It’s 99% preparation, 1% perspiration. And maybe a little drool!
Trimming nails is not as difficult as people imagine. If you make a mistake, it’s not the end of the world. I have never seen a dog or cat hemorrhage to death from a mis-cut nail. In fact, trimming nails too short seems to be more traumatic for the trimmer than the trim-ee.
A few general points before starting:
• Try to get your pets used to having their feet handled when they are young. For puppies, have them sit quietly in your lap as you play with their toes, examine their nails, feel between the pads, left the feet, turn the foot over, and generally get intimate with every bit of foot anatomy. They will soon find this procedure boring and allow you to do it without getting stressed.
• Get your kitten used to lying quietly on his back on your lap while you play with feet, extend the claws and press on the pads. As with puppies, this is best done when the kitten is sleepy, rather than when he wants to play “attack the hand that feeds me”.
• Whether you are starting a puppy or kitten on the road to being a well-behaved trimming victim, start slowly. Do one foot at a time, maybe. A few toes. Both front feet. Whatever you feel comfortable with.
• Try not to make it a big production of noise and over-restraint. Stay cool, calm and collected.
• Be mentally prepared to make a mistake, and know what you are going to do in the event that you “hit the quick”.
• Invest in some kind of styptic or coagulant powder to use when you hit the quick, and have it open and ready whenever you trim nails. This stuff comes in many brands, usually with descriptively gory names like “Clotisol” and “Kwik Stop”. You may be able to find silver nitrate sticks, though these tend to cause a lot more stinging than the powders. More about how and when to use these products on the Nail Trimming Disasters page.
• Do not make a big deal out of the event if you do nick the quick. The dog or puppy will likely wince or yelp, but the discomfort will be short-lived and he will forget about it in a few seconds. If you make a huge deal of it and fuss over him like you’ve just amputated his leg, he will believe it is a big deal and start to react and carry on. Not what you want!
Instead of, “Oh my heavens, I’m SO SORRY Marvin, what a poor puppy, you POOR THING! Mommy is SO BAD! Do you need a transfusion?” you want to convey, “Whoops, sorry pup, life happens, let me get some powder on that …” and continue on like nothing of import occurred. Afterward you have my permission to pour yourself a nice big glass of merlot and have a soothing soak in the tub. Just don’t let the puppy know a “bad thing” happened.
• If your puppy struggles for no reason (you haven’t just hurt him), try not to let go and give up. Most puppies will test your resolve. If they can squirm and whine and make you let go, they have won. You are rewarding the naught behavior (whining, pulling away) by letting go of the dog and giving him his way. He will remember this for a looooong time, and put up a fuss every time thereafter. Don’t let this start! If you can hang on for 10-20 seconds (the average tantrum duration) until he calms down, you will have won. At that point I usually make the symbolic gesture of at least trying to trim another nail before putting the foot down and praising the puppy grandly for such good behavior.
• Giving food rewards while trimming nails may be counter-productive. It does distract the dog, but also makes them more excited and squirmy, increasing the risk of an accident.
Let’s get familiar with some landmarks. You can’t just get in there chopping away willy-nilly or you will cause a problem.
Everyone who has ever contemplated trimming nails is familiar with the term “the quick”. It’s not really anything mysterious. The quick is just the center of the nail where the nerves sit and where the blood supply for the nail cells lies. We call it a “vascular” structure, meaning that it has lots of blood vessels.
Not surprisingly, when you cut into a structure with nerves and blood vessels, it hurts and bleeds. We like to avoid doing this as much as possible, but everyone hits the quick once in a while unless they are leaving the nails long or doing a tip trim. You will be trimming 18 or more nails every 4 weeks for your dog or cat’s life. Call it 2,500 nails. Chances are good (on a dog) that at least once you will go a little short. Cats are easier, and most people can avoid hitting the quick (ever) if the cat is somewhat cooperative.
Cats are easier because the nails are transparent and they have a more distinct shape for landmarks. The initial photos here are of cat nails, so I can point out landmarks and so you can see where the quick is. Dogs with clear or white nails also have visible quicks. It’s the black and brown-nailed dogs that present the problem (but we’ll help you with that, too).
So, go ahead and grab the foot and pull any hair back from the nail. On clear nails, you can see a pink triangle – that’s the quick. Make your cut right outside the point of the triangle. On dark clawed beasts, find the point on the nail that it begins to curve downward. Make your cut just forward of the downward curve. After you make your cut, you want to see a jelly-like center on the trimmed nail. Dry, white, crusty nail means you have just trimmed the tips. If this happens, make another cut a bit farther up the nail.
Okay. You have been getting your dog used to having his feet handled, you know where to cut the nails, and you have trimmed a few. You are feeling pretty good. Successful. Confident. This nail trimming stuff ain’t so bad. Then disaster strikes. You trim a nail too short. Your dog doesn’t react much, but you see the blood welling up on the nail. Your heart begins to hammer. Have you just killed your dog? Will his toe get infected? Will he limp? Will he hate you forever? Why did you choose this week to quit smoking?
Relax. He will be fine, and so will you. Especially if you are reading this ahead of time instead of holding your bleeding dog in your lap in front of the computer, which would be a little weird. There are a couple of things to remember that will make you feel better.
• Nothing bleeds forever.
• Dogs are very forgiving.
• A little bribery goes a long way, especially if it involves meat.
How to Stop Nail Bleeding
1. Stay calm. If you lose it, the dog will get excited, his blood pressure will go up, you won’t be able to control him, and he will track little spots of blood all over the kitchen floor. Much tidier to stay calm.
2. If you read the first nail trimming page, the one on PREPARATION, you will have your little bottle of coagulant powder open on the floor or table beside you, ready to go. If you missed that bit, go back and read it.
3. Hold the dog’s foot up where you can see the end of the nail. Press a tissue on the end of the nail with one hand (usually the non-dominant hand) while obtaining a healthy pinch of powder with the other. In one graceful move roll the tissue off the exposed quick and press the pinch of powder directly on the bleeding bit. If you can’t be graceful, at least be swift.
4. Hold it on there for a few seconds, pressing firmly but not mashing it. Take a quick peek to make sure you’ve got the bleeding part all covered, then hold again. Get another pinch and apply again if you need to. if you get good coverage and aren’t miserly with the powder, one shot should do you. Hold it for 20-30 seconds.
5. That should be it. Let the dog have the foot back, and continue with the rest of the nails. When you are done, take another look at the bleeding nail just to make sure it didn’t start up again. If it does, just apply more powder.
6. Most coagulant failures are caused by being too shy about pressing the stuff into the blood. You can’t just sprinkle the stuff on like fairy dust; you need to hold and press it on so it absorbs the blood at the end of the quick and helps it clot.
7. If you are using silver nitrate sticks, follow the same procedure but roll the tip over the bleeding part of the quick. The blood liquefies the chemical on the end of the stick, which then causes the clotting. This stuff stings quite a lot, so prepare for an objection. It also stains skin (yours) brown. If this happens the skin must be removed. (Seriously. I generally use an emery board to “rub out” silver nitrate stains. They don’t wash out.) It will also stain flooring and countertops.