Being a dog parent is fun—and very hard. Ask anyone with a dog and they’ll tell you, “It’s a lot of work.” Part of that work is grooming; part of grooming is nail trimming. Cutting your puppy’s nails is as essential to their overall health as is a good diet and daily walks. Being nervous about how to cut your puppy’s nails is also totally normal. Getting anything sharp near a dog’s body is scary! Luckily, you’re not the first to venture down this path, and you won’t be the last. Many dog parents—and groomers—struggle with nail trimming. We break it down so you can cut your puppy’s nails safely with as little drama as possible.
How often to cut your puppy’s nails
A healthy, active dog will need a nail trimming about once a month. Catherine Barnette, DVM, of VCA Animal Hospitals says if you always walk your dog on sidewalks, you may need to trim less frequently since rough cement acts as a convenient nail file. On the other hand, less active and senior dogs may need their nails cut more often.
Regardless of activity level, if your dog’s nails touch the floor when he’s standing still (or you can hear those talons click-clacking down the hallway), it’s time to trim.
Why is trimming a dog’s nails important?
Would you enjoy nails so long they curled into your palms and made picking things up impossible? We didn’t think so. The same goes for your dog. Lengthy nails make running and walking difficult because it impedes traction (and snags carpeting). They can even lead to splayed paws, which over time will cause pain all the way up your pup’s leg. These are worst case scenarios, but they do illustrate the importance of frequent nail clipping.
Plus, the more you trim their nails, the less likely you are to trim them poorly. Everyone who has ever clipped canine nails has been afraid of clipping them too closely, causing a yelp or a bloody toe. This happens when you accidentally cut something called the quick. The quick is a vein full of blood and nerves sitting inside your dog’s nail, growing with it. The longer you let the nail grow, the longer the quick gets - and the harder it is not to cut it.
How to cut your puppy's nails
In an ideal world, you’ve got a second person to help achieve this daunting task. However, there are ways to do it alone and live to tell the tale.
1. Hold your dog’s paw in your hand gently, yet tightly enough that he can’t yank it away.
2. Make sure no paw fur is in the way. It might be wise to trim this hair before you start.
3. Hold one toe between your thumb and pointer finger (thumb on the pad, pointer finger on the fur above the nail).
4. Push your fingers together slightly to hold the nail steady.
5. Using your nail clippers as directed (see below for different styles of clippers), gently trim 1mm off the nail tip. (Hint: The pointiest part—and the safest part—of a dog nail is usually thinner than the rest of the nail. Stick to 1mm trims at first, but use that skinny portion as a guide if necessary.)
6. Take a look at the trimmed nail.
7. If you don’t see the quick, trim another 1mm of nail. Repeat until you see the quick or reach the curve in the nail.
8. An ideal length is 2 to 3 mm away from the quick. Once you’ve reached that point, you can move onto the next toe.
Avoiding the quick
Here’s what you need to know about avoiding the quick inside a dog’s nail. Again, cutting the quick isn’t the end of the world, but it doesn’t feel good and can lead to your dog putting up a fight every time you try to cut their nails.
On dogs, black nails have chalky white interiors; if you see a small black dot within the white area, that’s the quick! Don’t trim further. White dog nails make life a little easier, as the quick is visible almost through the hard nail shell. It’s usually pink.
Cutting past the curve of your dog’s nail will usually get you too close to the quick, so use that as a reference point. Stop once you get there (or before, if you reach the quick).
If you do happen to cut into the quick, apply a styptic powder to staunch the bleeding and relieve pain. A doggy-safe powder like Miracle Care Kwik-Stop is a solid choice.
Tips for cutting your puppy’s nails
The Dog Training Secret recommends tuckering your dog out with playtime or a long walk before attempting a nail trim. Once they’re ready to snooze, you can more easily pick up their paws and start trimming.
Dogs who don’t enjoy sitting still may need constant treats during the process. You can even try a licking mat full of peanut butter—as long as you’re still able to hold your dog’s paw safely in your hand.
Don’t rush your puppy! Even if you have to do one nail at a time over the course of the day, it’s worth it. Rushing the process could lead to an injury or traumatizing your dog, making any future attempts more difficult.
When can you start cutting a puppy's nails?
The sooner you start cutting your puppy’s nails the better! It’s imperative to get your pup used to having their nails trimmed at an early age. The first week your puppy is at home with you, trim those nails—even if you hardly trim them at all. Your dog needs to get used to you holding their paw and handling their nails.
If your puppy reacts negatively to a nail trim right away or your adult dog hates the process, Ryan Llera, DVM, and Lynn Buzhardt, DVM, at VCA Animal Hospitals encourage establishing a good relationship between your dog and the clippers. This could look like:
- Carrying the nail clippers with you on walks and placing them by food bowls to establish a non-threatening relationship with the tool.
- Letting your pup sniff and smell the clippers.
- Letting your pup hear the clippers in action when they aren’t being used on nails.
- Simply touching a paw with the clipper without trimming anything.
- Reinforcing all of these moments with a small treat to show your dog they will be rewarded after interacting with the clippers.
Eventually, once your dog is comfortable with the clippers, try trimming one nail and see how they react. Even if your puppy doesn’t put up a fight, keep the clippers around to remind them it’s not a scary tool.
Never punish or scold your puppy for being afraid of nail clippers. This will only lead to further distress when it’s time to cut.
Can I clip my puppy's nails myself?
Yes, you certainly can! Going to the groomer’s can become expensive, especially since dogs need their nails trimmed monthly. Being able to give your dog a bath, cut your puppy’s nails and clean your dog’s teeth at home will save you money and improve the bond between you and your pet.
The vet specialists at Washington State University say laying your dog down on a table and leaning over their body is a good way to approach nail trimming if you’re flying solo. This stance offers an opportunity to hold the dog in place. You can also try this on the ground with your dog on its side. Keeping one arm above the neck and shoulder area prevents your dog from picking up its head. Make sure you don’t bend their leg in a wonky position - let your pup’s joints bend naturally.
What angle do you cut a puppy's nails?
Speaking of natural bends, successful nail sessions require certain angles. Usually, the nail clippers you choose will help you determine the best angle at which to cut your puppy’s nails. However, if you’re totally lost, aim for a 45° angle. This will help you achieve a nail with a flat tip parallel to the floor.
Always make sure the clippers are sharp. Dull blades can make for a painful and ineffective trimming session. Guillotine style trimmers have one blade that pops up to trim the nail. Scissor style trimmers have two blades that come together. Explore both types of clippers when you’re just starting out to see which works best for your pup. Purchasing the correct sized clippers is also important. Generally speaking, guillotine style clippers are easier for large dogs and scissor clippers are better for small pups.
You can do this! Your dog—and your floors—will thank you.