By Christina Boling
At the veterinary clinic where I work I am known as the “The Toenail Queen.” After the doctor has examined, diagnosed, and treated each dog, I always check for one thing: toenails.
What’s the big deal with dog nails, anyway? As busy pet owners, hearing nails “click click click” along the tile floor is sometimes the only reminder we have that our best friend needs a pedicure. And we oblige, because we know we’re supposed to have their nails trimmed. A pampered clean dog just looks better with short nails (and if your friend has some extra fur, a little trimming between the pads). But why do we bother?
The anatomy of a dog’s foot is extraordinary. As humans, we are “plantigrade,” which means when we walk, our toes and metatarsals, the five long bones in the center of the foot, are flat on the ground. But all dogs are “digitigrade,” which means their toes carry most of their weight. A dog’s metatarsals are not flat on the ground; instead, they bear weight differently.
Because of this difference in anatomy, a dog’s feet becomes very susceptible to injury when their nails grow too long. Imagine you had to walk on your tiptoes all the time. Now imagine doing this with nails that grow past those toes and hit the floor each time you set your foot down. Those longer nails end up pushing the dog’s foot into an unnatural position, which can lead to a number of medical problems. Overgrown nails result in a higher rate of injury, both in the foot and wrist, arthritis, and torn or broken toenails (one of the most common emergencies we handle at my clinic). These problems are especially important to remedy in older dogs that may already be struggling with arthritis and aching joints.
So what can be done about this? And how often should you be clipping your dog’s nails anyway?
First, determine whether your dog’s nails might be too long. If you hear them clicking around as they walk on a hard surface, that’s a decent indicator that it may be time for a trip to the groomer or a vet clinic for a trim. But some dogs, like pugs and Boston Terriers, have nails that grow into their pads instead of down toward the floor, which is why it’s important to actually examine your dog’s feet and make sure their nails are a good length.
If your dog doesn’t like having his nails trimmed, it may be best to get a groomer or veterinarian to help you. Some dogs do need to be sedated for nail trims, but these dogs are usually the exception. An experienced groomer or veterinarian should be able to make your dog feel at least a little more comfortable about having someone fuss with their feet.
If you’re feeling brave and you’d like to give trimming your dog’s nails a try without the help of a professional, that’s fine too! Please be careful though. I personally prefer using a Dremel ( yes, the kind from Home Depot). Use the sanding band attachment that comes with the Dremel to grind away the nail until it’s an appropriate length. Most dogs are calmer for dremeling than they are for nail trimming with clippers because clippers tend to squeeze the dog’s nail, whereas Dremels take off very small amounts of nail at a time until you get to a point where it is safe to stop. Dremeling also makes it much easier to see the quick: the cuticle full of blood and nerves at the center of the nail.
Regardless of what tool you use, it’s a good idea to have some styptic powder on hand to stop bleeding in case you cut too far. As for how often: your dog’s toenail mileage may vary, but I try to trim my own dog’s nails at least once every two weeks. This keeps them short and makes the pedicure sessions shorter and less traumatic. My dogs are all so used to having their nails cut now that they just relax on the floor while I work on their feet!