As a dog trainer, I see a lot of paws. A lot. This has allowed me to notice a certain trend: our pet dogs, on average, have excessively long nails. Pet owners are ever-increasingly aware of the importance of pet care, health and hygiene, but for some reason, nails aren’t getting the same attention
The importance of short nails actually has very little to do with the nail itself, but more so how the joints in the paw, especially the phalanges (bones of the finger), are affected. The diagram to the right shows how excessively long nails dramatically change the anatomy of the paw, putting undue stress on the joints. In the long-run, this can permanently alter the conformation of the foot, causing them to look more like flippers, than healthy, compact, rounded paws.
Since lack of exercise contributes to both excessive nail length and obesity, overweight dogs tend to have longer nails, but this isn’t always the case: dogs that are exercised on very soft terrain, such as grass, have a much harder time keeping their nails appropriately short. They may be in phenomenal cardiovascular shape, but they are still putting a lot of stress on their hyper-extended phalanges. Dogs that get less exercise because of any of a number of conditions (arthritis, old age, chronic pain, injury, etc…) will also need help keeping their nails short.
So, what is the appropriate nail length? To a certain degree, the shorter the better. Pet dogs don’t really need their nails for anything, so they can (and should) be quite short. The rule of thumb is that as soon as they start touching the ground when the dog is in the standing position, they start to cause the extension of the phalanges. While the dewclaw will never touch the ground, its excessive length may render it more susceptible to cracking and splitting. As dog nails grow in a curl shape, rather than straight outwards, if it is allowed to continue growing, it will eventually curl over and can begin to dig into the dog’s flesh.
Unfortunately, shortening the nail isn’t as straightforward as it seems. Encased in the nail is the very sensitive kwik: the “live” part of the nail, rich in capillaries and nerves. Cutting into the kwik causes pain and quite a bit of bleeding. Dogs, as a whole, already dislike having their paws fussed over, that dislike can increase dramatically if you cut into the kwik, also known as kwiking a dog. In dogs with light-coloured nails, the kwik is visible. In the photo to the right, you can clearly see where the kwik ends.
Keeping a dog’s nails short naturally can be rather difficult. The dog has to maintain a trot, canter or gallop on an abrasive surface, walking is seldom sufficient. These surfaces are also the hardest on joints, so dogs shouldn’t be getting long-term high-intensity exercise on asphalt or cement. Clipping or filing your dog’s nails is often necessary for both urban and rural dogs.
Dogs that are toed in (paws facing more or less inwards) or toed out (paws
facing more or less outwards) wear down their nails unevenly, so the innermost nails may be longer than the outermost ones, or vice-versa.
Learning to use a nail clipper or dremel is a pretty straightforward process, but habituating your dog to the experience can, on the other hand, be a rather arduous endeavor! Most groomers charge very little, some vets will even do it for free, so having a professional clip your dog’s nails is a valid alternative to doing it yourself. The line in the photo to the left shows where you’d be positioning the nail clippers or where you’d stop the dremel.
The more the nail grows, the more the kwik grows with it, so clipping nails that are already too long can sometimes be a challenge. The best way to help get long nails back to a healthy length is by progressively shortening them. The shorter they become, the more the kwik recedes. Taking them back gradually in this manner takes time, but is the only safe way to do it on your own. For dogs with extremely long nails, you’ll need a vet to put your dog under anesthesia and clip them short. The dog will be uncomfortable until the kwiks heal, and will likely need pain management, but in certain cases, this is the only way.
For a detailed guide on how to tackle getting your dog used to having her nails clipped, check out our Grooming Taz article, full of tips and tricks on how to care for your dog from tip to toe!