SOPHIA YIN, DVM, MS
You have finally mustered the nerve to carry out the task you’ve been dreading all week. Nail clippers in hand, you hunt for Fido throughout the house. “I got him. He’s over here,” shouts your spouse. The two of you conspire to hold the struggling Cocker Spaniel down to give him a toenail trim, but after just seconds, you both give up.
The majority of dog and cat owners are afraid or unable to trim their pet’s nails. This is an essential pet care task that all owners should be able to perform.
Untrimmed or worn nails can snag on objects and break, causing pain and a trip to the veterinarian or an abnormal walking gait. They can even grow so long that they curve around back into the pads, causing lameness, pain and infection. Long nails can also cause damage to furniture or hardwood floors and scratch humans who are playing with their long-nailed pets.
You might think you can avoid the issue by sending your pet to the veterinary hospital or groomer to have this task done, but many pets are just as bad there. Consequently, the event is extremely stressful.
It turns out that both dogs and cats can be trained to allow, and even enjoy, the toenail trim process. Although the overall process is easier if you start when your pet is young, the trick is to pair the event with something positive and to train in systematic steps.
For instance, to train a pet to tolerate toenail trims, we want to associate the procedure with good things. For pets that bolt at the sight of toenail trimmers, you can just place the trimmers near their food bowl so they have to walk past and be near them every day when they eat. You can also put a treat, such as canned food, peanut butter or spray cheese, on the nail trimmer handles so that the pet can lick the treat off every time they walk by. You may want to be holding the trimmers if you have a pet that tends to eat weird objects.
Once the pet consistently acts as if she’s about to get treats when she sees the trimmers, you can go on to the next step. The easiest variation uses two people — one to give treats and one to handle the feet. First, have the pet sit in a comfortable position. Start by giving treats and simultaneously rubbing just above the paw. The goal is to get the pet to focus on just the food. After several seconds, stop. Wait about five seconds, then repeat the procedure. You want to make it clear that handling the foot equals treats.
When the pet is good at this step, go to pairing foot-rubbing with giving the treats. With each step, handle the feet more vigorously. Next, practice putting the clippers over the nail so he gets used to the feel paired with treats.
The final step is pairing the actual toenail clipping action with treats. Beyond this, you can also progress to clipping the nail and giving the treats afterward too. Just be sure that when you clip, you avoid clipping into the pink part of the nail that contains the blood vessel and nerves (quick) or you will set the process back. It may be helpful to start by trimming a small part, then a little more, especially with pets that have dark nails that make it hard to see the quick.
Sometimes the training takes just minutes. Sometimes it takes up to a week with twice daily sessions. Just be sure to always stay below the level of handling that causes your pet to react.
Dr. Sophia Yin is a veterinarian at San Francisco Veterinary Specialists. She has a behavior website at www.drsophiayin.com.
Watch a video that takes you through the steps discussed in this article.
This article originally appeared in PetsMatter September / October 2010, published by the American Animal Hospital Association. Copyright © 2010 AAHA. Find out more.