Your Pet’s Nails

by: Jennifer Oldfield and Dr. Jo-Ann Liebe

Trimming your pet’s nails can seem like a challenging task.  Many pets don’t want to be still for the process and if you are already uncomfortable with trimming them, this certainly doesn’t make it easier.

Dogs definitely need their nails trimmed, but cats can also benefit from this practice.  The very first thing to note regarding trimming your pet’s nails is the importance behind doing it;

For Cats

Cat’s nails generally do not grow as quickly as a dog’s nail.  If your cat uses a sisal scratching post or any scratching post or pad with a harsher material, you may not need to trim their front nails at all, as the material naturally wears them away.  However back feet and nails that aren’t being naturally worn down, benefit from trimming the sharp point off.  Removing the sharp tips help to prevent your cat from getting stuck in things (like the carpet or other materials), it also reduces scratches on surfaces, including you!

For Dogs

It is vital that your dog’s nails are trimmed on a regular basis.  How often, really depends on the dog and the surfaces they frequent.  If you can hear that familiar “tick, tick, tick” as they walk across the floor, it is time for a trim.  There are several reasons to keep those nails short.

  • When the nail grows longer than the pad (when you hear the ticking) your dog is losing the benefit their pad provides of gripping slippery surfaces.
  • Leaving the nails long changes the natural alignment of the dog’s leg by causing pressure and eventual twisting to the joints.
  • Plus, if left too long, the nails will eventually curl around into and around the other nails or worse; into the pads of the feet.  The dewclaw (the nail on the lower part of the inner leg) is at a very high risk of curling into the pad in a shorter time frame due to its location.
  • Long nails also often get caught and torn at the base of the nail sometimes leaving a “hang nail”.  This needs to removed by the vet and can have a variable amount of bleeding associated to it.


There are two things you are going to want to do before trimming your pet’s nails.  First get familiar with the nail colour and structure and second, get your pet use to their feet being handled.

Nail Structure

White Nails:

In cats and many dogs, the nails are white.  If you look at the nail from a side view you can easily see the pink quick.

Dark Nails:

In some dogs the toe nails are black.  You cannot see the quick through the nail.

The Quick:

The quick is a nerve that runs from your pet’s toe into the nail itself.   The quick is the area you do not want to cut – if cut, it will bleed.  You can use a commercially available styptic powder or paste (Kwik Stop is a common brand), you can also use cornstarch or bar soap that does not have fragrance or dye in it, to stop the bleeding.  Simply put the nail into one of these items to cover the bleeding quick.  Our goal of course, is to help you keep your pet’s nails nicely trimmed while avoiding the quick.  It is important to realize that everyone will occasionally trim a nail too short.  Leaving the nails too long for fear of this has worse consequences then occasionally nicking the quick.

How to Handle the Feet

While inspecting your pet’s nails, work on getting your pet use to having their feet handled.  If all of a sudden, you grab your pet, force them to hold still while trimming all their nails and it is a struggle for you and them, neither of you are going to be so keen on doing it again and again.

To start sit on the floor with your pet and just touch their feet, touch the nails, give verbal praise when they are NOT trying to pull away.  If your pet doesn’t get crazy excited around treats, you can also give them a treat for letting you handle their feet.  Touch and handle all four feet.  End your session there.

Now get your pet use to having their feet handled to accept the nail trim.  Do so when there is something they want from you (food, attention, walks, play).  Food works best if you have a food motivated dog.  You can start by showing the nail trimmers as a signal that it’s suppertime.  Next hold the front leg above the paw while holding the trimmer, if your dog shows no resistance go ahead and trim the nail or touch the nail with the trimmer.  As soon as he tries to pull away stop what you are doing (without letting go of the leg) and wait for him to relax the leg *relaxing and giving the paw is the behaviour you are rewarding*.  Once he relaxes the paw and stops trying to pull away, release him to eat his supper.  Gradually progress from touching the nail with the trimmer to trimming only 1 or 2 nails, to eventually doing them all in one session.  Push as far as you can get each time.  It may take a week or two but most dogs will quickly make the connection between allowing you to trim the nails and getting fed.  If the dog will absolutely not relax and settle when you have the paw then stop after 5-10 minutes of trying, but remove his supper.  No paw, no food.  Try again when he is due for his next meal.

Cutting the Nail

As mentioned, in white nails you can see the quick, you want to trim all of the white that does not have pink in it.  For both cats and dogs, trimming white nails is fairly easy.  Trim just back from the quick, cutting the long, white only, portion of the nail.  In dark nails, if you view them from the side, they have a “tell-tale” shape that helps you know where you can cut without cutting the quick.  Black nails (much more so than white) form a quick and hool“hook” or narrower area on the nail after the “fat” area where the quick is.  (see the diagram to the right).  The thinner “hook” can all be cut off.  If you look at a black nail from straight on (see image below),  after trimming the “hook”, you will see a black outer area, a circle of white, then a black center area, when there is a spot of white in the middle of the black, this indicates the quick is right behind that, do not cut any further.  As the image to the right shows, you can trim the nail in 2 cuts.  The first cut removes the access length of nail.  The second cut (although not necessary) can help the quick recede further back.  Each time you trim the nail close to the quick, it moves back into the nail to protect itself.  In this way you can work to get your dog’s nails to a nice short length.  In the case where the nails have grown too long, you may need to cut them every 4-5 days to help the quick recede back.  After you have gotten the quick to recede back so the nails are short, how frequently you need to trim the nails will depend on the surfaces your dog moves on.  Harder surfaces (like concrete) will wear the nails down, while softer surfaces (like grass) will not.  Keep an eye on the nails and try to trim them before the tell-tale “tick, tick” across the floor.

where is the quick


There are a few different tools available to use for trimming nails.  For cats the clippers that work best are ones designed specifically for their smaller nails.

cat nail trimmer

Nail trimmers best for cats or very small dog nails (i.e. tiny puppies)

For dogs there are several different looking trimmers, but 2 essential styles: the scissor style or the guillotine.  Use whichever style you are most comfortable with.  You can get scissor style ones with a guard on the back, so you don’t accidentally cut too much nail.  This works fine if the nails don’t need much trimmed.  Most with that option do allow you to move the guard off to the side if you need to cut more nail.

There is also another method to trimming the nails using a Dremel.  This grinds the nail away using a sandpaper bit and the speed of the Dremel.  Some dogs do really well with this method, however there are a few things to keep in mind if you choose to go this route.  The Dremel causes a vibration to the nail, so just like the handling of the feet before, you will need to get your dog accustomed to this, short sessions and lots of praise or treats work well.  You can get Dremels that are pet specific.  These generally have a lower speed of rotation to the bit.  If you use a regular Dremel keep the speed around 5,000 to 7,500 rpm.  Only hold the Dremel on each nail for 3-5 seconds (or the nail can get too hot which will hurt your pet).  Go back and forth between the nails until you have the length you are looking for.  Again, if the nails are really long you will want to do this in a few sessions, allowing the quick to naturally recede back.   There are a few good videos/articles online regarding dremeling the nails.  We have included those links for you below.  As well as additional links regarding nail trimming.

dog nail dremel

VERY IMPORTANT NOTE:  When using a Dremel, be absolutely certain to keep tails, long leg hair, or any long hair out of the way of the Dremel.  Due to the high speed rotation of the Dremel, if hair gets caught up in it, it can cause a vet emergency.

Unfortunately we have seen more than one animal come in with a degloved* tail tip due to the hair being caught by a rotating Dremel.

Tip: you could use a pantyhose stocking over the paw with the nails pushed through if your dog has excessively long hair on the feet or legs to help reduce the risk of catching it in the Dremel.

Additional Resources:

Dr. Becker on Trimming Your Dog’s Nails

Train your Kitten to Love Nail Trims

How I Dremel Dog Nails

Using a Dremel Tool on Your Dog’s Nails – please keep in mind with this video that the setting he is using is very low, normally you would want to dremel each nail for only 3-5 seconds and then move on to the next and back again until all nails are the length you would like.  It is a very good video though to show you visually the process of dremeling the nail.


*Degloved means that the skin has been completely separated from the rest of the area of the body (akin to removing a glove from your hand)


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