Schnauzer dog getting his nails cut

Cut your dog's nails to avoid overgrown nails.

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Overgrown nails in dogs: from rewarding to clipping

By Dr. Pete Wedderburn, BVM&S CertVR MRCVS Veterinarian

Updated on the

Most dogs keep their nails short during normal daily activities or dog grooming. However for various reasons, dogs’ nails can become overgrown, so what's the best thing you can do?

Despite naturally wearing down, dog's nails can still grow too long. There are several reasons for this and it's important to know how to cut them properly.

This article explains how to trim dogs' nails to a healthy length simply, safely and painlessly.

Why do dogs’ nails sometimes get too long?

Dogs’ nails wear down naturally when they touch the ground while they are walking on hard surfaces such as tarmac or concrete. There are four reasons why dogs’ nails become overgrown.

First, their nails may not touch the ground when walking. Some nails are higher up on the dog’s leg, so they never touch the ground. Or a dog’s toes may be slightly twisted, with the nails pointing in a different direction, so that they don’t touch the ground.

Second, if a dog only exercises on soft surfaces like grass, their nails may not wear down.

Third, some dogs have harder nails, so that they don’t wear down easily.

And fourth, some dogs don’t exercise enough to wear down their nails.

Does walking your dog trim their nails?

Walking on hard surfaces helps to keep dogs’ nails short, but this is not enough to help overgrown nails and in that situation you'll have to follow advice, such as ours, on what to do when they grow too long.

What happens when a dog's nails get too long?

As a nail grows longer, it curls into a semicircle, eventually curling right around so that it digs into the dog’s skin, causing discomfort. A dog usually licks at the area that’s uncomfortable, where the nail is digging into the skin.

If the nail continues to grow, it causes a physical injury to the skin where it’s rubbing.

Can long nails hurt my dog?

If an overgrown nail puts pressure on a dog’s skin, it causes a painful wound. Even before then, overgrown nails cause the dog’s toes to be splayed out in an unnatural position, which can be uncomfortable.

How do you tell if your dog's nails are too long?

Dogs have two different types of nails.

Dew claws: Nails on the side of a dog’s leg (that don’t touch the ground) should be somewhere between the shape of a quarter-circle and a semi-circle. If they are longer (i.e. more than a semi-circle), they are too long.

Normal claws: Nails on the dog’s feet can be assessed by picking up your dog’s foot and placing it on the palm of your hand. The nails should rest comfortably on the surface of your hand. If the nails are too long, they will push against the surface of your hand.

How do you fix overgrown dog nails?

The best way to trim your dog’s nails is to use standard dog nail clippers, sold in pet shops and vet clinics. There are two types:

First, guillotine-type nail clippers. You insert the dog nail into a small window and a guillotine-type blade cuts the nail as you squeeze the clipper handles.

Second, scissor-type nail clippers. These allow you to cut the nails from the side, which is better for nails that have grown right into the skin. In these cases you cannot use the guillotine-type because the free end of the nail cannot be seen.

Ask for a tutorial on their use from a vet or a dog groomer the first time you use either type of clipper. The goal is to clip the tip of the nail so that it is a healthy length, without taking off too much nail. If you clip off too much nail, you risk cutting into the vascular bed of the nail (called “the quick”). This contains blood vessels. If you accidentally cut through the quick, your dog will bleed, sometimes copiously. 

In most dogs, you can see the quick as a pinkish area in the lower half of the nail. You need to avoid cutting this.

What do you do if you accidentally cut the quick?

If you cut the quick, the nail bed will bleed, sometimes copiously. If this happens, apply pressure to the bleeding nails with a piece of cotton wool. Styptic powder may be applied to the bleeding area to help the blood to clot quickly. In most cases, such bleeding is quick to recede. Sometimes dogs have a long quick, making it easy to cut it by mistake.

How do you cut overgrown black dog nails?

In black dogs (or any dog with black nails), you cannot see the pink quick. You need to be careful to leave the nail long enough so that you miss cutting this.

Does it hurt a dog when you cut the quick?

As well as blood vessels, the quick contains nerves, so it is painful if you cut this.

Do dogs feel pain when you cut their nails?

The nails are insensitive (like our own nails) so nail clipping does not hurt. However, if the quick is cut, this is painful. Also, if you twist the nails, this may cause discomfort.

What is the correct angle to cut a dog's nails?

The nail of a dog should be cut so that the cut surface is at right angles to the long axis of the nail, similar to cutting a tree branch so that the stump is flat.

What to do if your dog won't let you cut their nails

If a dog has a bad experience having their nails cut, they may remember this for many years and may not want you to cut their nails. You need to use carefully planned reward-based training techniques to teach them that it is an easy, pain-free experience.

How do I sedate my dog to cut his nails?

Some dogs are so anxious about having their nails trimmed that they need to be sedated, but this is not something that you can do at home: you need to take your dog to the vet for this to be done safely.

Can you file dog's nails instead of clipping?

Filing dogs’ nails is possible, but dogs need to get used to that buzzy sensation, and in most cases, simple, painless clipping is quicker and easier.

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