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How to Trim Your Dog's Nails: Everything You Need to Know

Regular trimming is essential for your pet’s health. If you’ve ever asked, how do I trim my dog’s nails — here’s how to make the process painless (for both of you).

By Stephen C. George
Aug 4, 2023 6:00 PM
How to trim dog nails
(Credit: Jus_01/Shutterstock)

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Click-clack, click-clack! It’s a sound that many of us may have heard whenever our dogs walk or run across any surface that isn’t carpeted. If you have hardwood, your first thought might be, I hope he didn’t scratch my floors! But instead of worrying about that, maybe your first thought should be, is it time to clip my dog’s nails?

The answer is probably yes. For many dogs, when their claws are so long that you can hear them tap-tap-tapping across any hard surface in the house, it’s often a sign that their nails are too long. And when they're left to grow, long nails can do more damage to your dog than they can to your floors.

If nails get too long, over time that can cause your dog's paws to splay. They can also force your dog to change the way they stand, walk or run, causing discomfort with every step. Long term, overgrown nails can lead to arthritis and tendonitis in their feet, legs and back.

No one wants to put their dog through that kind of pain. And why should you, when the solution is simple? Regular trimming of their nails will help keep your dog pain-free and healthy. With the right tools and the right approach, you can do it yourself in your own home — and save those floors from unnecessary wear and tear at the same time.

What Do I Need to Trim Dog Nails at Home? 

(Credit: Lidia_Efimova/Shutterstock)

First, you’ll need the right equipment, beginning with either nail clippers or grinders. Motorized grinders are not terribly expensive, but they do cost more than clippers, and not every dog will warm up to the buzzing sound or the sensation the grinder makes when you use it. But once you and your dog get used to it, a grinder can allow you to trim those nails back slowly and safely to a more manageable level.

Clippers, meanwhile, are cheaper and more commonly used. If you go slowly and carefully — always being sure not to clip too far and cause bleeding — nail clippers will work perfectly well on your dog.

Speaking of bleeding, it’s also handy to have styptic powder at the ready. This clotting agent can quickly and safely stop bleeding on any nicks you might accidentally inflict. You can find styptic powder for dogs online or at your local pet supply store.


Read More: Why Do Dogs Turn Their Heads to One Side?


How to Trim Dog Nails

(Credit: Visharo/Shutterstock)

If you’ve never trimmed your dog’s nails before, the American Kennel Club, veterinarians and groomers alike recommend starting slow and having plenty of treats on hand for positive reinforcement. As with any new process or routine, your dog will need time (and lots of tasty bribes) to adjust to and accept getting their nails trimmed by you.

This process has several steps and may take a few days or more depending on how your dog reacts. But your starting point shouldn’t involve any clipping at all. First, get them used to the sight and sound of the clipping tool you’re using. Simply show them the clipper (you can turn it on or make clipping noises with it) then give them a treat so they’ll start to associate the tool with something good.

As they become accustomed to the sight and sound of the clipper, you can touch it to their paw and each of their nails (but don't clip anything) and give them a treat. Repeat this step a few times.

If all goes well, your next steps will be to trim just a very little bit off the tip of one nail, and again reward them with praise and treats. Again, take it slowly — at this stage, many experts recommend clipping only one nail per day. If they react well, move on to a second nail and so on. Remember, even if their nails are very long, trim just a very small amount to start.

As you clip, be sure to isolate each toe with your hand, very gently moving any fur out of the way and exposing the nail you want to clip. Avoid clipping up past the curve of the nail, otherwise you’re likely to cut too far and cause bleeding.


 Read More: Journey Through the Mind of a Dog


Don’t Cut Them to the Quick

(Credit: VectorMine/Shutterstock)

As you learn more about dog nail care, one term you’ll come across a lot is the quick: The quick is a very sensitive part of your dog’s anatomy and contains blood vessels and nerves. Think of it like the cuticle of your own fingernails.

In a healthy nail, the quick typically doesn’t grow past the nail curve, but if a dog’s nails have been allowed to grow too long, the quick can extend almost to the tip — another reason to start slowly and only clip a very small bit of the nail tip.

As you gradually pare those overlong nails back, the quick should recede to a more manageable length, but it will take time and patience. And you should be prepared for the possibility that you might cut your dog to the quick accidentally. While not a serious injury, even just nicking the quick can be a painful and surprisingly bloody mishap — another good reason to have styptic powder (and maybe an old towel) handy.


Read More: How Dogs Perceive Time


How to Trim Black Dog Nails

(Credit: Barna Tanko/Shutterstock)

Luckily, the quick is generally easy to spot on dog with light-colored, translucent nails. Typically, it appears as a somewhat pink triangle of tissue extending from the base of the nail.

For dogs with black or dark nails, however, the quick is a little trickier to find, and one of the reasons why owners have always been cautioned to be careful trimming dark nails, or perhaps just to avoid it altogether and let an expert handle it.

Luckily, there are a couple of ways to help find the quick and therefore avoid cutting it. One simple way is to shine a bright flashlight on the nail. In all but the darkest nails, this can help you to see within the nail and identify the triangle of tissue that represents the quick.

Another method is to lift your dog’s paws and look at the underside of the nail. In most cases, you should be able to see a small groove between the harder outer nail and the soft tissue inside the nail, which is the quick. Not all owners will be able to spot this on all dogs.

One other way to avoid cutting the quick is, of course, clipping just a very small amount of nail very slowly and carefully. After each cut, look at the nail that you clipped. If there’s no bleeding and still see a light or white color at the center of the nail, it’s okay to trim a little bit more. Keep carefully trimming, shaving away until you see a black or pink color in the center of the nail — that’s the quick. It’s a painstaking process, but one of the safer ways to avoid injuring your dog.


Read More: Dogs Have Co-Evolved With Humans Like No Other Species


How Often to Trim Dog Nails      

(Credit: Jus_01/Shutterstock)

If your dog already has overlong nails, cutting them back to a healthier length may take a little time, trimming a little bit every few days until both the quick recedes and the outer nail no longer extends over the paw to touch the floor. Once you’ve tamed those canine claws, most experts recommend regular trimming at least once a month — perhaps a little more often if you start to hear that telltale click-clacking on your floors again.


Read More: 5 Dog Breeds That Have Changed Over the Past 100 Years


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