How To Trim Dog Nails: A Step-By-Step Guide

We all know that nail trimming is an essential part of a trip to the groomer. A dog with long nails can be especially painful for a dog owner's legs... and their furniture. However, maintaining nail health is extremely important for many reasons that pet parents may not be aware of. In fact, if your dog's nails are not properly maintained, it can warrant a scary trip to the vet. In this article, we will cover the importance of keeping up with your dog's nails and exactly how you can help from the comfort of your home. Let's get started!

how to trim dog nails

Dog Nail Trimming: Why It's So Important

First and foremost, no doting pet owner can bear the idea of their beloved companion being in pain. It's a known fact that dogs are notorious for hiding when they are in pain, making it difficult for an owner to recognize it and take action. The truth is, long, overgrown nails can cause a substantial amount of agony and distress, even if your dog isn't actively acting like it is affecting them.

Experts make the comparison of having a hangnail or long nails that bend. We likely don't have to tell you how painful that is. It's a similar feeling for dogs. When a dog has long nails, even walking can cause a significant amount of uncomfortable pressure on toes, thus resulting in an incredibly sore and tender nail bed. As you can imagine, walking on hard surfaces such as the sidewalk or pavement only adds to the amount of pressure and, in turn, stress on the foot. Furthermore, in severe cases, the constant pressure and distress can lead to inflammation, thus causing arthritis of the foot. Long nails can also lead to issues with posture alignment and nerve damage.

Finally, dogs who spend a fair amount of time outdoors on gravel or paved surfaces often require less nail maintenance as the natural elements help to keep their nails at a healthy length. However, dogs that are primarily indoors and elderly dogs who have limited mobility will require regular nail trims in order to make sure additional associated issues don't arise.

Paw Pad & Dewclaw Health: The Painful Reality

Additionally, nails that are overgrown and not managed appropriately can result in the nail curling and growing into the paw pad. Not only is this incredibly painful, but if the nails cause the paw pad to tear or split, an infection can quickly develop. The dewclaw (or thumbnail) is more prone to overgrowth since they don’t get worn down walking or may be forgotten during nail trimming. Severe cases of nail overgrowth, particularly when an infection occurs, will have to be medically treated by a veterinarian.

Another concern with long nails is the potential for breakage and splintering if they get caught on something. This is very painful and also necessitates a trip to the veterinarian. Your pet may need to be sedated to trim the nail back and require pain medications and antibiotics.  

By now, you're likely already convinced that nail health is something that cannot be overlooked. After all, a simple nail trim can make a huge difference in your dog's day to day life. The best news? It's a lot easier to do than you may think.

Dog Nail Clippers: What To Look For

So, where should you begin in terms of clipping dog nails? Ensuring that you have the best nail clippers that fit your dog's needs and your comfort level is key. The most common type is the “scissor” style nail trimmers. Many pet owners agree that these are the easiest form of clippers available. However, there are a few other tips that you will want to be aware of. 

  1. "Scissor" nail trimmers may be the easiest, but not the most efficient for your specific dog.
  2. Nail clippers designed for small dog breeds are the best for controlling the length of the nail and how short you end up cutting them. (Go slowly!)
  3. Nail clippers designed for large dogs should strictly be used for large breeds only.
  4. Instead of continuing to cut in order to even out edges, use a nail file. This will help get rid of any hangnails, jagged edges, and help prevent cutting too much.
  5. Keep your trimmers sharp! Dull scissor trimmers can result in having to use too much pressure to cut the nail and result in pain for Fido.
  6. If you decide to use an electric nail grinder, make sure that your tools are charged. (More on nail grinders in a minute)
  7. Additionally, if you choose to use a nail grinder, make sure that the bits and tips are replaced regularly.

    best dog nail clippers

    How to Trim Dog Nails: Step-By-Step Instructions

    Now that you've found your perfect nail trimmer, let's cover how exactly to maintain your dog's nails at home.

    1. Preparation is Paramount!

    First, be prepared. It is essential that you know exactly how your tools work, this includes where and how the blade slides and moves. Without this knowledge, you won't be able to fully ensure that you are cutting the nail properly and in the correct place. Additionally, if you have any questions or uncertainties with the tool, be sure to look up the answers prior to using the product on your dog's nails. Cutting nails is something that should never be a 'learn as you go' task.

    Prepare Fido

    Furthermore, it is extremely important to allow your dog to investigate the tool prior to using it. Many dogs are sensitive when it comes to their feet being touched. As you can imagine, grabbing your dog's foot and then bringing a foreign object into their proximity is a recipe for disaster.

    It’s also important to touch your dog’s feet often to get them used to having them held and manipulated. This is especially vital for young puppies in order to assure less stressful nail trimming in the future.  

    2. Treats are Helpful

    Next, we recommend having treats on hand. Nail trimming is typically not a task that dogs or their owners look forward to. Distracting your dog with treats can help make the process safe and quick. Additionally, as much as you likely want to get it all over with as soon as possible, it is important to give your dog a break if they need it. Nail trimming should be a fairly regular event. The last thing you want is to have your dog running away at the sight of the clippers.

    cbd dog treats

    3. Firm Grip

    The next step in nail trimming is having a firm grip on their paw and pushing back any hair that is in the way of the nail. You'll need to make sure that you are able to see exactly where you will be cutting. It is also important to restrain your pet’s body if they are trying to wiggle or move. It is often easier to have another person hold the pet, so you can focus on holding the paw and trimming the nails. 

    It is important for pet owners to realize that if the dog's nails are overgrown, their paw will likely be sore and tender. Stay alert and aware of your dog's behavior when you take their paw in your hand. If they yelp, be more gentle. However, your grip should be firm enough that their paw does not accidentally slip one direction or the other during the cutting process.

    4. Dogs Nails Are Different Than Our Nails

    Next, it is necessary for dog owners to recognize that our nails are very different from our dog's nails and must be cut accordingly. Most importantly, you should never put the dog’s entire nail in the clipper or cut the entire nail. The nail should be cut from underneath and at a 45-degree angle.

    Now, carefully place the opening of the nail clippers over the end of the white nail. It is imperative that you only cut in the white nail area. Again, if you have any questions about this, it is crucial that you get an accurate answer before cutting the dog's nails. You can have your veterinarian demonstrate how to cut nails or can find online videos tutorials.  Cutting past the white nail area means that you are cutting in the pink area of the nail (also known as the “quick”). The pink area of the nail is where blood vessels are located. Cutting into this area will be incredibly painful and can cause a substantial amount of bleeding. Trust us, you'll want to avoid this at all costs. 

    5. Making a Clean Cut

    Finally, hold the paw steady and make a clean, smooth cut by gently squeezing on the handle of the nail trimmer. It is important to have an educated idea of how tightly you will need to squeeze in order to get a clean-cut, but not inadvertently harm your pup's tender paw.

    Once you make the cut you may notice a jagged edge that didn't fully come off with the scissors. If this is the case, simply use a nail file to shave down the remaining portion. Avoid pulling it off with your fingers as this can cause tearing or harm to the nail. Additionally, if your dog is active, this portion will likely fall off on its own.

    how to trim dog nails

    Nail Trimming: How Often?

    The frequency of the nail trimming will ultimately depend on how active the dog is and how much their nails get naturally manicured by the pavement or sidewalk. With that being said, most pet parents end up trimming their dog's nails every three to six weeks.

    Dog Nail Grinder

    Now, we completely understand that the idea of cutting your dog's nails may be a bit nerve-racking at first. If this is the case, you may want to consider purchasing a nail grinder.

    A nail grinder is a safer and slower tool that pet parents can utilize to trim long nails. The major advantage to using a nail grinder is that it avoids the possibility of accidentally cutting the  “quick” of the nail. The major disadvantage to using a nail grinder is that many dogs don't like the sound or sensation. Additionally, using a nail grinder can also take longer and cause the dog to become impatient and squirm. Ultimately, it is the choice of the pet owner, but it's nice to know that there are options in the matter.

    The Best Dog Nail Grinder: What To Look For

    If you decide that you want to start out with a nail grinder instead of nail scissors, there are a few important things to keep in mind.

    1. Power & Speed Features

    First, you want to make sure that the nail grinder you choose has different speed and power options. A grinder that operates too slowly will not be able to trim the nails effectively or completely. On the other hand, having a nail grinder that is too powerful can scare your pup. A grinder that has options is key.

    2. Noise

    Next, avoid choosing a grinder that has a loud or high-pitched sound. In general, nail grinders are typically pretty noisy. Therefore, avoiding any excess commotion is essential in keeping your dog calm and comfortable.

    3. Easy to Use

    Finally, we've covered that cutting your dog's nails in any capacity can be a bit of a hassle at first. Therefore, we encourage our readers to make sure they take an extra few steps in making the process easier on themselves. For instance, many dog nail grinders include cords that plug into the wall. However, there are also cordless options available that will add to the flexibility component and allow you to easily file around your dog’s nails.

    Precautions of Dog Nail Trimming  

    There are a few important precautions that pet owners should be aware of before cutting their dog's nails.

    The "Quick"

    First, as we previously mentioned, the "quick" is the living part of the nail. It is the area of the nail that contains blood vessels and nerve endings. Inadvertently cutting the quick will often result in a bleeding toenail and a substantial amount of pain.

    Dark Nails 

    Additionally, the color of your dog will also affect the color of their nails, which can increase the difficulty of determining where the "white nail" ends. For instance, many black and dark brown dogs will have black nails. Black dog nails can prove to be incredibly tricky and often result in the owner accidentally cutting the nail too short.

    Nail Shape 

    Finally, pet owners can ensure that they are cutting the nails appropriately simply by paying attention to the shape of the nail. The underside of the nail should form a triangular area. Above all, go slowly. You can always cut more of the nail, but there is no going back if too much is cut off.

    how to trim dog nails precautions

    What to Do if You Cut Nails Too Short

    The main thing that most pet owners fear when cutting their dog's nails is what happens if you cut too much. First, we urge our readers to really try to avoid this. Always cut the minimum off and then determine if you need to cut more. However, we know that accidents happen. Here's what to have on hand in case you cut your dog's nails too short.

    1. Styptic Powder

    Professional groomers and veterinarians commonly use a substance called styptic powder to help stop bleeding from nails, minor cuts, and scratches. Styptic powder not only stops bleeding but also serves as an antiseptic, helping to prevent infections and making it safe to use. Additionally, some styptic powders may contain an ingredient called benzocaine which serves as an anesthetic and helps to reduce pain. (Again, cutting into the "quick" will not only cause bleeding, but also a significant amount of pain) Pet owners can use their fingers, a cotton ball or q-tip to apply the styptic powder to their dog's paw pad and toenail in order to help stop the bleeding as well as reduce the immediate pain.

    2. Styptic Pencil

    Additionally, styptic pencils are often used to apply the exact amount of powder to the dog's nail, cut, or scratch. While styptic pencils may prove to be an easier method of applying the powder, we want to warn our readers that the pencils may cause an initial stinging sensation. The main ingredient in the pencil is anhydrous aluminum sulfate, which constricts the blood vessels to stop the bleeding. Keeping that in mind, styptic pencils may not be your best bet if your dog is already nervous about having their nails cut.

    styptic pencil

    3. Bar of Soap

    If you do not have styptic powder in your home, you can use a fragrance-free bar of soap. Simply hold the bar against the toenail for a few minutes and allow the blood to clot.

    4. Cornstarch

    Speaking of things you likely have in your home, cornstarch is also an effective way to stop toenail bleeding if you cut the nail too short. Pet owners can sprinkle cornstarch on a cotton ball or paper towel and hold it against the end of the nail for a few minutes. The cornstarch and pressure will allow the blood to clot and cause the bleeding to stop. Flour and baking soda can also be used as a clotting agent. 

    5. Band-aid

    Finally, if you have nothing else on hand you can use a band-aid or bandage material to help control the bleeding. However, please know that this is merely a temporary solution. It  stops the bleeding by applying pressure.  If the bleeding continues it will be necessary to purchase one of the aforementioned tools in order to clot the blood. In severe cases, veterinary treatment may be necessary.

    CBD Treats: A Great Addition for Nail Trimming

    In more cases than not, the first handful of times you trim your dog's nails won't be easy. Even the sweetest, most easy-going dogs have been known to nip or show signs of aggression during this new, monthly activity. Pet parents may find themselves wondering what they can do in order to make the task easier for all parties involved. Luckily, we have a solution. We recommend our Calming CBD dog treats.

    Recommended Dosage:

    • Dogs under 10lbs: 1treat daily (5 mg)
    • 10-25lbs: 2 treats daily (10 mg)
    • 26-50lbs: 3 treats daily (15 mg)
    • Over 50lbs: 4 treats daily (20 mg)

    * Approximately 20 treats per bag

    * THC-Free

    How to Trim Dogs Nails: The Bottom Line

    happy healthy dog with trimmed nails

    At the end of the day, we know that you want the very best for your four-legged companion and you'll go to great lengths in order to ensure that Fido is happy and healthy. With that being said, so many pet owners don't fully understand the importance of something as seemingly simple as nail maintenance. We hope this article helped shed light on the often overlooked topic of nail trimming. It's a task that all pet owners should implement into their dog's routine. If you do not feel comfortable trimming them at home, you can always bring them to your local groomer or veterinary office to have them done professionally. 

    Perhaps the most important thing that a pet parent can do is stay alert. Knowing your dog's "normal" behavior is the first step in being able to recognize when something is off. Take note of whether your dog is shifting their weight in an effort to relieve pressure in the paw pads. Make sure to always pay close attention to their thumbnails (the dewclaws) as they tend to grow faster. And always, always, ask questions when you have them. They can truly make a world of difference for (wo)man's best friend.


    Jennifer Dempsey, DVM

    Dr. Jennifer Dempsey is a small animal veterinarian and freelance medical writer. She received her Bachelor of Science from the University of Central Florida and her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Florida (Go Gators!) 

    She has resided in the Orlando area since graduation and has gained years of experience helping cats and dogs live happier and longer lives. As a general practitioner, she has found client education to be one of the most important aspects of day to day life in veterinary medicine.  

    Medical writing has helped her to connect with a larger audience and make sure that pet owners are fully aware of their loved one’s medical condition.  She currently shares her home with two rescued mixed breed dogs named Primo and Morgan.

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