Thursday, March 29, 2012

How To Trim Nails

I see a lot of clients who come in for nail assistance. 

They all walk in the door saying the same thing. "Can you trim Max's nails?"

The answer is always "Yes."

And in many cases the conversation stops there. But it shouldn't.

We should ALL always ask, "What's your concern about you doing them?"

But I think the reason that we don't ask more often is that we know in most cases what the response is going to be.

Here is the most common answer that we get. "Max doesn't like his nails trimmed and I am afraid to cut them too close."  (I should put the clause in here, "if I had a nickel for every time I heard this.")

My response ALWAYS wants to be; "I am sure that Max doesn't like his nails being cut, and we all worry about cutting the nail too short because this certainly does happen no matter how experienced the trimmer is, or how careful we are, but Max shouldn't be the one who gets to decide what does and doesn't get done to him when we are talking about his health. Max needs his nails trimmed so that they don't get caught on things and then tear out from the nail, or scratch you."

I find it silly how many people will come rushing into the clinic for an emergency broken nail petrified that their pet is "bleeding out!" and pay for the emergency fee, sedation, bandaging, lidocaine, and know that the nail broke because it was so treacherously long, curled, or sharp that it literally ripped out of the nail bed. But don't want to try to avoid this from ever happening again by learning to over come their fear of trimming nails.

I know that most, (OK, ALL) pet's do not like to have their nails trimmed. And I also know that ALMOST all of you are afraid to cut the nail to short, (we call it "quick the nail"). When you cut the nail too short it's just like cutting your own nail too short, you bleed. Any your pet will jump and yelp, and then you will feel so bad that you will abandon the thought of ever attempting to cut the nails "ever again!" So you will tell yourself that you "can't hold your pet," and "you can't see where to cut," and you are "terrified of hurting them," so you in very short order give up and decide to leave it to the pros, us.

And because you come to the Vet's office so rarely the nails will get put on the back burner to all of the other important stuff in your life and the nails will grow, and grow, and grow. The longer your pet goes between nail trims the longer the quick grows out, and therefore, the harder it is to keep them trimmed.

In an effort to make nail trimming easier for all of you, I want to go over what I think about when I approach nail trimming.

First some dogs never need their nails trimmed. Some dogs wear them down by running on hard surfaces or living on hard surfaces so the nails get filed by themselves. BUT, remember some dogs and cats (especially the polydactyl cats) have nails in places that don't touch the ground, like the dewclaws, or the "extra" cat toes, so these need to be kept trimmed.

Second, we all quick a nail. It happens no matter how experienced you are, and how hard you try to avoid it. So my advice is to just be prepared for it, and address it if it happens, and then jump back in the saddle and keep going. Please don't give up after the first time you quick the nail and it bleeds. You can call me and I will confess to you that it happens to me, and yes, I feel bad, but you can pick up those nail trimmers and push on. You are not a bad person, your pet will not be traumatized for the rest of their lives, and they won't bleed to death from a nail trim.

Third, the right tools are a must! You can't do a good job without the right tools.

Cat trimmers with white handles on the left, Quik-stop in the bottle, and large dog nail trimmers with the orange handles.

Fourth, (and most importantly): If you can't hold your pet safely, (this is called proper pet restraint) then you can't safely cut their nails. I would say that 95% of the time the owners who come in asking for help with trimming the nails don't really have a problem with nail trimming they have a problem with pet restraint. Their problem has everything to do with the fact that they simply can't hold their pet safely or securely, and it has nothing to do with their ability or inability to cut the nails.

I have one very good client who brings his dog in every 6 months for sedation just so we can trim his nails.

I have another client who came in monthly for 6 months just so we could train them how to hold their dog. We didn't even touch the feet until the 5th practice session.

I have also had many clients who come in for lessons on how to trim nails and when I see how helpless they are to restrain their pet we all give up. (I should never admit to this. I should take my own advice and say to all, "we never let the pet win, we work through it, and we persevere with unfailing conviction," but that would be a lie).

OK, first thing first: learn how to properly restrain your dog, (or cat, or pet). If you are not sure, or are uncomfortable with this, call your vet and ask them to give you a "How-To" session on proper pet restraint. In almost all cases the Vet Techs can help you with this lesson, they are the masters at holding. This is a 2 person job. So convince (or bribe) your spouse to come with you. One person is the "determined, brave, strong, and don't give up easily," holder and the other is the "nail trimmer."

This is how nail trimming goes at my house; I have my dogs sit, then lay down, and then roll over. They then have to let me have their feet and not move while I trim them all. Savannah, and Jekyll are terrible with this. They still to this day, hate it, but they do it because they know I won't let them go until we are done. I don't yell, or fight, or be mean, I am just determined and stubborn. (Anyone who knows me will say I am like this regardless of the task. That's a compliment, right? Please say yes?) I have trained them to tolerate this without making it a stressful arduous task. It is always done patiently and purposefully. I give lots of praise and reassurance as they try to convince me to let them go. I will stop the trimming and just hold the foot if they start to struggle too much. I want them to understand that this is not a scary terrible punishment. I take my time, I remain calm and in control and it is over quickly and with minimal stress. It takes practice, patience, determination and love.

VERY IMPORTANT! Don't force, yell, scream, fight, or make this a difficult process. Because if it is neither one of you will ever willingly do it over again. The first objective is to be able to trim the nails easily and safely. If your dog, cat, pet, is fighting you get help with proper restraint and deal with the trust issues your pet is telling you that they have. And leave the nails to the pros until the restraint issue is resolved. Often the fighting to be restrained is the bigger issue, not the nails.


For cats I recommend that you get the cat on your lap, get them very clam and start holding the foot gently. Many Cats will initially resist their feet being touched but if you can keep your cat calm this can be a quick and easy procedure. If your cat starts to struggle or get aggressive stop and let them go. The cat approach is different than the dog approach, A dog should never be allowed to win and a cat will never be convinced to give up without you bleeding significantly. If you really have a tough cat, then try to wrap them in a towel so their face is hidden and do one foot at a time. Your Vet or their staff can also show you how to properly scruff and hold. This tends to induce more fear than I think is necessary so I usually avoid recommending scruffing.

To expose a cat's nails just press the toe between your fingers.
The nail will be forced put of its sheath and it is usually very easy to identify the quick in cats.
Some older cats have very thick nails so a few trims are needed to find the quick.

Trimmed nails. Midnight is modeling.

By pressing on the underside of the foot, or each individual toe you can expose the nail.


On the topic of nails. I often recommend that the pups with the "dangling dewclaws" (you know those funny insignificant toes that dangle in the breeze and look as if they were last minute additions) be surgically removed at spay/neuter time. These nails often get caught on clothing and bedding and need to be trimmed more often.

Here are my suggestions for trimming dogs nails.

I recommend that one person be the designated holder and the other the trimmer. IMPORTANT note; once the holder takes hold they DO NOT LET GO! This is a training lesson. Training you to be calm, patient, gentle, and effective as a care-giver. For your dog it is training lesson that they are safe, and that occasionally things they do not like still need to be done. The more times you fail at this, whether it be by yelling, screaming, being forceful, intimidating, or giving up, the harder you are going to have to try the next time. There is always a next time. You are also telling your dog that they are in charge and they will continue to challenge you every time they are being asked to do something they do not want to do. You are the parent, act like a good one.

The trimmer will hold the foot firmly and look at the nail from the side. Hold the foot with the toe pointing directly to the left or right. Use your dominant hand to hold the trimmers. Use only good quality spring loaded sharp nail cutters. I have included a picture of the trimmers I use for dogs and cats. DO not use the guillotine trimmers, and do not use dirty or rusty or hard to use trimmers. Always have Quik-stop out and ready to use. (See picture).

Savannah's nail. I view the nail from the side so I can identify where to cut.

Properly trimmed nails. And no blood!

Jekyll's nails. His are easier because they are white and we can see the quick (pink) clearly.

Avoid the pink area of the nails, aka "the quick." This is what bleeds if you cut to close. For those pets with black or dark nails if you look at the nail from below, the fat, bulbous part of the nail is the area where the quick is, so avoid cutting there.

For dark nails sometimes it helps to look at the nail from below to see where the quick ends.

As a general rule we start clipping conservatively and will often make a few cuts working up the nail towards the toe. Don't start high, start low on the nail. Your pet will thank-you for being gentle.

Here is a good You Tube video, with tips and pointers.


  1. Great advice, especially on dogs with black nails. We have a Schipperke, and the black nails have sometimes been problematic.

    Joe M.

  2. All well and good BUT - our dogs becomes powerful like a wrestler and no amount of "restraint" we know of can hold her still for more than a few seconds and that with 2 strong adults doing the holding. She just works herself up into such a state of fear and frenzy and becomes so exhausted - so HOW exactly is the "pet restraint" process practiced because the article jumps over it completely! I mean that's the most important subject ?

    1. I have this problem too with my Akita. Even with 2 ppl restraining her she bucked and growled so much it tired us all out and made her so anxious, I gave up and have just been running her on concrete and gravel to keep them shortish.

  3. How do you do real dog? My cat is bigger than your model dog. Great Pyrenees, 150 pounds of dog meat that will not let anyone touch his nails. How do you restrain him?

    1. Hello,
      It is all the same concept. Except that your "real" dog is bigger. Basic obedience and training are required. If he won't let you near his feet it is simply because he has not been trained to allow it.

    2. Sevral years ago he had gotten foxtails up between his toes, the vet got 5 out from under his skin. since then he is protective of his toes. As far as Basic obedience we can do anything that is ever needed including pulling foxtails out of any other part of his body including his scrotum without him having any problems. I can clean foxtails from between his toes without a problem. But no way do I get to use the nail clippers. So how do you hold 150 pounds of very strong dog to trim nails.

    3. I do not know if my last reply went through. He is well trained and the problem he has is fear of pain. He had 5 foxtails stuck between his toes several years ago. since then he does not want anyone cutting his nails. I have no problem pulling foxtails out, something that gets done every night when in season.

    4. The best way to convince a big (or any other sized dog) to be obedient and compliant is to do it very gradually. It can be a long process, but determination and dedication it can happen. Start by trying to rub the legs, work your way down to the feet. Also work on allowing your dog to be restrained. If it requires incorporating food its ok to use this a a reward and calming mechanism. It takes time, but it is possible. The sooner you start the easier it will be to get there.

  4. This sounds great but isn't realistic. A vet's office FORCIBLY restrained my pitty rescue and ruined it for the rest of us. EIGHT MONTHS of working with him and our vet and 60 mg benadryl and NO SUCCESS.
    I can handle my 130 lb mastiff but 3 people cannot convince the pitty we aren't trying to kill him.
    Two trained groomers, five vet techs and 3 vets - nothing.
    So, don't generalize or act like all pet parents are wimps or bad parents.
    I need real help, not condescending generalizations.

    1. I agree, you do need help. I also disagree that your vet ruined it for you. It is the pet parents responsibility to provide adequate training, handling, and assistance so that these dogs don't get to the point where sedation, brute force and fear compound the anxiety. I however, never forcibly restrain a pet for a nail trim. It isn't worth it, because of things like this. I am not trivializing, nominalizing, nor justifying the content of this blog. All fears are surmountable. It takes time, patience, diligence, and often medication. Don't give up, don't place blame, and don't shirk responsibility.

  5. Any advice on trimming nails on a cat with Plasma Cell Podadermatitus? I have been trimming my own cats nail for over 35 years and have dealt with many different personalities, those that purr happily while I trim and those that have to have their head covered and strong arms to assist me. My two cats with Pillow Food remain completely calm until the scissor touches the nail, then they violently pull away. If I am able to cut before they pull away, they scream as if I've quicked them even though I'm barely nipping the end of the nail off.
    Our vet has the same problem, but there they just muscle through it and not getting the cats to vet at all causes panic, so I'm back to doing it myself.
    Any suggestions would be greatly welcomed.

  6. Our vet refuses to wrestle with any animal for nail trimming. He saw a dog have a heart attack because of its fear of nail trimming. Our German Shepherd, even as a pup, hated nail trimming. We have done all kinds of conditioning exercises for months and she acts like a wild bear once the clippers are in view. Our vet uses tranquilizers now with her. It is safer for all, sadly.

    1. Hello Stasha,
      I am sorry to hear about your pup, I have to admit that I have a few patients that I refuse to wrestle with anymore too. I think it just reinforces their fear and puts everyone in unnecessary danger.
      take care.
      thanks for visiting

    2. Hello Stasha,
      My German Shepherd is petrified - I mean absolutely petrified - it is like wrestling a bull, on steroids with Rabies (sorry but this is the best way to describe this craziness). It is heartbreaking for me to see her like this. How often do you have to sedate your dog? This is going to be the next step for her because even with the drugs she still fights and bites - she has gotten both muzzles off! She did not break my skin - I could care less it is my dog, she is vaccinated and terrified but it breaks my hear seeing her like this!

      So how often do you sedate every 6-8 weeks? Is it hard on her or easy process?
      Thanks so much!