Nail Maintenance: The Foundation of a Healthy Dog

dog nail maintenance.jpg

Unlike humans, most dogs don’t enjoy getting their nails trimmed — at least I know mine certainly don’t. If it were up to Moose or Koda, I would never touch their nails again. Fortunately, it is not up to them.

Nail Maintenance is a crucial part of dog health and Moose and Koda aren’t able to recognize the impact that neglected nails can have on their well being. As a responsible dog owner, it is my job to make sure that their nails are well kept.

There are a lot of people that choose to forego trimming their dog’s nails —and trust me, I get it. I hate wrestling over dog feet as much as the next person. However, those people fail to realize that by neglecting routine nail maintenance they are doing their dog a huge disservice.

Overgrown nails can have a substantial impact on a dog’s health, happiness, and overall wellbeing… not to mention long nails are just downright uncomfortable.

The foundation for a healthy dog starts with healthy feet.

Why Nail Maintenance Matters

If you’ve ever worn shoes that were too small, you would know the uncomfortable feeling of constant pressure pressing into your toes. Now, compare that to the feeling of a dog’s nails pressing into their nail beds with every step they take. Ouch, right?

Overgrown dog nails have become a worldwide epidemic… a very painful epidemic at that. So, why are so many dogs’ nails overgrown? It’s simple. Dogs hate having their nails trimmed therefore dog owners don’t trim them. Which leads to the bigger question…


Why do dogs hate having their nails trimmed?

Walking around on long nails will cause a dog’s feet to become painful and oversensitized. Think about it. If you walked around in shoes that were too small, wouldn’t your feet be sore too? The last thing a dog with sore paws wants, is for them to be touched - often yanking their foot away when grabbed.

Overgrown nails create a vicious cycle for dog owners. Owners will attempt to trim their dog’s overgrown nails, not realizing their dog’s feet are sore. By touching sensitive paws, owners are triggering a tug-of-war battle over feet.

All this “fighting over feet” leads to an unpleasant nail-trimming experience for both the dog and the owner. Owners will often get discouraged from this constant struggle and they will lose motivation to trim their dog’s nails. This leads to longer intervals between trims, which ultimately results in more severe pain for their dog...  (Pretty vicious cycle huh?)

This pain doesn’t just stay in a dog’s paws. Dogs with overgrown nails will adjust their weight distribution, posture, and movements in an attempt to compensate for the chronic pain in their paws. A dog will rotate its paws back, shifting its weight from the center of its pads, to the back of its pads. This leaves a dog with an unbalanced foundation and joints will begin wear unnaturally.

overgrown nails affect dog posture .png

This compensatory posture is referred to “Goat-on-a-rock”, where both the front and the hind legs are camped in.  Chronic compensatory posture can leave a dog more susceptible to injury, joint pain, and arthritis. I wasn’t kidding when I said “The foundation for a healthy dog starts with healthy feet”.  

Ideal Length

So, how long is too long when it comes to nail length? It's actually shorter than you might think. A dog’s nails should not touch the ground when they are standing or walking. Nails should only touch the ground when a dog needs to gain traction. (i.e. running in grass, sand, snow, ect..) A general rule of thumb is if a dog’s nails “click” when they walk on a hard surface, the nails are too long.

Correct length dog nails.png

Example of Ideal Length:

correct nail length for dogs.JPG
ideal dog nail length.JPG

How to Properly Trim Dog Nails

Nail Anatomy

Now, before you start cutting, it is important to understand and be able to identify the layers that make up your dog’s nails. Blindly cutting can result in an incomplete trim or a painful experience for your dog.    

layers of the nail.png

A dog’s nail is comprised of 3 separate sections:

  • The Outer Shell: The first, and most outer layer is considered the outer shell. This layer has no nerve endings, since its purpose is to protect the live tissue from damage. If you reach out and touch your dogs nail with your finger, you would be touching the outer shell.

  • The Inner Shell: The second layer, the inner shell, is comprised of dead nail cells. We are able to identify this layer by its white - chalky consistency. Similar to the outer shell, the inner shell has no nerve endings and can be cut.  

  • Live Tissue/Quick: This layer is made up of live tissue and the nail’s blood supply.  It can be identified by its light pink, flesh like, color. Live tissue is sensitive and should be avoided when trimming nails.              

Trimming the Nail

What is the goal?

The goal of trimming nails is to remove excess length from the nail without cutting too far (cutting the quick). Ideally, you will want to remove enough length to get the nail off the ground for when a dog is standing or walking.

When to trim:

  • To maintain the ideal length, you should trim your dog’s nails at least once a week.  

  • If you find that after trimming your dog’s nails as short as they can go, they still touch the ground, then you will need to put in extra work to recede the quick/live tissue. This means you should be dremeling/ filing their nails every other day until the quick recedes and the nails reach their ideal length.

What you’ll need:

ACL TCL Comparison.png

How to trim with the intent to recede the quick:

Most people when cutting dog nails will use the traditional cut line (TCL). This cut works well when you are maintaining the ideal length. However, it is not a complete cut if you are trying to recede the quick — since it does not remove enough of the nail to get the quick to recede. The alternative cut line (ACL) allows for a closer cut to the quick, but again, is an incomplete cut and does not remove enough of the nail. When cutting to recede, you want to get as close to the quick as possible and encourage it to “back up”

Alternative Cut Line.png

Therefore, the ACL and TCL combined are recommended (pictured above). This method allows you to remove the most length and get as close to the quick as possible while avoiding the the live tissue.

To achieve this cut, take your clippers and slowly slice away at the TCL until you can see the quick, then repeat these steps with the ACL. Your nails should look something like this:

Photo Credit - Shana Deitrick

Alternative Cut Line Before and After .png

How to Use Clippers: Despite popular belief, clippers are not meant to remove “a single chunk” of nail at one time. Clippers are designed to shear small slices of nail off. Think of it like creating little pieces of nail confetti with every slice. Blindly “chopping” into dog’s nail is dangerous and often results in unnecessarily quicking the nail. You should slowly slice away at the nail until you can see the quick.

Lastly, you’ll want to dremel (or nail file) away any excess nail that was missed (mainly focusing on the top and sides of the nail). Once you’re done, your nail shape will resemble that of a bullet.  

There you have it, a well-maintained dog nail!

Correct dog nail length

Side Note

I have had a lot of people reach out and ask about counter-conditioning for difficult dogs. I am by no means a dog trainer or an expert on this subject matter. There is a whole facebook group dedicated to dog nail maintenance and they have some fantastic information for people dealing with difficult dogs, black nails, etc.

Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for routine nail maintenance. It takes months for a quick to become overgrown and it takes just as much time for it to receded. Counter-conditioning your dog can be just as taxing. My advice would be to start slow and do just one nail a day. Small improvements are still improvements after all.

All the information in this post was acquired through research from reputable sources, discussion with experts, and my own personal knowledge of the topic.  For more information, I have attached some resources.

Resources:

Nail Maintenance For Dogs: Facebook Groups

Alternative Cut Line Video w/ Dr. Leslie

PDH Nail Division

Master Guide to Trimming Nails