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Ask A Vet: Why Does My Dog Hate To Have His Nails Trimmed?

| Published on July 31, 2023

We all know how important it is to keep our dog’s nails trimmed. It helps save our floors and sometimes, our skin and it is also good for the dog too. Nails can grow too long and curl back into a dog’s skin and be uncomfortable. In a wild state, the dogs might be able to wear them down, but in our living rooms, they need a little help from us. The dewclaws on the side of the legs do not touch the ground at all and they certainly need trimming. Every dog owner knows this, but why is it that dogs don’t seem to? Many dogs despise having their nails trimmed and owners wonder why.

It might help to review the anatomy of the nail. Dogs’ nails are similar to our fingernails, except it is obvious which part is our nail and which is our finger (the part with the nerves.) For dogs, the nail is made up of an outer portion which is analogous to our fingernail and an inner portion which is more like the pink nail bed for us. The inner part is where the nerve lives. When you trim, you only want to trim the horny outer portion and avoid the nerve. It is harder to see the distinct parts, especially if the toenails are dark, but trust me, that they all have a nerve, called the quick, and if you cut it, it hurts… A LOT.

Pain is the main reason that dogs hate nail trims. If your dog has ever been cut too close, even once, he will remember it. Nature provides pain as a protection and if something hurts, an animal must learn to avoid, and even fight it. This is a survival instinct.

If your dog has ever had a sore joint that hurt when you pulled the leg out to trim or if he is a member of the chondrodystrophic breeds (short legged breeds, like Bassett Hound or Dachshund and many more), it might be uncomfortable for you to stretch the legs firmly for a trim. Again, pain is a strong memory for a dog and to survive he needs to remember painful things and avoid them.

Fear is another thing that dogs instinctively must remember. Animals in the wild must be able to remember and avoid situations or places where they felt their lives were in danger, like a place where predators lurk or there is a sharp drop off. When you restrain your dog, (without previously teaching him that there is nothing to fear) you trigger his fear response and his survival instincts kick in. He might struggle and you tighten your grip. Then he is truly panicked and feels that he cannot escape. His fight or flight response could cause him to fight you or to bite you. This damages your bond irrevocably. After a struggle, whenever you go to trim the nails, you are nervous and he reads your body language and it confirms that there is a need to be afraid.

People start with the goal of doing all the nails at once instead of patiently breaking it down into tiny steps to work toward the goal and bad memories happen. If you are dealing with a dog that already hates to have his nails trimmed, let your vet help. There is no reason to have anyone traumatize your dog. Now veterinarians have safe and effective medication protocols to ease your dog’s fear as he learns that he is safe even when his nails are trimmed. The best place to start is with a Fear Free (sm) Certified Professional. They are experts at removing fear and pain from all handling that your dog can experience. No one wants their dog to feel tortured. You can find a Fear Free (sm) Certified Professional by clicking here.

If you have a puppy, start him out right. Break down handling his feet into tiny steps. Show him the trimmers smeared with peanut butter so he starts to associate them with good feelings. Reach for his foot, give another treat. If, at any time, he retreats or resists, go back to the last step he was comfortable and reward there. Do not hurry him. The first time, you may not even trim a nail, but if you move too fast, you could create a bigger problem. Be careful never to cut too deep and hurt him or he will learn the wrong thing.

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