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How to Safely Trim Your Dog’s Nails

It might sound scary, but you really can cut your dog’s nails at home. Follow these five simple steps.

by Claudia Kawczynska
July 23, 2021
A woman trimming a dog's nails
Hernandez & Sorokina / Stocksy

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I worked as a dog groomer for almost a year, so I know a few tricks for safely trimming dogs’ nails. It might sound intimidating but I assure you: It is possible to cut your dog's nails at home. All it takes is the right tools and a little (okay, a lot) of patience. It also helps to keep your dog occupied with treats or their favorite chew toy and be sure to take lots of breaks. Keep reading to learn how to know when it’s time to trim your dog’s nails, plus how to make the process as pain (and stress) free as possible.

When To Trim Your Dog’s Nails

There is no simple answer to how often you should trim a dog’s nails. It depends because each dog wears down their nails differently. Some dogs wear their nails down naturally to an ideal length because of walks, but others might need trims once every two months.

One way to determine if your dog needs a pedicure is to manually extend the toes and assess the length of the nails in relation to the bottom of the foot. To do this, place your thumb on top of your dog’s foot and your other fingers on the large pad on the underside of the foot. Gently squeeze your fingers together, which will cause the toes to extend. With the toes in this position, check to see if the tips of the toenails are level with or go beyond the underside of the foot. The former can be left alone, while the latter need to be trimmed. To be certain about whether or not your dog’s nails are too long, consult with your veterinarian, vet tech, or groomer. 

“Some dogs have clear nails, which allows you to easily tell how far the tip of the nail extends beyond the quick — that pink- to red-colored, blood-filled cavity that runs down the center of the toenail. If the nail extends well beyond the quick, it’s time for a pedicure,” says Nancy Kay DVM. Be aware that dogs with chronically overgrown nails may also develop lengthy quicks, so trim small amounts but more often. “It’s easy to hit the quick, and that can be painful for your dog. Also, a nicked quick bleeds, not enough to be harmful to your dog, but enough to sure as heck be harmful to your carpeting,” she continues.

It’s best to perform nail trimming only as-needed. To get your dog comfortable with being handled, perform regular at-home physical health examinations. This way, they’ll feel more relaxed when you trim their nails. 

The Tools You’ll Need to Trim Your Dog’s Nails

You don’t need a ton of tools to clip your dog’s nails at home. Before your start, gather up the following:

  • High-quality pair of dog nail trimmers

  • Dremel nail grinder

  • Styptic powder (such as Kwik-Stop) to stop bleeding if you nick the quick, which is the blood vessel that supplies blood to the claw.

How To Safely Trim Your Dog’s Nails 

Now that you have the supplies, it’s time to get trimming. Unfortunately, most dogs are initially uncomfortable with having their nails trimmed, which is why it’s important to practice. Training is key for cutting dog nails at home — if you have a young dog, get started early. Some may happily sit in your lap, but even with training, other dogs may require some form of restraint.

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1. Find a Comfortable Position

You may want to start by sitting on the floor with your dog on your lap. You can also hold them on a table or have someone help hold them. Position your body opposite the nail you are trimming.

2. Keep Your Dog Calm

Gently pat and massage your dog to get them to relax. Make trimming time fun and not a struggle — high-value treats help, as does a cheerful, calm presence.

3. Assess Your Dog’s Nails

Hold your dog’s paw firmly and push on the pads to extend the nails, then locate where the quick ends. With clear or light dog nails, it’s easy to see the pink color that indicates where the quick is, but with black or dark nails, you’ll need to cut in several small increments to reduce the chance of cutting into it and making your dog bleed. If you don’t easily see it or aren’t confident, don’t hesitate to enlist the services of a seasoned dog groomer.

4.  Clip the Nails, Avoiding the Quick

A scissors-type nail trimmer is best used to trim dog nails that are long enough to curl. With the cutting end of the nail clipper toward the end of the nail, trim below the quick on a 45-degree angle. Make several small nips with the clippers instead of one large one.

For dogs with dark nails: As you cut off small pieces of the nail, look at the cut edge. As you cut the nail deeper, you will begin to see a homogeneous gray-to-pink oval appear at the top of the cut surface. Stop cutting the nail at this point, as additional cutting will sever into the quick.

Your goal is to cut the claw within approximately 2 millimeters of the quick. Ultimately, nails should be trimmed so that when dogs step down, their nails don’t touch the floor. If you accidentally cut into the quick, the claw will bleed and your dog will experience some pain. Wipe off the blood and apply Kwik-Stop or styptic powder to stop the bleeding. And don’t worry, these cuts usually aren’t serious and will heal in a short time. Even without any treatment, the nail should stop bleeding in about five minutes or less.

5. Take Breaks — And Reward Your Dog With Treats

Go slowly and take breaks between each paw, especially if your dog is new to at-home nail trimming. Consider rewarding them with treats after each clip. Over time, you can build up to several cuts or paws between treats. Give your dog (and yourself) time to relax and build confidence by taking breaks as needed.

A Few Nail Trimming Tips to Keep in Mind

  • In some cases, if the nails are brittle, cutting may splinter the nail. In these cases, file the nail in a sweeping motion starting from the back of the nail, following the curve to the tip.

  • Trim a small amount on a regular basis instead of removing large portions less regularly. 

  • Invest in a good pair of nail trimmers in an appropriate size for your dog. They can last a lifetime.

“There are dogs who, no matter what, struggle so much that four people are needed to accomplish the nail trims — three to restrain the wriggling beast and one to trim the nails (and these are dogs who are often perfectly mannered in every other situation). In such cases, one has to question whether or not it’s really worth it,” says Dr. Kay. Talk with your vet about how to make nail trims less stressful and more successful.

Claudia Kawczynska

Claudia Kawczynska was co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Bark for 20 years. She also edited the best-selling anthology Dog Is My Co-Pilot.