What to Do If Your Dog Has a Cracked, Broken, or Torn Nail
A vet explains when you can treat the injury at home — and when it's best to seek professional help.
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If your dog suddenly begins limping, take a look at their paw — they might have a cracked, broken, torn, or injured nail. A broken toe nail can be a painful and potentially expensive injury for your dog, and it is something that I often see in the veterinary ER.
There are a variety of injuries that can occur to a dog’s nails. Some nails have just a minor crack with some bleeding, while other injuries put a toenail at a 90-degree angle (ouch!). A cracked or broken nail that is bleeding and very painful for your dog should be treated by a veterinarian. That said, not all broken nails require a trip to the ER — you may be able to care for it at home or, at the very least, wait to see your regular vet in the morning.
So, what should you do if you suspect your dog has a nail injury? Read on to find out.
Assess the Injury
First, get a good look at the paw — including in between the toes and webbing — to see if the issue is a cut, foxtail, insect stinger (or other foreign object), or a broken nail. When doing so, be sure to look closely at the nail bed, as I have seen cracks and injuries in the nail that were actually hidden underneath the fur line, where the base of the nail goes into the toe.
If it's a nail injury, determine which type it is. There are three general types:
The dog’s nail has been completely broken off and is bleeding
The dog’s nail is cracked or broken but is loosely attached
The dog’s nail is cracked or broken but remains firmly attached
Treat the Injury
Here's what to do if it's a...
1. Broken Off Nail
When the nail is fully broken off and there's some mild bleeding, it's a best case scenario (if the bleeding continues, though, that may be worrisome). These are the easiest types of injuries to treat at home because you generally only need to apply pressure with a gauze or clean cloth to the nail to stop the bleeding. The key is to hold pressure for at least 5 to 10 minutes with no “peeking to see” if the bleeding has stopped before this time is up.
It's important to keep your dog calm during this time, as excitement increases blood pressure and works against a good clot forming. If bleeding continues despite applied pressure, you can apply styptic powder (such as Kwik Stop) and resume applying pressure for another 5 minutes or so. If you do not have styptic powder at home, sometimes a little baking soda can do the trick. If the bleeding continues despite these measures, then I suggest going to the ER.
2. Loosely Attached Cracked Or Broken Nail
If you do happen to find a nail that is very loose and dangling, then you can attempt to remove it at home. Be sure to have someone help restrain your dog safely while you gently try to remove the nearly broken off nail with a quick pull motion. Caution: only attempt removal if the nail is very loose! Think “loose wiggly tooth” like when you were a kid.
Also, be careful during your inspection or attempt to remove a loose nail as this can cause a sudden and unpleasant pain sensation in which some dogs may nip or bite in surprise. If bleeding is noted following the removal, you can then use some gauze, light pressure, and/or Kwik Stop.
3. Firmly Attached Cracked Or Broken Nail
These are nails that are cracked, continually painful, may be bleeding, and are still firmly attached. This type of broken nail should be treated by a veterinarian. Treatment for these stubborn injured nails is typically some form of sedation with pain medication followed by cutting off the damaged nail just above the level of the crack.
Sedation is needed because you are cutting through the very thick part of the nail with a live blood vessel and nerve, which is very painful. This is usually followed by styptic powder application and a bandage that is left in place for about 24 hours. The bandage promotes a day of rest so that a solid clot forms and the minor wound does not continue to bleed if it gets bumped on something.
Although these types of injuries require professional care, it is something that can wait to be seen the following day if you are unable to get an immediate appointment with your vet (unless your dog seems to be in extreme pain; in that case, don't wait).
Keep It Clean
Whatever the type of nail injury, dogs are very good at keeping the area clean all on their own with licking, and antibiotics are not needed. A little licking is fine — it's what a dog would do “in the wild” to keep it clean. That said, some dogs get a little obsessed, and their good intentions can actually make the area more irritated by their constant worrying at it. Because of this, you should continue to monitor the area for any signs of redness, increased swelling, cloudy discharge, or increasing discomfort.
In my experience, the development of these complications is rare, but if you notice them, an e-collar, pain medication, and possibly some antibiotics may be needed. No matter what kind of damage has occurred to the nail, it will generally regrow normally in all but a few situations. Sometimes the nail will regrow with a slight curve or different pigment, but usually it returns to its normal appearance within several months (kind of like when we humans lose a nail).
As always, it's best to seek veterinary care if you are uncertain about the severity of any injury. But hopefully this advice will save you an unnecessary trip to the ER for nail injuries.
Dr. Shea Cox
Dr. Shea Cox is the founder of BluePearl Pet Hospice and is a global leader in animal hospice and palliative care. With a focus on technology, innovation and education, her efforts are changing the end-of-life landscape in veterinary medicine.