As a rule of thumb, a dog's nails should be trimmed when they touch the ground. For leisurely living dogs, that might mean weekly pedicures, while urban pooches who stalk rough city sidewalks might never need their nails cut at all (except their dewclaws, if they've got ‘em).
There are two basic styles of nail clippers for dogs: a scissors type and a guillotine type. They work equally well, so choose the design you're most comfortable with. Be sure to buy the correct size for your dog, too—for example, you don't want to use huge clippers on a tiny toy dog.
If your dog finds both kinds of clippers intolerable, the alternative is to use a nail grinder, an electric tool that sands nails down. These offer great control, but take more time than clippers, and some people (and dogs) find the sounds and vibrations they produce unpleasant.
It's a good idea to get your dog used to having her feet touched before you attempt a nail trim—ideally, this should start when she's a pup. If you have a touchy pooch, it might take a few weeks of regular paw massaging before she's comfortable enough with the sensations to allow you to work with her nails. If it's your first go at this, just clip one or two nails a day and immediately follow up with treats or a session of her favorite game.
Before beginning a pup pedicure, tire your dog out with some vigorous exercise and enlist an assistant to help you hold her. One you've assembled your gear—your cutting device of choice, a bunch of treats and some styptic powder in case of accidents (more on that later)—you're ready to begin.
Just a Trim, Please
Take your dog's toe and hold it firmly, but gently. Lavishing her with calm praise and tasty little nibbles—and holding your trimmer so that you're cutting the nail from top to bottom, not side to side—insert a very small length of nail through the trimmer's opening. Avoid nipping the quick, which is the pink area within each nail that contains nerves and blood vessels. Don't trim at a blunt angle—try to maintain the existing curvature of the nail. Cut a little bit of nail with each pass until you can see the beginning of a circle—still nail-colored—appear on the cut surface. The circle indicates that you are nearing the quick, so it's time to stop that nail and move on to the next.
Accidents Can Happen
If you do hit the quick, your dog will probably yelp and might even struggle. This is a good time to end the session—but not before applying styptic powder to the bleeding nail tip. Apply a little bit of pressure as you press the powder into the wound to make sure it sticks. If bleeding continues for more than a few minutes, please alert your veterinarian, who can check your dog for clotting disorders.
Some dogs show fearful or aggressive behavior when faced with nail trimming. Watch carefully for signs of distress such as panting, drooling, trembling, whining, freezing, cowering, tail-tucking, growling, snarling or snapping. Even with the most patient and gradual of introductions, there are dogs who seem unable to get over their terror. If your dog falls into this category, do not force him to submit. See if his veterinarian or a professional groomer has better luck getting the job done—if not, it's a good idea to make an appointment with a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB), a veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) or a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) to work on the underlying issues at hand.
The ASPCA Virtual Pet Behaviorist specializes in the resolution and management of pet behavior problems only. Please do not submit questions about medical problems here. Only licensed veterinarians can diagnose medical conditions. If you think that your pet is sick, injured or experiencing any kind of physical distress, please contact his veterinarian immediately. A delay in seeking proper veterinary care may worsen your pet's condition and put his life at risk.
If you are concerned about the cost of veterinary care, please read our resources on finding financial help.
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