Cutting pets' nails doesn't have to be stressful experience

Posted: Sunday, September 21, 2003

Nail trimming is a part of routine health care.

Pets' nails grow quickly. Leaving them unattended can often lead to splitting and tearing. These injuries are painful to pets and can add up to extra expense when treated by a veterinarian.

"It's really individual as to how often, but typically every four to six weeks they should be trimmed," said Tim Bowser, a veterinarian at the Soldotna Animal Hospital.

However, nail trimming isn't always an easy task to perform on a pet.

While some dogs will hold still or may present their paws for trimming, there are an equal number that take four people wrestling the dog to the ground to trim one nail.

Nail trimming doesn't have to be difficult or stressful to most pets if handled properly.

As for tools, there are several nail trimmers that work well on pets. Some are guillotine-style, while others are more like scissors or hedge clippers but with curved blades. Human nail trimmers should not be used since they can often crack or split a pet's nails.

"It's important to take things slow and have patience," Bowser said. "It is often traumatic to trim them all at once."

It's better to trim one nail at a time over several days and have the animal be comfortable, rather than trimming all at once with the pet showing resistance.

Most animals that show an aversion to having their nails trimmed didn't start out that way. This is often a reaction of some past unpleasant or traumatic experience.

The amount of the nail trimmed should be conservative. It's better to make several small trims rather than one big one.

Taking too much nail can result in cutting the quick. This to the pink fleshy part that is the blood supply to the nail. Cutting the quick results in bleeding and is painful to pets.

If a pet has clear or white nails, trimming is easier. For pets with dark nails, it is difficult to see where the quick ends, so extra caution should be taken.

If a dog's nail is cut to the quick, cornstarch can stop the bleeding. Styptic pencils also can be used.

Putting gentle pressure on the knuckle of dogs or the paws of cats can help extend nails further out. Don't forget about the dew claws, too, since these almost never touch the ground.

Some dog breeds such as Pekingese, Shih Tzu and many of the small terrier breeds, have long coats that can get in the way. Excess fur around the feet should be kept short to aid in nail trimming.

"Animals should start having their nails trimmed at an early age," Bowser recommends. Puppies and kittens will often sit without too much resistance, allowing a nail, or sometimes a few, to be trimmed.

If a pet wasn't started at an early age, or if the animal already is problematic during nail trimming, don't give up hope. It is possible to teach an old dog new tricks.

"It's a matter of conditioning, but you can eventually win some of them over," Bowser said.

Begin by increasing the hands-on time a pet is given. The goal to pet the animal more and expand petting onto the lower extremities. Start on the shoulders, then move gradually to the legs and eventually the feet. Remember to take things slow.

Try to focus on rewarding good behavior. Give praise or treats after touching the animal's paws. It's about positive reinforcement.

Don't scold for bad behavior, but don't reward for it either.

Dogs that remain problematic can also be exercised before attempting to trim their nails. Sometimes being a little fatigued makes them less resistant. Many dog mushers in particular, swear by this method.

Larger dogs may require the aid of another person, especially for the hind feet. One person is used to pet and distract the dog while it lays on its side, while the other person trims.

Another option to reduce the frequency of nail trimming is to regularly walk and exercise with pets on concrete surfaces. "This can really help wear the nail down naturally," said Bowser.

Some people also will try to sneak up on napping animals and trim one nail at a time. This method is typically not recommended, since startling a pet in this manner could lead to being bitten. Also a sleeping animal could suddenly jerk awake causing a trimming related injury.

Not all pets may come around to cooperating. If a pet still violently resists despite months of training and coaxing, or if the pet shakes uncontrollably from fear, it may be best to seek the help of a veterinarian.

They can either prescribe tranquilizers for the pet to aid in trimming or perform the task themselves.

"It's a shame to use chemical restraint, but it's sometimes necessary," said Bowser.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. He has worked with wildlife and domestic animals for more than 10 years as a veterinary technician, a zoo keeper, and most recently as a zoologist for the Wildlife Conser-vation Society. He welcomes any pet-related questions or story ideas, but please none of a veterinary nature. Ideas and questions can be sent to his attention by e-mail at

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