The Vet is In: Caring for Your Pet’s Nails

Dr. Marvin Ordway
By Dr. Marvin Ordway June 15, 2012 12:00

Dr. Ordway and Homer

Animal claws (nails) are made of a tough protein called keratin. Claws help animals and birds catch prey, dig holes, andclimb or perch in trees, and are also used for defense. But injury or neglect of pets’ nails can lead to problems.

When nails grow too long, they can push the toes into abnormal positions so that even walking can be painful. Long nails are also prone to injury. Frequently, the hard outer shell becomes partially or fully torn from the living tissue in the center of the toenail. In addition to being extremely painful, many times the nail’s living tissue – the quick – bleeds profusely.

Owners can attempt first aid as long as the pet is cooperative, though sometimes a muzzle may make your job easier. Stop the bleeding by pressing Kwik Stop (a commercial powder that stanches the flow), cornstarch, or flour onto the bleeding area, then apply a bandage.

Many times, because of the pain involved, the pet must be treated by a veterinarian. Typically, the vet will sedate the pet, give an injection for pain, remove the fractured nail, and bandage the paw. Medication for pain and infection, if needed, will be sent home with your companion. The bandage stays in place for three to five days to protect the nail area while it heals. Most of the time, nails grow out normally within a few months.

Nails can also grow long and curve back toward the digital pad and actually grow into the pad, causing pain and infection. When this happens, the pet must be sedated and the nail cut with a scissor-type clipper. Once the nail is cut, it can be pulled out of the digital pad, and the wound can be treated with an antibiotic bandage. This condition is most common with dewclaws, or with older, inactive pets or animals with diseased nails.

Many things can cause nail disease. Single nail problems usually result from trauma, bacterial or fungal infection, cancer, or localized demodex mite infection. If more than one nail is affected, and especially if nails on more than one paw are diseased, it may indicate an autoimmune disease, metabolic disease, generalized demodex mite infection, or even metastatic cancer. Diagnostic tests by your veterinarian can usually determine the underlying cause.

Long nails in older dogs can also make it difficult for them to get a good footing on wood or tile floors and thus increase the likelihood that they will fall and injure themselves. Older cats have trouble keeping their nails fully retracted, and if the nails are not trimmed on a regular basis they will get caught in carpet, furniture, and their servants’ clothes.

Long nails can be hard on the humans in the house as well, damaging floors, carpets, and furniture.

All of the above problems can be reduced or prevented with regular nail trimming. When first starting with a new pet or young animal, go slowly. Sometimes that means only trimming one or two nails a day until your pet gets used to the idea.

Human nail clippers can be used to trim nails on puppies, small cats, birds, and reptiles. For dogs, larger cats, and larger birds and reptiles, a pet specific scissor-type or guillotine-style clipper works best.

Be careful not to cut into the quick, or your pet will experience pain and bleeding and may become fearful of trims. The quick can be seen in light-colored nails; these can usually be trimmed with one cut about 1/16 of an inch in front of the quick.  The quick in dark-colored nails cannot be seen. It’s safest to make several small serial cuts through the nail until a gray oval layer appears. Stop at this point or you will cut the quick. If the quick is cut, apply Kwik Stop, cornstarch, or flour to stop the bleeding.

When trimming bird nails, I like to wrap the bird in a towel and gently pull out one foot at a time. Because birds do not have a diaphragm, be very careful not to put pressure on the body or the bird will not be able to breathe and may die.

Most of our animal companions, if started early in life, will allow their human friends to trim their nails. Play with their feet so they get used to having their paws and claws handled. Sometimes, it helps to give a treat or a little loving after each nail is trimmed.

© 2012 Friends and Neighbors Magazine


Dr. Marvin Ordway
By Dr. Marvin Ordway June 15, 2012 12:00