How to Trim Overgrown Dog Nails

Wolves wander through forests, swim in rivers, and run across prairies throughout their daily lives. In contrast, our household dogs sleep on sofas, walk around well-paved sidewalks, and relax on well-maintained lawns. Yes, dogs may have it easier than their ancestral cousins, but that life of leisure also means their nails aren't naturally sanded down from digging and running on rocky hills like a wolves' claws, according to Wolf Center. As a result, our pooch friends need a little helping hand to trim down their nails before they become problematically long.

Claw cutting at the dog - grooming
If your dog's nails are too long, it can hurt them.
credit: K_Thalhofer/iStock/GettyImages

Problems with long toe nails

It's easy to fall behind on trimming your dog's nails, especially if he hates having them cut, but it's also important to stay on top of. Whereas it doesn't matter much if a human fails to cut their own nails, when a dog's nails are too long it can cause pain every time the pup's nail touches a hard surface such as the sidewalk or kitchen floor. That's because the nail pushes back into the nail bed, which then puts pressure on the toe joint or causes the toe to twist to one side, according to Dogs Naturally.

While pain is obviously a problem, it's not the only negative consequence of not trimming your dog's nails. As stated earlier, wild dogs and wolves have their nails worn down naturally, meaning their short toenails only normally touch the ground while walking if they are climbing a hill. Because of this, dogs instinctively adjust their body posture when they feel their toenails touch the ground and lean forward over their forelimbs as though they are going to climb a mountain. Unfortunately, since there is no real hill, if a dog does this, then he has to adjust his hind limbs in order to avoid falling on his face, leaving his paws pulled uncomfortably close together.

This awkward posture doesn't just make the dog look less comfortable, it also results in overuse of certain muscles and joints, which can result in serious health problems as the dog gets older. In fact, it can make it harder for the dog to get in and out of cars, climb stairs, or even stand up. Finally, on a more short-term basis, Pet Carrier Verdict points out that if a dog's nails are too long, she may also cut herself while scratching. Trimming your dog's nails can prevent a lot of pain both in the immediate and long-term future.

Timetables for trimming dogs' nails

Unfortunately, if your dog's nails are too long, surgery is the only immediate option for getting them back to a healthy length. This is usually only advisable when they are so long that the dog cannot walk comfortably, particularly if the nails are pointing into the paws. In most cases where the nails are too long, make plan to cut the nails once a week for a month or two until they are a proper length. That's because inside of a dog's nail is something called "the quick," which is a meaty, soft cuticle filled with blood vessels and nerves that continues to grow as the nail grows.

The quick is very sensitive and very easy to accidentally cut if you're not paying attention. If you cut the quick and cause your pup pain, you might make her scared to get her nails trimmed, which will make it difficult to stay on top of so the nails don't get overgrown again. When you cut the dog's nails when they are too long, in order to avoid cutting the quick you'll need to cut a little bit of nail and then wait a week for the quick to recede before cutting off a little bit more. You'll need to do this week after week until the nails are the proper length.

If your dog's nails must be cut off quickly, Pet Helpful says a vet can sedate or anesthetize your dog and cut the nails way back all at once. When the nails are trimmed this way, the veterinarian will expose, trim, and cauterize the quick in order to reduce bleeding. Because the quick is actually cut off this way, rather than letting it gently recede back through weekly nail trims, your dog will have some pain after the procedure.

Trimming your dog's nails

First collect your supplies, which should include:

  • Lots of yummy treats
  • Septic powder or cornstarch packed tightly in a small container
  • Small, sharp, scissor-style clippers (if you have a large dog, you'll need slightly larger clippers)
  • An emery board or electric dog nail grinder

Next, gently take your pup's paws without squeezing, keeping in mind that his paw may be extra sensitive if his nails are too long. Before cutting, it is critical you identify where the quick is on the nail so you do not cut into it. If your dog has light nails, you might be able to see the quick through the nail, especially if you shine a light through it.

If you can't easily see the quick, then you'll need to act cautiously and cut conservatively in order to avoid hitting it. Look for the hollow area at the tip of the dogs nails and cut this area only. When you see a gray, gummy substance surrounded by a white circle when looking at a trimmed nail, Animal Behavior College explains that you're looking at the bottom of the quick. Do not cut past this point.

Tips for nail clipping

Always be gentle and kind to your pup when cutting his nails, giving him a treat every time you snip if he's anxious. Start with the back paws because these are less sensitive than the front and use your fingers to separate the toes, never squeezing the paw since this hurts him. Act calmly (even if you're nervous) to keep him calm, use positive reinforcement when he's calm, and avoid negative reinforcement. When a nail breaks or frays, use the emery board or pet nail grinder to smooth it out, circling around the nail like you're sharpening a pencil to avoid hitting the quick.

If you do cut your pup's quick, give her extra treats and quickly but calmly apply the cornstarch or septic powder to the nail to stop the bleeding. You want to do everything you can for the purposes of desensitizing your dog to the nail clipping process in order to avoid making her scared of the process so it will be easier for you both in the future.

Aside from simply avoiding the quick, also learn how to avoid pinching it. This means using sharp, small, scissor-type clippers as dull or guillotine-style clippers can crush the nail and pinch the quick and smaller scissors make it less likely you'll accidentally cut too much nail. Cut the nails at a parallel angle, which means you can cut as much of the nail as possible without hitting the quick. If you can't stay calm or avoid cutting the quick, find a good groomer or veterinarian and bring your dog in on a regular basis in order to keep his nails a healthy length.

Identifying proper toenail length

Once your dog's nails are the right length, you should be cutting them once every week to two weeks to maintain the proper length. But how can you tell they're the right length and not too long? Well, long nails will split, become dry, and touch the ground. Ideally, a healthy nail should be too short to touch flat ground, but long enough to touch the ground if the dog is on a hill, just like healthy nails on a wild dog or wolf.