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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

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. 

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 end. With clear or light dog nails, it’s easy to see the pink color that indicates where the quick are, 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.

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.