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How To Trim Toenails In Seven Not-So-Simple Steps

By Dr. Patty Khuly

Toenail trimming

Let me be brazenly honest: The toenail trim is the bane of this veterinarian’s existence. It’s the one procedure all my patients almost uniformly abhor. And, in turn, it’s the one they almost universally abhor me for. But it doesn’t have to be that way!

For starters, the toenail trim, as a procedure, really shouldn’t be in my purview as a healthcare provider. After all, we’re talking about a simple mechanical action every pet owner can very easily learn to do in a matter of minutes – not brain surgery! Yet the fact that so many people prefer to delegate the task than DIY it means I get stuck with the dreaded claw detail.

Which is kinda sad seeing as …

  • Pets are really freaky about their paws.
    There’s no understating this. You know how we humans have a way of developing needle phobias? Dogs and cats (but especially dogs) have a thing about their claws, instead. So the only way to mitigate this natural instinct is to socialize them to the procedure early on or condition them to it slowly. Really slowly.
  • It’s an important maintenance issue.
    Trimming toenails is something that should be undertaken on a weekly basis to keep toenails under control. And who’s going to take the pet to the vet every week just for a toenail trim?

    Sure, some pets don’t need it if their conformation and exercise habits mean enough scuffing and buffing, but others have no choice. In these pedicure-needy cases, nail trimming reduces injuries like claw and toe fractures, prevents ingrown curved nails (ouch!), and minimizes orthopedic problems that can result from poor claw positioning.

    Even a few weeks without a simple trim can mean LOTS of problems for some of my patients.
  • Acclimating pets (and their humans) is really not so hard.
    Puppy and kitten nail trim training is almost always super-easy! It’s best undertaken by providing positive stimulus while manipulating feet and clipping the claws. Because pediatric claws are especially easy to trim, an owner who complies with directions and clips claws weekly can adapt easily to the procedure and fall into the habit with a minimum of human stress.

    What ends up happening, however, can mostly be chalked up to laziness. Either a) pet owners aren’t informed by their veterinarians that they fail to learn this procedure at their own peril, or b) pet owners aren’t doing their part. I’ve seen both happen. (I’ve been the guilty party more than once, I’ll confess.)

But what’s the right way to go about it, you ask? Here are my seven not-so-simple steps to getting the toenail trim thing down once and for all:

#1 Start young.

Both puppies and kittens have crucial socialization windows during which they are most amenable to experiencing new things with a minimum of stress. For pups it’s generally considered to be between four and twelve weeks, while for kittens, two to seven weeks is widely considered the ideal timeframe.

This is the ideal time to start teaching your pet that the nail trim is a fun and easy part of everyday life and not the evil event that brings blood and tears. (Because when they hate the nail trim they jerk and movement in the presence of a trimmer = blood!)

#2 Play with paws.

Even if you don’t have the luxury of starting early, playing with paws desensitizes pets –– young and old, alike –– to the pleasures of the everyday foot massage.

Go ahead, try it! At first she’ll run away but when you ply her with lots of treats as you caress, most pets will acclimate quickly to your podiatric advances. Just be sure to use low-calorie treats like Cheerios, peas, and air-popped popcorn, please! Some pets take lots and lots of time before they’ll allow even this basic ministration. But you MUST take the time to do this right lest you lose ground when you take the next step:

#3 Watch a YouTube video or get a personal demonstration.

It’s really important you feel somewhat confident you know what you’re doing. Here’s Dr. Erik Srunck offering an even more basic demonstration for dogs. Good stuff!

Or at your next visit, ask your friendly neighborhood veterinary technician for a demonstration on one of the clinic’s easy-going residents. (Most hospitals have one or two of these floating about.)

#4 Select the right tool for your pet.

Here’s where you can look into the possibility of using some tools over others. I tend to prefer the basic scissor-style clippers over the guillotine style. I also like the Dremel drill type but I’ve found it easier to get pets acclimated to simple clippers (unless they’re very young when they’re first exposed to the rotary drill-style tool).

#5 Start one claw at a time.

How do you eat an elephant? One mouthful at a time. Which is kind of animal welfare unfriendly (not to mention gross), but it’s totally apt here, nonetheless.

That’s because the best way to trim claws is to make it as easy and stress-free as possible. And when you trim just one claw at each sitting, you’re less likely to stress your pet and set your efforts back. I recommend no more than one claw a week for very stressed pets and once a day for puppies and kittens. You can always increase the frequency over time.

Remember, pets can become sensitized or desensitized to stresses. If you do too much too soon you’ll feed the fear (sensitize him) instead of assuage it (desensitize him). Our goal is to make this tolerable –– if not downright fun! –– by letting our pets know that nothing bad happens when we trim toenails. In fact, good things like treats and pettings are their just reward!

#6 Take care how you employ professional help.

Some groomers and hospitals can ruin all your progress by making the toenail trim an exercise in what I call “bruticaine,” in which they apply excessive force to get the job done. Just remember: This is NOT an emergency procedure! It is rarely imperative to have the claws trimmed

If, however, a claw is fractured or a claw ingrown, please ask for anesthesia or heavy sedation on behalf of your toenail trim-challenged pet. It’s my opinion that there is zero reason to subject a pet to so much stress and pain, however fleeting it may seem to be.

#7 Setbacks happen.

Because sometimes you’ll clip too close. Or your groomer will have forgotten it’s your preference to cut the claws at home. At which point you simply start the process over.

So here’s where I get to ask: Do you have any tips you’d like to disclose? Disagree with my approach? Consider the claw trim a medical procedure best relegated to the ranks of the medically trained? Speak up! Communal wisdom is always welcome here!

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