Nail trimming tips for pets

Q: My dog hates getting her toe nails trimmed.  It has gotten to the point that she has to be muzzled and several people hold her to trim her nails.  We all hate it!
— Brittany

Dear Brittany,

Anxiety about nail trimming is a common problem with dogs.  I personally experienced this with my dog “Cookie”.   “Cookie” was normally a very sweet dog but as soon as the nail trimmer came out, she turned into a biting, thrashing ball of fur and teeth.  When it got to the point where I started sedating her to have her nails trimmed, I thought, there has got to be a better way.  And there is!

Before we can even talk about the actual nail trim though, we need to talk about reducing all of the “wind up” anxiety that happens before you even trim one toe.  “Wind up” anxiety is all of stress the dog experiences before the event happens.   Dogs learn all of the steps that are involved with nail trimming.  It may start with the word “nail trim”, then you go to get the nail trimmer, then the sound of the trimmer, and the touching of the paw.  As each of these steps is performed your dog gets more and more nervous, so that when you finally are ready to start the nail trim, you are starting with an extremely anxious dog.  Reducing this wind-up anxiety, and starting the nail trim with a dog that is relaxed, or at least feeling “neutral”, is an extremely important part of being able to successfully trim her nails.  

To eliminate wind-up anxiety, think about each step you take in the nail trimming process, and pair each fear-inducing event with something she really loves, like a yummy treat.   For me, a nail trim started by going to the cupboard that I kept the trimmer in.  Whenever “Cookie” saw me heading to that cupboard, she would disappear.  Getting Cookie to associate the nail trimming cupboard with something positive was my first step in the desensitization process.  I decided to start storing “Cookie’s” treats in the same cupboard that the trimmer was kept in.  Once “Cookie” realized that treats were kept there as well, that cupboard wasn’t the “scary” cupboard anymore and Step One in my desensitization process was complete. 

The next step was acclimating her to the sight and sound of the trimmer.  Just looking at the trimmer would make her whine and pace.  I started by taking the nail trimmer out of the cupboard and just setting  it on the floor with a treat about 2 feet away.   She really had to think about whether or not it was worth it to come close to the clipper to get the treat.  She wouldn’t do it for a regular milk bone.  I had to get out the jerky that I didn’t buy very often to get her to come near the trimmer to get the treat.  At first she would run into the room and snatch the jerky and run back out.  When she got to the point where she would stay in the room with the trimmer to eat her treat, then I started to move the jerky closer and closer to the trimmer until eventually she would eat the treat off of the trimmer.  Once she felt comfortable with the site of the trimmer, I started to pick it up and squeeze the trimmer while giving her treats.  At each step I watched her body language for signs of tension and stress.  If she was able to ignore the trimmer and just eat the treats, then I knew that it was OK to advance to the next step.

At this point I was about 2 weeks into “Operation Trim Cookie’s Nails”.  I would repeat each step in the pre-nail trimming process several times over several days until I was sure that she wasn’t nervous.

The next hurtle, touching the paw and holding the clipper at the same time, was really a difficult step.  She really disliked this and would run into the other room.  I knew I had to up the ante.  I got the hotdogs out and my husband sat on the floor and fed her hotdogs while I picked up her paw and held the clipper.  We did this every day for a week before she finally relaxed. 

I was now ready to actually trim a nail because I was starting with an emotionally neutral dog.   When I trimmed a toe nail for the first time, it actually wasn’t that bad!  She whined and pulled her paw away, but she didn’t run away and she wanted to keep eating the treats.  Each day we trimmed only one nail and she ate a lot of hotdogs.  After about 6 weeks, I was able to trim all of her nails by myself. 

It is such a different experience to trim a dog’s toe nails when they agree to the procedure!  The 6 weeks I spent training her to accept nail trimming made such a difference in our overall quality of life, and it was nice having her trust me again. 

Dr. Teresa Hershey is a veterinarian at Westgate Pet Clinic in Linden Hills. Email her your pet questions at [email protected].