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Pet Nail-Trimming: Nightmare No More!

Pet Nail-Trimming: Nightmare No More!
June 28, 2023

How to turn your pet's least favorite activity into a day at the spa.

It’s safe to say that nail trims are probably one of the most dreaded (but painfully necessary) parts of caring for your pet—both for you and for your pet! The paws are naturally a very sensitive spot for dogs and cats and they have evolved to protect them. Even if you gently touch your pets’ paws, most will pull away. In fact, this is a normal reflex that we test by pinching the toe gently as part of a neurologic exam to ensure healthy nerve function (called the withdrawal reflex)!

A Typical Nail Trim

Now, let’s imagine the typical nail trimming process. You must grab and hold onto your pets’ paw, without them pulling away, while bringing a very foreign object (in the shape of nail clippers) to the toes. Then, you must carefully put the nail clippers around the nail (but not too far so that you don’t clip the quick) and put gentle but quick pressure to clip the nail. Hopefully your pet will sit still during all of this! Sounds stressful, right?

Nail trims at Northeast Animal Hospital look pretty similar to this, though we usually take your pet to our treatment area where we can have a few extra hands to try to make this process a little less stressful. This might involve your dog standing on our lift table being gently restrained by at least one person, with another giving treats or distracting them, and another clipping the nails (or attempting).

For kitties, we may wrap them in towels or allow them to cover their faces to be more comfortable. For some dogs and cats who are comfortable with their paws being handled and not averse to nail trims, this may take just a few minutes. For most dogs and cats though, it can quickly become a stressful situation that may even become unsafe for your pet and our staff.

When Vet Visits Turn Stressful

Our staff is trained to recognize subtle cues and changes in your pets’ body language that indicate early signs of stress. If we continue to push a pet through stressful situations by not listening to their early cues, then a pet may have to bite in order to be “heard” by us. Even if your pet never tries to bite, the stress they feel will lead to heightened anxiety and fear each time they come back to the vet (even if there are no nail trims involved).

This situation can make it more difficult to do more important things like a very thorough physical exam, administering vaccines, or treating your pet if they become ill. Imagine if your pet comes in for licking their paws or limping. If we’ve previously stressed them out by just trimming nails, it will be very difficult to look at their paws when they may be painful or uncomfortable!

Making Pets More Comfortable

So, how do we make your pet more comfortable? Unfortunately, there is no quick and easy solution for a pet afraid of nail trims, but there is hope! Training (utilizing positive reinforcement methods) is the most important step to take, but it can take quite a while to overcome an existing aversion to nail trims. Teaching a pet to overcome a fear is inherently more difficult than avoiding the fear in the first place. For puppies, kittens, and pets who are not averse to nail trims, it’s best to avoid developing fears entirely by teaching your pet to be comfortable with handling through desensitization and acclimatization (getting them used to having their feet handled).

So what is desensitization and acclimatization? It is basically getting your pet used to having their feet touched. Typically we are going to accomplish this by showing them that good things happen when we touch their feet. The instructions below come from Fear Free Pets, an organization dedicated to preventing and alleviating stress and anxiety in pets, especially the stress associated with veterinary experiences. We also recommend using a professional trainer to help with this as it is very important to go at your pets’ individual pace.

We have also included some links below to various organizations trying to help alleviate this stress-point for our pets.

  • Fear Free Pets
  • Sophia Yin - Here, you can see a veterinary team demonstrating a positive reinforcement technique to help teach this dog that nail trims come with treats, not pain.
  • VCA Hospitals

Extra Help for Nail Trims

As you can see, these training techniques can be very effective to reduce stress, when done correctly. This involves a lot of time and effort on your part, but is very rewarding. However in some cases, pets may be too stressed to engage in training. This is where we can use certain medications to calm your pets’ nerves. If your pet is in a better mindset to learn at home, you are likely to make more progress. These medications may even make your pet feel so calm that we can safely and calmly proceed with the nail trim at Northeast Animal Hospital.

Common medications prescribed by our veterinarians are trazodone and gabapentin. It is important to follow the instructions of the medications exactly as prescribed, otherwise they may not have the desired effect. It is also important to note that not all medications and doses work the same for each pet. Sometimes we have to change doses or add other medications to ensure your pet is calm enough.

Unfortunately, some pets have developed such strong fears that even oral calming medications aren’t enough to facilitate stress-free nail trims here at our hospital. In those cases, we will recommend injectable sedation so that your pet doesn’t have to be awake for the stressful experience. Sedation is generally very safe, but does carry more risks than oral medications. It is also more time consuming, more labor intensive, and more expensive. We will usually save this as a last resort and still strongly recommend the use of oral medications and training at home before going this route.

At Northeast Animal Hospital, we strive to always do what is best for your pets, both physically and mentally. We want your pet to enjoy coming to the vet as much as possible! While they may not come to truly enjoy the nail trims, we can at least ensure that they are as stress-free as possible for your fur babies with the tips outlined above. We appreciate you working with us to provide the most calm care for you, your pet, and our staff!

Northeast Animal Hospital