Pedicures: Definitely Not for Everyone

Quinn's longer nails


I receive oodles of emails with questions from folks who love their dogs and want what is best for their health. A popular  question topic is toenails! Should they be trimmed and if so, how often? What if they bleed? What to do if the pedicure becomes a wrestling match in which the dog is invariably the winner? Here are some general guidelines and recommendations pertaining to your tootsie’s toenails.

Nellie's nubby nails

Every dog wears down his or her nails differently. For example, consider my two doggies. The three of us walk together daily on a variety of different surfaces, from grass to cement. Whereas Nellie’s nails naturally remain at an ideal length, Quinn needs a nail trim approximately once every two months (and he’s the one who runs two miles for every mile I walk).

One technique for determining if your dog needs a pedicure is to manually extend the toes and assess the length of the nails in relation to the bottom of the foot. To do this, place your thumb on top of your dog’s foot and your other fingers on the large pad on the underside of the foot. Gently squeeze your fingers together which will cause the toes to extend outward. With the toes in this position, check to see if the tips of the toenails are level with or extend beyond the underside of the foot. Nails that are level can be left alone. Those that extend beyond the underside of the foot are in need of a trim.

Some dogs have clear nails in which case you can readily see how far the tip of the nail extends beyond the “quick,” the pink to red colored blood filled cavity that runs down the center of the toenail. If the nail extends well beyond the quick, it’s time for a pedicure. This trick doesn’t always work because some dogs with chronically overgrown nails also develop lengthy quicks. And then there are those dogs with black toenails, making it impossible to observe the quick at all. To be certain about whether or not your dog’s nails are too long, consult with your veterinarian, vet tech, or groomer.

If you have never before trimmed a dog’s toenails, my advice is this. Ask a pro (veterinary technician, groomer, breeder) to teach you how. Pedicures can be tricky business! If your dog has clear nails (quicks readily visible) and happens to be an angel about having his or her feet handled, you are good to go. Black nails or dogs who are moving targets make the job far more difficult. It is easy to hit the quick, and that can be painful for your dog. And nicking the quick results in bleeding, not in an amount that is harmful to your dog, but it sure as heck might be harmful to your carpeting! If bleeding occurs, your best bet is to drag the tip of the toenail through a softish bar of soap with hopes that the soap will form a plug that stops the bleeding. A safer bet to stop the bleeding is to have some silver nitrate sticks or powder on hand.

Some dogs (even the most well behaved dogs) absolutely, positively hate

having their nails trimmed. They will fight tooth and nail (pun intended) before allowing a pedicure. If your dog resembles this description, know that you are not alone. Trimming just one or two nails at a time may be the ticket for success. For others, the use of a dremel tool rather than nail clippers may restore sanity to the situation. Certainly routine handling of your dog’s feet and lots of praise can be of benefit in preparation for pedicures.

There are those dogs who, no matter what, struggle to the point that four people are needed to accomplish the nail trim- three to restrain the writhing, wriggling beast, and one to trim the nails (and these are dogs who are often perfectly well behaved in every other situation). In such cases one has to question whether or not it is really worth it. If your dog becomes a professional wrestler in response to a pedicure, I encourage you to talk with your vet about how to make the nail trim less stressful and more successful. She might be able to recommend a more effective restraint technique, behavior modification strategies, and/or the use of Rescue Remedy or chemical sedation.

Performing pedicures on black toenails and/or wiggly dogs is not for the feint of heart. Don’t hesitate to request help from a seasoned veteran. It will be a relief for you and your dog! Have you ever attempted to trim your dog’s toenails? If so, how did it go? If you happen to be a dog trainer or behaviorist, your advice is always most welcome here.

Best wishes for good health,

Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of  Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.




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24 Comments on “Pedicures: Definitely Not for Everyone

  1. There are several ways to keep your dog’s nails short(er). Walks on concrete or tarmac can have a bonus of keeping the nails shorter. I use the Dremel method on my own dog, having convinced her that it is relaxing and the “extra yummy” treat bowl is filled.

    Shirley Chong has a fantastic do-it-yourself Doggie Nail File. The link for her innovation is:

    I’ve not yet built her file, but have all the materials. Once made, simple clicker training will shape the behavior where the dog files his/her OWN nails!

  2. My little Aria HATED having her nails clipped. Her nails are black, it’s very easy cut the quick, plus an experience when a puppy made her terrified of the nail clippers so it was a battle every time her nails needed trimming. The solution was a dremel-type tool. Now she comes and sits in my lap perfectly happy while I ‘do’ her nails.

  3. Back in the 70’s I had a German Shepherd that would
    not allow anyone to trim her nails. It actually took
    at least three people to do her nails (two to hold her
    down while the other person did the nails, but it worked
    better to have 4 people). I came up with a method that
    allowed me to do her nails without any help. This method
    can be modified a bit and treats can be used. It might
    even work better with treats. This method can also be
    used with a Dremel. There are a couple of things I have
    added at the end that were suggested by someone else.
    Sky and the Green Mountain Schips

    Preliminary steps: Take dog to vet and have them cut nails as short as possible (without cutting into quick). Once this has been done you can proceed as follows:

    It is very important to take your time and don’t let anything interrupt you. Each step may take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour depending on your dog and must be repeated every day as many times a day as possible. Allow several days to a week or more (if necessary) before going on to the next step. The dog should remain completely relaxed and sleepy before moving on to the next step. Talk or sing soothingly to dog while doing each step. If dog objects at any time, back up two steps. (Take one step forward and two steps back if necessary). Don’t have the nail cutters or file out until you reach step # 3. Then place them where dog can see them while you work on each step.

    1. Have dog lay down on its side. As long as dog lays still, start petting dog on head and side. DO NOT touch dog’s legs or paws. Repeat every day until dog is completely relaxed and sleepy.

    2. Repeat #1 and add petting dog’s legs. DO NOT touch dog’s paws or dewclaws. Repeat every day until dog remains completely relaxed and sleepy.

    3. Repeat #1 and #2. Add petting dog’s paws. DO NOT lift paws, just pet them. Repeat every day until dog is completely relaxed and sleepy.

    4. Repeat #1, #2 and #3. Add lifting paws one at a time as you pet. Repeat every day until dog is completely relaxed and sleepy.

    5. Repeat #1, #2, #3 and #4. Add examining paws but DO NOT touch nails. Repeat every day until dog is completely relaxed and sleepy.

    6. Repeat #1, #2, #3, #4 and #5. Add touching each nail with your fingers and exam nail. Repeat every day until dog is completely relaxed and sleepy.

    7. Repeat #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6. Add picking up nail clippers. Show them to dog allowing dog to sniff them. Set nail clippers back down. Repeat every day until dog is completely relaxed and sleepy.

    8. Repeat #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7. Add picking up nail clippers and after showing them to dog touch each nail with the clippers. DO NOT try to cut any nails. Repeat every day until dog is completely relaxed and sleepy.

    9. Repeat #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8. Add using nail cutters as though you were going to cut the nail, but DO NOT CUT NAILS. Repeat every day until dog is completely relaxed and sleepy.

    10. Repeat #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9. Add trying to cut one or two nails. DO NOT cut more than that.

    11. Repeat #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9, #10. Add trying to cut one or two more nails.

    12. Repeat each step and keep adding one or two nails every day to every few days until you are able to do them all without the dog objecting to it.

    How long it will take before you are able to cut your dogs nails without the dog objecting to it will depend on your dog. With my own dog it took about 6 months to 12 months. Other dogs may take less time. It is important to just take your time and not try to rush things.

    A couple of things that were suggested by someone else when I told them about my method are:
    When the dog is already resting, give a fingertip massage instead of just petting. Also you might want to add a “party step” by having a “party” when finished trimming the nails with much happiness, praising, and running about as a reward for sitting still for the trim. (The “party step” could also be done after the successful completion of each step).

  4. Nail clipping was Nefer’s (my Pharaoh Hound) worst nightmare. At the vet while he was doing it, the people in the waiting room were convinced that we are tearing out her nails instead of clipping them. It also took almost half an hour to get all four feet. Finally, I discussed it with my delightful veterinarian that we should try an experiment: I will leave the room and let him cope with her by himself.

    After ten minutes he called me in and I was convinced that he gave up. Au contraire! Once I was out of sight, she sat like a diva, almost extending her paw to him with an attitude of “do this one, please!” Not a peep out of her….

    The above taught me that very often the owner’s mere presence will provoke the behaviour. Once the owner is absent, she had no sympathetic (or other kind of) audience and choreographing her own “song and dance” was a waste of her time.

    They never cease to teach and amaze us, do they?

  5. Great topic! As a trainer, I get questions on this a lot. I find the most common problem with nail trims is not the trim itself — which should be painless and quick — but all the hoopla and coercion which we humans tend to attach to it.

    I made a video a few years ago on rehabilitating a “problem nail dog,” showing the very simple and very efficient way to let the dog feel secure and unpressured during the procedure. I’ve gotten quite a lot of positive feedback on how it’s helped many vets and clients; I hope it will continue to assist others! The key is not only short sessions, as you mention, but leaving pressure and coercion out of the equation so that the dog can be a willing participant.

  6. I agree with Tricia that trying to physically restrain a dog will only result in anxiety on both sides of the clippers. I use a bit of peanut butter smeared on a vertical surface (like front of refrigerator) to occupy the dog in a standing position. While they are busy licking the PB I take one paw like shoeing a horse and clip *one* nail. They get to clean up the PB and all is done for the day (except I also clean fridge). I keep a record of which nail was done each day until I have made the whole circuit. By the time I have completed this a couple of times the dog is pretty comfortable with getting nails trimmed and I can do all at once. I determine whether to use the dremel (battery operated ones make far less noise so that’s the only kind I use) or clippers. Clippers can be faster but I want the dog to be totally comfortable.

  7. I agree that often restraint can cause a dog to rebel; however, at the vet or the groomer, they don’t have time to move slowly. After having trimmed nails both in my veterinary career and for my own dogs, I must say causing a nail to sometimes bleed is part of the territory – even for seasoned trimmers. I’ve told veterinary clients that bleeding nails often look like razor cuts in the way they can bleed so much. In a pinch, I’ve recommended using flour as a stoppage agent. I prefer a silver nitrate stick, but those can stain your fingers. I recently found a gel that can be purchased over the counter (in addition to the “quick stop” powder) to use.
    Treats are definitely a good desensitization tool (they must be quite small and easily/quickly eaten, and of course, something the dog would want even during a stressful situation). Not too long ago, I did an on-line consultation for someone who had an impossible time trimming her dog’s nails. I still have that consultation in my computer files, if anyone would like to purchase a copy.

  8. The Whole Dog Journal published what I believe is the BEST article I have ever read on teaching a dog to accept and relax during nail trimming. Pat Miller wrote it and it appears in the March 2009 issues.

    Another benefit of dremel tool trimming is the nice round edges, Clippers can leave rough edges which can scratch skin and/or get caught on carpets, etc. Re clippers, groomers I have spoken with re tools generally recommend usiing a guillotine type rather than the forward and back clippers, can’t think of the name just now:)

    I totally agree with not restraining for nail trimming. That just creates more fear. Heck, if zoos can teach elephants to put their feet in a sling for foot care, surely dogs can permit
    their nails to be trimmed without a fight.

  9. Don’t overlook the Dremel system of trimming dog toe nails! It works great for black nails. Most dogs don’t object to the grinding tool. Get someone to show you how to do this job.

  10. I’m lucky my dogs wear their nails down because neiter would stand fornail trimming. I’d be hard pressed to sedate any dog just to get their nails done.

  11. Even though I love black dogs, I envy people who have dogs with pink/transparent nails. Seeing what you’re doing makes is so much less scary.

    Fortunately I have a hubby for the “dirty work.”

    It is an interesting note about dogs wearing down their nails differently. Until about a year ago we never had to touch Jasmine’s, always worn down nicely. Recently she does need a trim every now and then. Her physical therapist says that it’s because older dogs walk differently.

  12. My dog also has black nails, and I made the mistake when she was a pup of nipping the “quick”. She is a struggle to trim, but as a Lab she is a foodie 😉 I put her on her bed and spread kibble/treats all over and it distracts her enough to get a paw or 2 done!

  13. I would like to whole heartedly support the comment submitted by Tricia Fagan. To your list of pros (veterinary technician, groomer, breeder) please add trainer! Training for the family dog is not only sit, down stay, etc. It is also ‘allow me to handle you so you can receive good veterinary care and grooming.’

  14. I, like Tricia, am a certified professional trainer.

    I am taking my foster to a training class (the instructor is a Karen Prior graduate and has worked in zoos for something like years). Tonight we worked on teaching the dogs “touch” the hand which is useful for moving the dogs, teaching it to target and can be worked on to present paw for nail trimming. And, it can be useful with come.

    In my classes, I would teach desensitization to the sound and feel of the nail clippers by having the dogs lick peanut butter on the frig door while I was straddled backwards so that I could easily pick up a paw and just touch the nail with the clippers.

    Another thing which helps with trimming dog nails is that the clippers need to be sharp. Dull ones pull on the nail bed creating pain.

  15. Our dog is one of the terrified and completely uncooperative ones. And he knows the difference between pretend clips or taps on the nail with the clippers and an actual attempt to trim the nail. Unfortunately, he also has very hard nails that don’t wear down on their own.

    Thankfully, both times he went under anesthesia in the past year, the technician monitoring him did a really nice clip of his nails. Otherwise, he’d probably be winning some kind of gruesome Longest Nail contest.

    Given his many anxiety issues, sedation may be the only way it will get done. Even now, on Prozac, the vet techs gave up halfway through last time because he was so anxious and fighting them and he wouldn’t take any treats from them.

  16. I have 4 dogs, all with different nails (growth patterns and colors). I handle all my dogs’ feet regularly… have done that since they were baby dogs. I push my fingers between their toes, extend their nail, drag my nail down theirs, push on the pads, squeeze their feet. So they are used to having their feet messed with.

    The dog who handles it best was clicker trained to the “clip” sound but I kind of got lazy about it on the other three. They always get RELEASED BY ME to cookies after getting their toes done, clicker or not.

    I think it helps to be no-nonsense about the whole business when doing the actual clipping… pop the nail out, line up the clipper, snip, praise, find the next toe. Not harsh… just no nonsense. I am done in minutes unless i trim pad hair too.

    I agree with poster who said not to restrain. That sets up an ongoing battle that eventually escalates on someone’s part… Maybe the owner, maybe the dog.

    I clip my friends dogs sometimes, and I think a lot of the dog behavior is taught by the owner. The more you coddle the dog and tell them it’s ok, the more they think something really awful is going to happen because their fear reaction is getting rewarded. So dogs who are treated like “oh poor baby! shushhhhh, its ok” IMO tend to be the worst ones for clipping.

    I use the plier type, i think they are safer and cut cleaner then the ones you slip the toe into a hole. I also have heavy duty clippers instead of the thin cheap ones. Cleaner, faster cut.

    I tried Dremeling nails and my dogs liked that better and that was ok till i caught one dog’s hair in the rotor (my dogs have long hair). Although the dog was actually not offended about that, I got squeamish. People I know who are more coordinated tell me their dogs learn to love that. I believe them. If you are coordinated, it is a good technique

  17. AHA! Says the trainer. Trimming nails is one of those things that can also be an indication of WHO’S THE BOSS. I had a client call me b/c of her Rhodesian Ridgeback having a panic attack and 4 vet technicians trying to hold her down just for a nail trim. She could hear her dog yelping and after 5 min of listening to the screams she asked them to stop. The only other alternative was to anesthetize the dog or let the dog have long nails. After a little quiet time to think and many years to come of this kind of trauma she decided to get the help of a behaviorist. Thats where I came in.

    It’s never the only issue that I see when I go to clients home to help with a problem. I get called for one specific issue and invariably there are many areas where the dog is the boss and owners just settle for it b/c they don’t think they can do anything about it. Once a dog knows it can rule the house they try in other areas in their lives as well.

    After about 10 min of being w/ this family of three, 2 adults and the dog I realized that this dog was running the show in every single area and the owners just thought this was the way life would be with this dog. We talked about being the leader and having a life they love and a dog they can trust and a less anxious dog as well. I taught some obedience commands and gained the dogs trust while I taught respect through obedience and within 30 min I had the dog on her bed and I clipped her nails w/ no one holding her down. She didn’t like it but she trusted me a total stranger to cut her nails in the comfort of her own home on her own bed and her owners sat in amazement. A job well done when you establish yourself as a leader w/out fear or pain any dog will learn to self-restrain even when they don’t like what’s being done. They are safer, the owners are safer and anyone in a vets office is safer b/c the dog has learned that they are not the boss. Leadership goes a long way, so for everyones sake, please train your dogs.

    aka Shewhisperer

  18. My Australian Terrier Kwali was terrified of nail-clips, with good reason; her quick had been cut many times. Talk about pain! I see my friend Carolyn in Belize has posted – excellent comment, Carolyn!

    It took me four months to teach Kwali to accept nail-trims with relative ease; I used a technique similar to that Carolyn uses.

    The trick is, not to fight the dog. Best to make any restraint only VERY light, just holding gently. I’d hook a thumb through Kwali’s harness while she was up on the “grooming table” (a desk) – largely, to protect her from injury, should she try to jump off.

    I’d hold her paw very gently, and allow her to move it; merely retaining my very light hold on the paw, and going with it if she moved it. When I could feel she was calm, I did things much the way Carolyn described.

    After some time, both Kwali and my diabetic Kumbi would come running when I’d sing out, “Grooming time!”

    Kwali had all-black nails, so I’d just take the tips off. Kumbi had a few nails that showed the quick, but some black ones, too.

    Best thing for us humans to do is to don a Patience Hat before beginning nail-trims. And you’re so right, Dr. Nancy – get your vet, tech or groomer to show you HOW!

    Mon, 24 Oct 2011 19:10:09 (PDT)
    Carol Whitney 😉 and Camellia the Havanese (oo)

  19. I have 2 dogs with black nails, two dogs with some white nails and other dark nails! All have looong nails! They are very challenging even for groomers or vet techs and I’ve had several give up on my dogs or take hours to get them all clipped. I’ve tried treats, praise, etc but even after years, they are still extremely difficult to get their nails trimmed. I’d love to have naturally stubby nails on at least one of them!!!

  20. This is an important topic. Thank you for addressing it Dr. Kay. However, please, Please, PLEASE do not restrain your dog for nail trims. Instead, teach your dog to lie quietly while you attend to his or her needs. I have taught numerous dogs, cats, and a few grizzly bears, to allow their nails to be trimed. Yes, even your dog can be taught. Approach your dog with a spirit of cooperation, not how can I restrain my dog.

    Tricia Fagan
    Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed
    DogS Gone Good
    (713) 557-1949

  21. Great tip on how to assess whether the nails are a good length or need trimming — that was new to me. As for Maggie, once a skittish stray, I taught her to accept nail clipping, using lots of treats. In the beginning, I rewarded her for nosing the clipper so that when it came out of the grooming bag, she immediately earned a treat — no longer was it a scary new object. Then, she got a treat (or more!) for the clipper just touching each nail, then we worked up to actually clipping a nail. Treats, treats and more treats!

    When the clipper got a bit dull, I bought a Pedipaws (“as seen on TV!”) and introduced her to that in the same manner (their online videos are excellent BTW). I won’t go so far as to say she “loves” having her nails either clipped or dremeled … but she certainly doesn’t mind it one bit.

  22. Hi Barb,
    Great question! Yes, nails that are overgrown can cause gait (mobility) abnormalities for a dog. Additionally, every once in awhile the dewclaw can grow in a round direction and actually penetrate the skin.

    Dr. Nancy

  23. Thanks. Always wanted to know how to tell if the nails are too long. If they are too long and continue to grow, can they harm the dog’s feet?