First Aid for Broken Nails in Cats

By Krista Williams, BSc, DVM, CCRP; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Ouch! How can such a little injury cause such a big hurt? A tiny tear in a tiny nail on a single toe on a single foot can be the source of excruciating pain. The pain of a broken nail can be so intense that it can result in lameness, inactivity and possibly urination or defecation outside the litterbox. Kitties with broken nails will hold up the foot, limp around, and whine in discomfort. Plus, the bleeding that accompanies a torn nail further complicates the matter.

Why do nails break?

Cats love to scratch things and can break their nails when they snag them on carpet or upholstery fibers or scratching post materials. Sometimes the cat may jump off a chair or down from the countertop, and land on a foot or toe in such a way that a nail bends backward and breaks. Sometimes, the nails of older pets are so dry that they become brittle and break without much provocation at all. Longer nails tend to get “caught” more than short ones. Regardless of the reason, a broken nail hurts and bleeds so it requires immediate attention.

Why are broken nails such a problem?

The nails of cats consist of a central collection of blood vessels and nerves that are called the quick (nail bed). A layer of hard, horny material called keratin surrounds these sensitive structures and protects them. The quick is living tissue while the keratin is not. That is why trimming the tip of the nail is not painful for your pet but exposing the quick is uncomfortable.

What should I do if my cat has broken a nail?

If your cat yelps in pain and suddenly begins to limp or hold her paw up, check her foot for a broken nail and follow this treatment protocol:

1. Safely restrain your cat. Have someone hold your pet while you tend to the nail. Remember that even the nicest pet may bite when in pain so try wrapping your cat in a towel. Provide restraint in the form of a hug which immobilizes the cat and makes her feel secure.

2. Control bleeding by wrapping the foot in gauze or a towel and applying pressure to the injured toe. If the bleeding does not stop in 5-10 minutes, apply a styptic pencil, silver nitrate stick, or cauterizing powder to the nail. These items can be purchased at the pet store or in the first aid section of your human pharmacy. If you do not have these products at home, try covering the nail with baking powder or flour. You can also stick the tip of the nail into a bar of soap to help stop the bleeding.

3. Remove the damaged part of the nail. Sometimes, there is a loosely attached sliver of nail that can be trimmed away easily with clippers at home; however, most of the time this job is best left to your veterinarian. Keep your cat’s foot wrapped in paper towels as you proceed to your veterinary clinic.

The damaged or broken part of the nail needs to be carefully removed. This procedure is often painful but can be accomplished quickly and may not require sedation; however, depending on the degree of pain and where the break is, sedation and/or numbing the area with a nerve block may be required. The nail needs to be trimmed above the break to completely remove the damaged portion and to provide a good foundation for the nail to re-grow.

4. Protect the nail bed from infection. Your veterinarian may apply antibiotic ointment or powder to the exposed nail bed and bandage the foot to prevent contamination and minimize further bleeding. An oral or injectable antibiotic may be advised as well. Since the nail bed, or quick, is attached to bone, prevention of infection is crucial. Bone infections are serious problems and only certain antibiotics are effective in treating them. Your cat’s foot needs to be closely monitored so your veterinarian will schedule a follow-up visit in a few days to examine the affected nail and remove or change the bandage.

5. Control the pain. Without the keratin part of the nail to protect the quick, the tender live tissue, including blood vessels and nerves, is exposed and painful. Your veterinarian may prescribe pain medication or give an injection to keep your cat more comfortable.

How can I help my cat avoid broken nails?

To avoid the hassle of a broken nail, keep your cat’s nails trimmed. Short nails are less likely to break than long ones. Ask your veterinarian or veterinary technician to demonstrate proper nail trimming so you can clip your cat’s nails at home. If you are not comfortable doing this, simply make regularly scheduled appointments to have your cat’s nails trimmed at your veterinary hospital.

Keep maintenance of your cat’s nails on your list of tasks alongside feeding and cleaning the litterbox so that you and your cat can avoid the broken nail dilemma.

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