How to do a confident nail trim on dogs and cats!

Let’s face it: nail trims are scary!

Credit for the image goes to Cornell University Animal Health Diagnostic Center.
Credit for the image goes to Cornell University Animal Health Diagnostic Center.

A few days ago, I answered a question from someone who was frightened to try nail trims.  He  was afraid he would nip the quick.  He wanted to know if there was a sure way to perform a nail trim without  hurting his dog. This is a big concern for owners who want to do a nail trim on dogs, or a nail trim on cats.  They just don’t want to hurt their pets.

Unfortunately, there is no way to be 100% sure you will never nick the quick.

Not very comforting if you are looking to start out, but on the flip side, there is no one out there that has ever done frequent nail trims and never nipped the quick.  Much like a hangnail in humans, it hurts a little bit, it bleeds a little bit, and then it is over.  In reading this, I hope to teach you some ways to reduce the risk that you cut the quick as well as provide some ways to protects your furniture and floors from damage by animals nails.

For cats, this provides a favorable alternative to declawing without the risk of shredded furniture. Let’s start with the kitties today!  I’ll post infographics for you so you can follow along as I go through the steps.


Doing a nail trim on cats – with confidence!

Step one may be a little scary to someone who is looking to trim some cat claws.  One of the biggest parts of safely extruding a cat’s claws is in how you hold them.

Positioning is important!

Remember, cats don’t like to be on their backs, as it makes them feel vulnerable.  They may enjoy it while they’re being stroked or cuddled, but during a nail trim, this may lead to stress and fear.

For nails, it’s best to have one person hold the cat right-side up as per normal, or even in a football-like hold under the arm.  The second person can then pick up each individual paw and gently press down on the paw pad to reveal the nails.

Grumpy cat from Wikimedia shows us the way to hold a cat upright and give the hind legs some support.
Grumpy cat from Wikimedia shows us the way to hold a cat upright and give the hind legs some support.

Cats need to feel secure!

If you are doing this by yourself, set your cat down on a surface with traction so s/he feels safe, and wrap one arm around the body to tuck your kitty against your side.  You can then use the same hand to hold a paw, and your free hand to clip.

Restraint or no?

If your cat is feisty, you may need to scruff your kitty to keep them from wiggling and hurting themselves while you clip.  However, it is always best to start with as little tress and restraint as possible.  You never know, your cat may remain calm with no need for further restraint tools.

If your kitty does NOT remain calm, you can try wrapping them in a soft towel (with ample room to breathe).  However, if your kitty is feisty enough to need multiple hands and a towel, you may want to consider enlisting the aid of your vet for a nail trim.

Where is the quick located?

Step two and Step three go hand in hand.  The pink quick of a cat’s nail tends to be pretty easy to see, but sometimes older cats have a dark brown discoloration near the bed of their nails.  If this is the case with your cat, clip in very small increments, moving gradually towards the quick until the end is blunt.  Unlike dogs, you don’t need to trim as short as you can when doing a nail trim for cats, so you don’t have to press on until your touch the quick.  We are not as concerned about their quicks growing too long.

Are nail caps necessary?

Step four is the fun part (for us).  Most nail caps are just a tiny rubber or plastic sheath that fits over the whole of the cat’s nail.  They are sized by weight, and do NOT prevent the nail from retracting when sized properly.  However, it allows them to scratch to their heart’s content without doing any damage to the furniture.

These are an EXCELLENT alternative to declawing.  You get the same soft paw feel without the pain and alterations to your cat’s normal behavior.  I like to compare cat caps to Lee Press-On nails, as they are applied extremely similarly.  You just put a small drop of glue inside the nail cap, then slide it over the claw.  Hold it tight for a few seconds, (the glue dries fast), then release.  After you’ve applied these to all front claws (and the back if you’d like), wait about 10 minutes before letting your cat roam to make sure the glue is completely tight.

These will fall off on their own after about 3-4 weeks, or may be chewed off by your cat in roughly the same time frame.  They are non-toxic if swallowed, and do not cause an issue with a foreign body.  They pass through the system very easily and the dried glue is inert.  I cannot recommend these enough, no matter what brand you choose.

They really DO look like a teddy bear!

Step five is just a bit more fun.  What better time to admire kitty paws than when performing a nail trim for cats?  Has anyone else ever noticed that their paw pads look like an upside down teddy bear?  If you’ve got time to admire the shape of the paw pads, you’re probably done and can let your cat go! 😉

Do a confident nail trim on dogs!

Doing a nail trim on dogs – with confidence!

Doing a nail trim on dogs is a lot different than doing one on cats.  Some dogs may not have a care in the world when you’re touching their toes.  Some dogs may really resist this procedure.

How do you restrain a dog?

Before you even get to step one, you will want to make sure you have your dog in a comfortable place.  Like with cats, start with having your dog sit in front of you and hold their feet.  If they don’t sit calmly and let you play with their toes, try laying them down on their side.

Only as a last resort should a dog be restrained or muzzled. We want to be as non-stressful as possible, and pinning your dog to the floor will not give them a positive experience or any incentive to behave for next time.  Remember to always reward you pup with a treat after clipping!

What tools do you need?

In addition to clippers and a Dremel tool, you may also want to invest in styptic powder if you dog has dark nails.  While we do try and be careful, sometimes we do accidentally cut the quick.  The powder will quickly stop any bleeding.  A variety of different brands can be purchased online or at pet stores.

Where is the quick located?

Step one is self-explanatory.  Like with a cat, dogs with white nails have a quick that’s easy to identify.  Just clip the nail off close to the quick

Step two takes practice.  I recommend cutting off the tip of the nail, then clipping down 1 millimeter at a time until you can see the tiny grayish-white dot at the center of the nail.  This dot is the quick, and it will start to bleed if you cut any further.

What happens if I do nip the quick?

Step three is needed only in the event that you accidentally nip a quick. If you have not clipped any quicks, then you don’t need your styptic powder!  If you clipped one a very small amount, it may take a bit of time before it bleeds, so check each paw before you move on to the next one and again before you let your dog get up to run around.

With styptic powder, you only need a small pinch to be successful.  Just press the pinch of powder tightly against the spot of blood on your dog’s nail and hold it there for a few seconds.  Once you release, the powder will have adhered to the moist parts of the nail and stopped the bleeding!!

Is a Dremel necessary?

Step four is important for dogs who have really long quicks, so their nails scrape on the floor even after clipping.  It also helps to soften the nail so if your dog jumps up on you, it won’t scrape your skin.

The Dremel should be run around the front tip and edges of the nail.  Don’t Dremel the quick, as this may scrape it and cause it to bleed if you’ve cut the nails really close.  Generally, dogs tolerate the Dremel really well, though it is best to give them a few minutes to sniff at the tool after you start it up as they may want to investigate the noise.

Once the edges and tip are sanded back, it should look like step five, with the quick exposed past the rest of the nail.  This exposure will help the quicks recede if you perform this task frequently, and it will even wear it down faster if you dog walks on a lot of concrete.  Doing this once a week will help gradually morph your dog’s longer quicks into a shorter, more comfortable nail size.

What do I do if my dog is bleeding on the floor?

Remember that there is a lot of pressure put on the feet when a dog stands, so let him lay on his side and rub his tummy for a few minutes before letting him get up.  This will help the styptic powder to set before he gets up and starts running around, which may cause a bit of blood to rub off on your floor if the powder is not yet set and the bleeding completely stopped.

Please keep in mind that quicking a dog’s nail happens to the best of us, even the professionals.  While it hurts a little bit, it is only a small amount of brief pain (no matter how much your dog complains), and is quickly over.  With practice, you will become as adept doing a nail trim on dogs as your local vet.  You will save yourself a bunch of money on grooming costs as well!

Do you trim your pet’s nails at home?  What method do you use?  Let me know in the comments!

2 thoughts on “How to do a confident nail trim on dogs and cats!

  • Great tips here. We trim the nails of our three kitties at home. No problem, but it’s definitely a two person job. I have yet to nip the quick! My husband will not do the trimming though. For our dog, we take him to a groomer. We’re not brave enough to try it with him.

    • Our dog has started to settle into a two-person job with a bit of treat-incentive and positive reinforcement. I would almost say our cat nails are a four-person job however! I feel you! 😀


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