The art of nail trimming!


Garima Singhal with Bruno Boo
Unless your dog runs around on hard surfaces which act like a natural nail file, or is a regular outdoor working dog, both of which help to keep the toenails short, it is very likely that you will need to trim your dog’s toenails. But, nail trimming is an art and you need to have the proper knowledge and right tools.
As a pet parent, we often face the problem of overgrown toenails of our pets. Sometimes, we even get scratched with them. Overgrown toenails not only rub against your tile floors and snag your upholstery, but they are incredibly painful for the animal.
Nail trimming is essential to avoid serious health consequences
When the dog’s toenail makes contact with hard ground, the hard surface pushes the nail back into the nail bed. This either puts pressure on all the toe joints, or pushes the toe to the side. The toe becomes progressively arthritic and even the slightest touch is painful for your dog.The other, even more serious consequence, of having long toenails is that animals rely on the input from the nerves in their feet to move through the world and feel gravity accurately. The only time the toenail touched the ground was while climbing a hill. A dog’s brain is evolutionarily hardwired to associate toenail contact as being on a hill, and he shifts his body posture accordingly, to maintain center of gravity. Since this is an imaginary hill, the secondary compensation with the hind limbs is essential to avoid falling flat on the face.
Anatomy of a nail (claw)
A dog’s nail is made of the nail itself, and the QUICK, the pink (when it is visible in light colored nails) part of your dog’s toenails that provide the blood supply to the nail. On a black claw, the interface between the nail and QUICK is usually chalky and white, very easy to make out. On an uncut nail, the tip of the QUICK will appear like a notch. It is safe to initiate your cut a little before the notch towards the end of the nail. In the figure below, on the right is a cross section of the inside of a nail. The QUICK will appear translucent and glossy, like flesh. Cutting the QUICK will cause excruciating pain to the dog and cause a lot of bleeding. Styptic powder will help stem the bleeding, so make sure you have that on hand. Also, the dog will remember QUICKING for a long time afterwards, and will be reluctant to get a nail trim. So make sure that if this unfortunate incident occurs, distract the dog immediately by treating them with something yummy. This has to be something that the dog absolutely adores, like cheese or wet chicken liver.
Frequency of trimming
For an inactive animal, this trimming can be anywhere from once a week to once a month activity. Nail trimming and grooming are activities that are usually feared by dogs. Sometimes, due to the dog’s reaction in the past, even the pet parent start to fear this regimen, and yet it need not be a stressful activity for either.
How to prevent and avoid stressful nail clipping
The best thing to do is to get your veterinarian or groomer to clip the toenails for you. They understand the anatomy and physiology of the nail; they have been trained in this process and can maintain a calm demeanor during the activity. The dog is going to take cues off their calm visage and the whole process will be much simpler. The second best thing is to get your veterinarian or groomer to train you in the process. Once you know how to do this expertly, you can go about being calm and assertive, and keeping the anxiety off your dog.
Keeping a dog calm during handling
The best way to calm your dog’s fears is to train them from a young age to be comfortable with the process. Dogs that go for walks often and are active often do not need to get their nails trimmed. Some breeds however such as Basset Hounds and Dachshunds might need your help in keeping the toenails reasonably short. Once in a while, you might make a mistake and cause a painful cut, and it is important to have clotting powder (styptic  powder) and an antiseptic powder handy to stem the bleeding.
Choosing the right tools
Make sure that you have a clipper that is appropriate for the size and breed of dog you have. There are many types in the market that are used by veterinarians and groomers. They should be concave at the cutting edge or the nail will be crushed (avoid the guillotine type clippers as they crush the nail). Smaller, scissor type clippers give better control. Only if you have a giant breed dog, do you need a larger sized clipper. Blunt or poor quality trimmers can split the nail and cause bleeding. If your dog gets enough exercise that they are able to wear their nails down so that the nails aren’t long enough to warrant a trim, perhaps a filing, grinding, burring or dremeling is a more appropriate course of action to take. Nail files, orange sticks and pumice stones are handy tools to take off the tips of the nails. Finish off your trim and take off the sharp and jagged edges with one of these. File only the insensitive nail around the quick. Dremeling or burring is the safest alternative as the process is slow and gradual (as opposed to the sharp trim), and there is a lot more control. However, some animals don’t take too well to the sound and vibration of the dremel, so it is very important to desensitize them to it, and most importantly, to understand your animal’s psyche and requirements.
(Garima Singhal is KCAI accredited Canine behaviorist, neurobiologist, school teacher long term Dobie mommy.)
Tips to clip your dog’s nails

  • Make sure you have plenty of yummy treats handy.
  • Have styptic powder, Neosporin powder and your tools at hand.
  • Make the experience positive by treating and cajoling your dog and using a lot of reward and praise for calmness.
  • Stay calm yourself, because if you are anxious, your dog will soak up that anxiety too.
  • Start with one nail, and come back later if your pet is nervous.
  • One trick is to hold the trimmer flat against the toe pad, and cut straight across the nail. This will ensure that the nail sits just above the ground. This means that you still have some more nail to go before you QUICK the dog, and it will also ensure that there is no injury.
  • Keep the clipper blades almost parallel to the nail, never cut across the finger.
  • Use a vertical cut. A horizontal clip will split the nail.
  • Don’t squeeze the toes. That hurts. Use your fingers to separate the toes and hold the paw gently.
  • Use a pair of blunt scissors to remove the excess hair between the toes.
  • To get a shorter cut, as demonstrated in the second image above, cut along the first line from the right, at a 45o angle, AFTER visualizing the quick.
  • If you do happen to quick your dog, give them a yummy treat right away and that will effectively distract them from the pain and keep it off their mind for the next time too.