How to cut nails

All pets except for fish and amphibians need to have their nails trimmed. Some pets, like birds, have items that go in their cages that basically file down their nails. Most pets need to have their nails trimmed on a regular basis or serious damage can occur to their feet and overall health. There are a lot of people out there that are afraid to cut their pet’s nails – whether it is because their pet acts like it is killing them or the owner doesn’t want to make it bleed. First, I’ll let you in on a little secret – all of us (including everyone who has ever professionally trimmed nails) have at one point or another made a pet’s nail bleed when trimming. Accidents happen.  Whether it was because the pet jerked the paw at just the wrong time or the quick was longer than it appeared. This blog will explain how to trim nails (Basically the same technique for both dogs and cats), helpful tips, what to do if you have made them bleed and some health issues that can be caused from long untrimmed nails.


My helper/ model for this blog is of my “furkid” Kaylee (5 year old Great Pyrenees/ Bernese Mountain Dog mix). Here’s Kaylee ready for her nail trim!

A dog’s nails can be clear, black or a combination of the two. Cat’s nails are typically clear but I have seen some darker nails on a few cats.


First, I want to go over a few description terms so that you understand the parts of the paw I am referring to.

  1. The claw (or nail)
  2. Digital pad
  3. Metacarpal pad (front foot) / Metatarsal pad (back foot)
  4. Dew claw
  5. Carpal pad
  6. Quick – the center part of the claw. This is the part that will bleed if you cut the nails back too far. If you allow your nails to grow longer, the quick will grow longer as well.


Certain dog breeds like Saint Bernards, Great Pyrenees and even Beagles can have back dewclaws.  Some members of the canine family (especially Great Pyrenees) have double dewclaws on their back legs. These are nails you will have to take special note in paying attention to. Since these “toes” never touch the ground, the nail never gets worn down like the rest of the nails and it will continue to grow. If the nail is not trimmed back it will continue to grow and curl around until they grow into your pet’s pad.


There is a certain genetic anomaly that cats can have where they have extra digits (toes) on both front and back feet. These special cats are called polydactyl cats. Just like with a dog’s back dew claws, special care needs to be maintained to make sure a polydactyl cat’s extra nails don’t grow into their pad. Look at how many extra toes this kitten has!!!


HELPFUL HINTS to help with nail trims at home:

  1. Always! Always! ALWAYS use positive reinforcement when training your pet (both dogs and cats). Getting a nail trim should be just as easy as it is for them to sit and stay. But they must learn those behaviors. Remember, positive reinforcement can have a negative effect as well. If your pet is struggling / pulling their paw away from you and you quit the nail trim – in their eyes they have won that battle and it will be harder the next time you have to trim nails. When your pet is struggling or pulling their paw away, continue to hold onto their paw, tell them NO in a strict/firm tone, (you can wait a minute but don’t let them go), and when they stop struggling/ pulling away, continue on with the nail trim. Then after all nails are trimmed, make it a happy time (treats, play time, one on one attention – do whatever it is that makes them happy.)
  2. Especially when you have a puppy or kitten, teach them from an early age that it is okay for a person to touch/ hold their paws. This will get them used to being handled when it is time for a nail trim. I held Kaylee’s paws all the time when she was a pup and to this day, when we are just relaxing on the couch, it isn’t uncommon for her to make sure her paws are touching my hand.
  3. Even if you rescued a dog or cat and they are not used to having their paws touched, start off slowly and for just short amounts of time, touch/ hold their paws. If they are sleeping beside you, hold onto their paws. Don’t hold on tight, just a light grasp. Again, when they realize that nothing bad is going to happen to them they are more likely to relax when it comes time to trim the nails.
  4. If you accidentally cut into their quick, don’t make a big deal over it. Meaning don’t baby them. I know this is difficult to do, like I said earlier we have all cut nails back too far and I am no exception. During one nail trim on Kaylee, I made one of her nails bleed and I felt like a horrible mom for doing so but I had to just stop the bleeding and continue on with the rest of the nail trim.
  5. Stay calm before and during the nail trim. If you are acting nervous about the situation, your pet is going to feed off of that nervousness and believe they need to be nervous as well.  This can add a lot of stress and unwanted behavior.
  6. Walking your dog on hard surfaces like concrete sidewalks, helps file the nails.
  7. Make sure the nail trimmers that you are using are sharp. Have you ever tried cutting your nails with a dull clipper? Does not work all that well. Regardless of the type of nail trimmers that you use, you should replace them every-so-often. The amount of time between replacements depends on how often you use them.
  8. Some cats and kittens do much better after you have wrapped them in a kitty burrito.


There are a few different styles of nail trimmers:

Style of nail trimmer Photo Pros Disadvantages/warnings
  • Best for cats and small dogs
  • Makes the least amount of noise when trimming
  • Doesn’t work for medium to large breed dogs
  • Doesn’t work with very hard nails
  • Best for Medium to large dogs
  • Best for hard nails
  • Easy for beginners and professionals to use
  • Has a nail guard to protect from trimming nail too far
  • Most suitable for small dogs
  • Cannot trim large dog nails
  • Blade is hidden and therefore quick can be hit rather easy
  • Great to file and round sharp ends
  • Not good for pets with sound aversions
  • Be careful with medium to long hair breeds – the hair can get caught in the spinning wheel


HOW TO TRIM NAILS (with the scissor or plier type trimmer):

Once you have all the supplies you need and your pet, it is time to get started trimming nails.

1. Secure one paw in your non-dominant hand, using your thumb and forefinger of the same hand, apply light pressure to extend one digit out away from the rest of the digits.

2. Using your other hand, take the trimmer and place the nail between the blade pieces.

3. Squeeze the handles together to clip the nail off.

4. Repeat steps 1-3 for all the other nails.


DREMMEL – Steps are basically the same as the trimmer but you will want to make sure you stabilize the hand that is holding the dremmel. You can do this by placing your pinkie finger on the table/ floor/ whatever surface the dog is standing on.


You can be conservative when trimming nails by only taking the tips of the claw off and then slowly continue to trim back. You can tell when you are getting close to the quick because there will be a small whitish circle in the center of the nail. This small mark is the beginning of the quick. Once you see it, STOP! Cats have this as well but they are much smaller and harder to see.


If you happen to make your pet bleed, remember don’t freak out or baby them, just grab stopping powder and apply it to the nail. There are over the counter products like Styptic Powder or Kwik Stop. They can come in powder, gel, sticks and wipes.


If you happen to run out and need to trim nails, there are a few household products that can be used in a hurry. They just shouldn’t be used every time. Items include: flour, cornstarch, baking soda and a mild formula bar of soap.


Another option for dog and cat owners are nail caps.


Some health risk if nails are not kept short:

  • The quick grows with the nail, so the longer the nail – the longer the quick. This makes it much easier to make the nail bleed from either trimming or if the animal breaks it off.
  • Broken or torn nails are painful and can become easily infected. It can require antibiotics and other vet care needs such as bandages.
  • When the nails are too long, the animal doesn’t walk correctly. This can cause strain on the leg muscles and torques the spine.
  • Long nails can curl around and grow into the pad of the foot. Ingrown nails are extremely painful and become infected very quickly. Requiring antibiotics.
  • Animal nails help provide traction while they walk and run. Long nails can cause the animal to slip, fall and hurt themselves.


The length of time between when your pet needs a nail trim depends on their lifestyle and where they live. Living in a carpeted house and having a grassy yard to exercise in or being carried all the time – these pets will need a nail trim much quicker and more often than the dog that is a working dog or takes long, multiple walks on a sidewalk.


By working with your pet and keeping their nails at an appropriate length can be both beneficial to you and your pet!


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