Successful Nail Trims: Training for Happy Handling

By Ellen Lindell, VMD, DACVB; Monique Feyrecilde, BA, LVT, VTS (Behavior); Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM

Why does my dog need nail trims?

Technically, a dog’s “nails” are claws. Claws contain blood vessels and nerves that grow as the claws grow. When nails are very long, they can interfere with your dog’s ability to properly place his feet when he walks and may even cause structural changes in the foot itself. If your dog snags a long nail (e.g., on carpet), the nail could break. A broken claw is very painful because of the vessels and nerves inside, and it can bleed for a long time.

Claws contain blood vessels and nerves that grow as the claws grow.

The long blood vessel inside a claw must not be cut, as it will bleed - sometimes profusely. When claws are trimmed regularly, the vessels and nerves remain short. Once the claw and vessel have grown long, there is a limit to how much the claw may be trimmed back.

All dogs (as well as cats, birds, and pocket pets) can benefit from regular nail care.

How and when does my pet need nail trimming? 

Most dogs need to have their nails trimmed every 7-14 days. Most cats need nail trims every 2-4 weeks. For dogs, if you can hear their nails clicking when they trot, the nails are likely too long. For cats, if you can see a sharp tip on the nail, or a point starting to form beyond the main triangular wedge of the nail, the nails should be clipped.

How do I trim my dog’s nails? 

Trimming nails can seem daunting at first. Before practicing on your pet, it is best to learn how to identify the blood vessel and how to handle the clippers or Dremel. You may practice on items such as cocktail straws, Q-Tip sticks, or raw pasta to get the feel for how to use and control each piece of equipment.

You’ll need some equipment for nail care:

  • Sharp nail clippers: Choose the scissor or plier type of clipper, where two sharp blades cross. Avoid guillotine-type clippers with only one sharp blade, as they often crush the nail instead of cutting it, causing discomfort. 
  • Grinding tool (optional): You may prefer to use a grinding tool such as a Dremel or an emery file. Always keep clippers on hand, even if you normally grind nails, as you may occasionally need to trim an area the grinder can’t reach.
  • Styptic product (e.g., pet styptic powder): Styptic powder is a clotting agent that stops bleeding in minor wounds. Apply a small amount of styptic powder to your dog’s nail if you cut the blood vessel inside, commonly called the “quick”. Cutting the quick may cause your dog’s claw to bleed for a few minutes. It can cause some pain, although it is usually brief. 
  • Treats: Have plenty of delicious treats on hand to make it an enjoyable experience for your dog.

Now you can begin training. Nail care training is a two-step process. First, you need to get comfortable with the equipment, and second, you must help your pet develop a positive emotional response to the nail trims.

You will use the principles of desensitization and counterconditioning to introduce the pedicure process. Desensitization means breaking down the process into a series of tiny steps. Counterconditioning means creating a positive emotional response, typically by giving delicious treats. Each step should be easily accepted; if your pet becomes concerned, stop and go back to an easier step.

Keep sessions short. Initial sessions may last a few seconds, then a minute, and finally 3-5 minutes, depending on your pet. Once training is complete, you can begin a regular maintenance program.

Step 1: Get comfortable

Start your training by finding a location and position that is comfortable for you and your dog. Nail trims may be done in your lap, in a dog bed, or even on a grooming table. It can be helpful to create a handling station such as a special table with a non-slip surface.

Step 2: Practice handling your dog’s feet

Before you introduce your dog to the equipment, get them to relax while having their feet handled. Gently manipulate their foot, giving a treat with each change in position. Keep sessions short to start. For some pets, one 15-second session is enough. If your pet remains relaxed and continues to enjoy the treats, you may do two or three movements in each session.

Remember, dogs have more nerve endings in their feet and toes than they have on other body parts. These areas are naturally sensitive. For this reason, use a gliding touch to reach the paw rather than picking up the paw directly.

Continue holding the paw, at varying angles. Reward your dog when you move the paw to see and gently touch the sensitive claws. Before you ever introduce the equipment, be sure your pet allows you to handle each claw for several sessions - you will need that much time once you have a clipper or Dremel in-hand.

Also, be sure that you can identify the quick. You may want to ask a professional groomer or veterinary assistant to help you with this. In dogs, the pink quick is only clearly visible if their nails are clear or white. The quick will not be visible through a dark nail. Don’t worry - you will be able to estimate the location of the blood vessel by checking the tip of the nail regularly during the trim.

Step 3: Introduce the equipment

Hold the clippers in your hand and give your pet a treat without touching their foot. If you use a Dremel, add some sessions in which you turn the Dremel on, a distance from your dog, and then give a treat, so that the sound of the Dremel is familiar and evokes a positive emotional response.

Next, manipulate the paw and claws, as before, but this time hold the clippers or Dremel in your hand. Do not turn on the Dremel just yet. Reward your dog throughout this process. If you are using a Dremel, add some sessions after this in which you turn on the Dremel while manipulating the feet and claws, but you do not connect the Dremel with the claws.

Finally, pretend to clip a claw, and follow with a treat. Connect the instrument with the claw, but don’t make any cuts – just ensure your dog is relaxed and eagerly taking treats.

Step 4: Trim the nails

To start, you will shave a tiny flake from the tip of one nail. Treat your dog and take a break. You may only do one nail and spend the rest of the session rewarding just for having the toes handled. Later in the day, you may try another session and shave a bit off the next nail.

Remove tiny slices of nail and inspect the nail regularly for signs you're approaching the blood supply inside the nail. When you get close to the quick, the center of the nail changes in color and texture. Rather than flaky and dry-looking, it will begin to appear slightly shiny, like the inside of a jellybean. Stop trimming when you see a change in texture. Cutting into the “jellybean” layer will result in reaching the quick.

If you are using a Dremel, just a 1–2 second grind is sufficient. Otherwise, the nail can heat up and your dog will become uncomfortable.

Can I teach my cat to tolerate claw trims?

Cats may be trained to have their claws trimmed. Many cats prefer to be gently restrained on your lap or even bundled into a towel for their sessions.

Cat claws are usually white or clear, and so it is easy to see and avoid the sensitive quick. Trimming a cat’s claw involves removing the portion of the nail that is hooked, without touching the area near the quick. You may purchase a small scissors-type trimmer designed to easily remove only the hooked portion of your cat’s claw.

Plan to take your time, and use the desensitization and counterconditioning steps described in the previous section.

How do I know that my pet is comfortable enough for me to continue?

During any training session, watch for signs of stress. If you identify any of these signs, take a break.

  • Pulling the paw away
  • Moving away/off the nail-care area
  • Panting, tensing of the lips, or holding ears back (dogs)
  • Pulling whiskers far forward or back (cats)
  • Folding ears to the side or back (cats)
  • Twitching tail (cats)
  • Exhibiting dilated pupils
  • Leaning and looking away
  • Hesitating to approach when you're holding nail care items
  • Becoming tense, frozen, or still
  • Trembling
  • Vocalizing (whine, growl, bark, hiss)
  • Attempting to escape
  • Snarling, growling, snapping, swatting, biting)

The training process can take a few minutes for some pets and a few months for others. If you're not making progress after a few weeks, seek professional guidance from a behavior consultant or trainer skilled in teaching nail care.

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