The necessary chore of clipping a pet’s nails

Trimming a dog’s nails can be a painless experience for both owner and animal with the right mindset and approach. Trimming a dog’s nails can be a painless experience for both owner and animal with the right mindset and approach.

It starts innocently enough with some faint clicking as your dog trots across the kitchen tile. It can wait, you figure. She hates having her nails trimmed and another week won’t hurt. Until she climbs into your lap and eight dull knives dig deep into your thigh. Reluctantly, you admit to yourself that this is overdue and pick up the clippers.

You lead her to the porch and give her a treat. She wags her tail, but seems suspicious of your motive. You remember the last time you clipped one nail too short. That tragic yelp still echoes in your mind. Was it pain? Betrayal? You set the clippers back down and pretend to clean the house instead.

Nobody likes to do this. I certainly don’t. But this isn’t optional. It needs to happen on a regular basis and it only gets worse otherwise.

Overgrown nails aren’t a cosmetic issue. They can get snagged in carpet or stuck in cracks. These nails often splinter, crack or get ripped right off, which is as traumatic as it sounds. I see claws growing full-circle, stabbing right back into dogs’ toes to create bloody, infected wounds. And with time, overlong nails will cause the toes to deform, twisting them sideways and making it harder for animals to walk at all.

Many people are paralyzed by the fear of trimming too far back, cutting into the sensitive quick that lies at the core of each nail. This is a valid worry, and it’s bound to happen now and then. Even if you’re well-practiced, sometimes an animal squirms at just the wrong moment. Don’t panic. Offer some treats as a distraction, and stay positive. If the nail is bleeding, you can calm it down with some styptic powder or corn starch.

Unfortunately, as a nail grows longer, so does its quick. And that means that any delay only compounds the fear and anxiety next time around. If you make a habit of trimming your pet’s nails weekly (yeah, I said it), you’ll likely find that the experience gets more pleasant each time.

For many dogs, the anxiety still escalates rapidly during a nail trim. In these cases, you may have better luck with a stealthier approach. Try trimming just one nail every morning before breakfast instead. You’ll have to do a bit of bookkeeping to remember which toe you’re up to, but it ensures that nail trims are brief and promptly rewarded. Plus, the daily routine helps prevent each trim from feeling like a big, ominous event.

Another option is to file the nails back rather than clipping them. This is perfectly fine and easiest to accomplish with an electric rotary tool (like a Dremel), but it comes with a few caveats. There is always a risk of stray hair getting caught up in the rotation, causing significant injury. Fur should be trimmed back with scissors first, or the nail can be poked through a small hole in a nylon stocking to keep hair out of harm’s way. Some devices (like PediPaws) are designed specifically for this purpose, and have built-in guards and motors that cut out with any resistance. But that safety measure also causes them to seize and fail against the tougher nails of larger dogs, which can be frustrating.

Regardless of what technique works best, regular nail trims are something we sign on for when we adopt pets. It’s annoying, and it’s tempting to do it some other day. But done correctly, it should be a genuinely painless experience. More often than not, the anxiety is far worse than the event.

Dr. Mike Fietz is a small-animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. He received his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 2003 and has lived in Charlottesville since.

SPCA Spotlight

spca You can meet us at the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA, where we’re all available for adoption. 3355 Berkmar Dr. 973-5959,, noon-6pm, daily.

From left:

Elena: I’m a spunky young kitty who gets along with other cats (as long as they give me space when I’m playing). I can get a bit riled up, so I’d be best in a home with adults and older children who can read my body language.

Copely: Hi! I’m one hyper little dude who just loves to have fun. I enjoy running after toys and chasing balls. I’m a little unsure when people pet me at first, but with the right family, and with a little time and patience, I’ll open up.

Ryder: I’m the strong, silent type. I like having other cats around and will even give them a bath before we curl up together. If you take me home with you, all I’ll need is a cozy place to sleep or maybe even a comfy lap.

Moa: You don’t have to tell me twice—I know what a pretty girl I am! I prefer to be the only pet in the house-
hold and to be left alone during dinnertime. I’ve already mastered several commands, and I’d love to keep learning new tricks.

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