necessary (essential for black-clawed dogs). Mark the cutting position with a marker if required.
- Press the toe to be trimmed gently to elevate the nail.
- Insert the claw into the opening of guillotine-style dog nail clippers, or between the blades of scissor-style dog nail clippers. If using a dog nail grinder this step is not necessary.
- Clip at an angle of around 45˚, in the direction of the curvature of the claw. ERR ON THE SIDE OF CAUTION. Remove only tiny slices of nail at a time, working towards the point you’ve marked previously.
- Provide your beloved canine pal with a treat in between each ‘snip’. If grinding the claws, work for no more than 20 seconds at a time. Give your pet a rest (turn the grinders off) and a treat. While your pooch is munching on the treat, check the position of the quick in relation to the end of the claw. See no. 8 to know when to stop.
- Repeat stages 3-5 until the nails have reached the desired length. Check from below and from both sides of the claw (this is where a partner comes in handy). As the end of the nail approaches the quick, a pinkish (white-clawed) or black (black-clawed) circle will be visible close to the surface of the nail. Stop now.
- Be aware that some dogs will pull their feet away and you may have to spread the dog nail-clipping procedure over several sessions. Some pooches may only tolerate one nail being clipped at a time. That’s okay. Don’t get angry or impatient with your dog. Remember, he/she wants to please you and is just afraid. Make it a positive experience for your pet and it will be a positive and rewarding experience for you too. What a star you are!
- Continue to clip your dog’s nails at regular intervals. How often depends on your dog’s lifestyle. If you buy decent dog nail clippers or dog nail grinders (see my recommendations on the best dog nail grinder and best dog nail clippers) you’ll not only have a pooch with perfect, pain-free toes, you’ll also save yourself a fortune!
TIP: try soaking your dog’s paws in warm, soapy water before clipping. As well as enjoying this part of his/her pawdicure, it will soften the nails and reduce the chance of a nail splitting when it is clipped. It also cleans the nails and may help to make the quick more visible.
TIP: Clipper blades don’t last forever. If you notice the efficiency of your scissor or guillotine dog nail clippers is deteriorating, buy new clippers or, depending on the brand (see my later post on the best dog nail clippers OR for example Boshel Dog Nail Clipper), replace the blades. Nails splitting is a sign that the blades are worn.