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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Too Long Dog Nails

Stefanie asked me the following question, and it's one I get from time to time in my clinic.

I have a question on how to keep a dog's nails trimmed naturally.  I walk and/or hike with my dog at least 6 times a week.  The hikes/walks typically last from an hour to two hours.  However, her nails are pretty long.  For a few months - I tried taking her to the vet for a nail trim every 3 weeks to try and get the quicks filed down.  It wasn't working.  My vet suggested maybe putting her under an anesthetic to file her nails down better with a Dremel or even going so far as to putting her under and cutting the quicks back (a choice even my vet felt would be quite painful and something to be used only as a last resort).  

am doing my best to use a regular (human) nail file on my dog's nails and there is a little bit of resistance but I am hoping that eventually (with lots of treats) she will learn to tolerate it more.  

Do you have any other suggestions for how I can get her quicks under control so she can get a proper nail trim?  We live in Arizona so the hiking surfaces are pretty hard so I don't understand why her nails aren't being worn down naturally.   

My first question would be whether or not the nails are actually long.  I have many clients who complain about how long their dog's nails are, yet they seem perfectly normal to me.  Dogs are supposed to have prominent nails which serve a function similar to cleats on athletes' shoes.  The nails give traction when running over uneven surfaces.  Cheetahs are the only cats with nails that don't retract, again for the same reason of traction.  So a dog's nails are supposed to extend to the end of the naturally growing quick and make contact with the ground.  It's actually abnormal for a dog's nails to be small nubs and too short to reach the ground.

Routine nail trimming and walking on hard or abrasive surfaces are the best ways to keep the nails at a normal length.  Rough surfaces naturally wear the nails down, and it sounds like you're doing that, Stefanie.  However, this will only keep the nails back to the quick and may recede the quick only a little bit.  At some point normal anatomy takes over and the quick won't go back any further.  In these cases natural genetics determine the length of the quick and you can't easily overcome that.  If regular nail trimming, nail filing, and hard surfaces several times per week are being done, the nails are already as short as they should be according to her genes.  Trying to make them shorter will require some unnatural methods.

Some vets will advocate cutting the nails and quicks back under anesthesia, as you describe.  They may also offer cauterization.  However, I'm not personally convinced that this will actually work.  It's like if you tore off one of your own fingernails, the nail would try to grow back, even if it had an abnormal appearance.  When I was very young I got one of my fingers caught in a heavy door and it almost removed the tip of the finger.  It healed and the nail regrew, but it looks a little different from the rest of my fingers.  Even though it is a bit abnormal, it still grows at the same rate and length as my other nails.  A dog's nails will try do to the same thing.  Also, it is quite painful, just as if you tore your own fingernails into the quick.

Stefanie, this may be the best it's going to get.  I know that's not a satisfying answer, but I think it's important to know that.  


  1. Thank you, Dr. Bern. That answered a lot of my questions!

    I'm in agreement with you about the cutting the nails and quicks back - seems painful and not something I'd be willing to put her through. I've been using treats and a human nail file to keep them under control. They do touch the floor, but when they start turning to the side from being a little too long - that's when I become concerned. The nail file seems to be working well enough to keep them scaled back. I'm glad to know that it is actually normal for the nails to touch the ground - I had never heard that before!

  2. I really like the idea of a dog's nails acting like cleats. My dogs play, run, wrestle and "juke" a lot on our 2+ acres and I have a theory that longer nails actually reduce the chances of injury on grassy/dirt surfaces. Not too long, just long enough that they "click" on hard surface flooring, etc.
    My pack of 4 dutifully tolerate nail trimming but only because it's become a habit now and is appropriately rewarded.

  3. I have tried and am continuing to try to trim my dog's nails once a week, but it is not helping. I used to take them to Petsmart, but could no longer afford the $10 a week it cost. The nails on my Britney/Australian Shepard mix keep growing. They are now almost 1 and a half inches long. Is there away to keep them from growing so much?

  4. My vet said it is a myth that quicks can recede in all dogs. She says it's no different than getting braces on your teeth. No matter how long you wear your retainer afterwards, your teeth will shift back to their original positions if you lose your retainer. It's the same way with dog nails. Sure, you can clip them short and cauterize their nails while they're under anesthesia, but the quick and nail will grow back to their original length. Diet also plays a role. A high protein diet will lead to longer claws (in general). I dremmel my dog's nails once every other week. Her nails are the same length from where I started. I just dremmel them so that they wear evenly and don't cause any issues for the dog. Yes, her front feet click on the floor. Her nails are black and the little black dot that indicates the quick is close is right at the tip of the nail. She's the only dog I've ever had to do this with. It's all dependent on the dog!


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