The Quick and the Dead: Nail Trims

By Kim Everson, DVM
Clickety-clak. Clickety-clak. No, it’s not the sound of a freight train rumbling down the tracks. It is the sound of your dog’s toenails tap-tap-tapping on the tile floor.
Regular nail trims are a necessity for most pets. Just how often it needs to be done depends on a lot of factors. What kind of dog do you have? Do its nails grow very quickly? Does your dog spend a lot of time running on rough surfaces? Is your cat a tenacious furniture scratcher or does he leave his claws sheathed most of the time?
Dachshunds (a.k.a. “wiener dogs”), for example, tend to have very long toenails. Bred as badger hunters, dachshunds have claw-like toenails for burrowing after their quarry. Modern-day pet dachshunds need nail trims but their long toenail quick, the vital portion of the nail, makes super short trims impossible.
Most cats can successfully adapt to indoor living and keep their toenails intact. A declaw surgery actually involves amputation of the tip of each digit! Instead of declawing, training your kitten or cat to allow nail trimming and providing desirable scratching surfaces is preferred.
Some dogs spend hours running, walking and playing outside on rough surfaces which helps wear their toenails down naturally. Regular pressure on the nail forces the quick to recede over time resulting in very short nails. A word of caution: dogs unused to heavy exercise on asphalt or concrete may develop painful blisters or abrasions on their pads until they develop protective calluses. Also, these surfaces get extremely hot during the summer months and can quickly burn foot pads.
Appropriately trimmed toenails are not just a cosmetic preference. Keeping toenails from growing Guinness-book-of-world-records long is more comfortable for your dog and may prevent a messy toenail snag, a common veterinary “emergency.” A long toenail may catch in a loop of carpet, for instance, and tear off painfully. These broken toenails usually bleed profusely and typically become infected from the pet’s incessant licking.
Dr. Kim Everson trims her American Bulldog’s toenails
The best time to start trimming your pet’s toenails is when it is a baby, but a pet of any age can be trained. If done carefully and regularly,  pets can learn to sit patiently while receiving their pedicure. Before clipping a single toenail, get your pet used to having its feet touched. Massage its toes and apply gentle pressure to the toenails. Tolerance of this type of manipulation should be rewarded.
Now examine the toenail to understand its anatomy. (In cats, you will need to expose the claw by gently but firmly pushing down near the middle of each digit.) The thickest part of the toenail closest to the toe contains the quick. The quick is full of blood vessels and nerves. If you accidentally clip the quick, it will bleed and be painful for your pet. In light colored toenails the vital part of the nail appears pinker and fleshier than the part you need to trim. Dark pigmented toenails are a little tricky because it is harder to delineate between the quick and the trimmable part, but if you look carefully you will notice subtle changes in shape and texture.
Finally, you may start clipping. Only clip as many toenails as your pet tolerates in a single sitting. Future nail trims will become much more difficult if you struggle with your pet now. I have met dogs who require sedation just to have their nails trimmed–what a shame! It is always better to cut a nail too short and take a little more off later than to cut aggressively and sever the quick. If you proceed gradually you will notice the center of the nail becoming waxy and less dry. This is a good place to stop.
There are many types of toenail trimmers available for pets. Some function like heavy duty scissors while others have a guillotine-type blade. Grinding tools and regular nail files may also do the trick. In fact, filing may work best if your pet reacts dramatically to the “snap” of the clipper closing. If the quick extends throughout a very long nail, daily filing of the nail end may prompt the quick to recede so more nail can be removed with time.
Even with care and experience, accidental clipping of the quick does occasionally happen. Bleeding can be controlled by applying direct pressure on the nail bed. If the quick continues to ooze, styptic powder or a little bit of corn starch can be pressed onto the area.
For the squeamish (owner) or squirmy (pet), nail trimming might be best performed by a groomer or veterinary staff. But if you have the inclination, equipment and patience for it, trimming your pet’s nails can be as relaxing and rewarding for them as a day at the spa!

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