Visiting Vet: Pet-i-cures

What to do when Wolverine’s nails need trimming.

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A specialized layer of epithelial cells at the end of each toe produces the hard outer portion of nail, made of keratin, just like our nails — NO CREDIT NEEDED

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Whether or not you believe that, it’s still important to start training puppies early. The more effort you make when your pup is young, the easier your life (and your dog’s life) will be later on. One thing we always advise is gentle, frequent handling of the paws, while giving treats and praise. Wolverine the wolfhound may not like having his feet touched. Many dogs just don’t. This makes it hard when you want to trim his toenails, so be proactive and get Wolverine accustomed to having his paws held.

If you want to care for Wolverine’s nails at home, safely and painlessly, it helps to understand the anatomy. A specialized layer of epithelial cells at the end of each toe produces the hard outer portion of nail, made of keratin, just like our nails. Inside, a core of tissue called the quick contains nerves and blood vessels. When clipping, your goal is to remove excess outer nail without hitting the quick. It’s generally best to have a second person hold Wolverine. Even the nicest dog can snap if hurt suddenly. Once your assistant is in place, get a clear look at those nails. If you’re lucky, they may be clear or white, in which cases you can see through them, actually visualizing where the quick ends. If Wolverine has black nails, however, you have to gauge where to clip based on the curve and thickness of the nail … and on experience.

Look at the curve of the nail. Sometimes you can see a little break in the arc, or you can see from the underside where the quick ends. The nail grows in a curve, so cut at a logical angle, as if you were drawing a line to the middle of the circle it would make. When in doubt, take off just a smidgeon. You can always cut more later. Front nails are typically longer than hind, so you may only need to do Wolverine’s front feet. Don’t forget the dewclaws, if he has them. These may get really long since they don’t wear on the ground. If Wolverine is losing patience, reward him, take a break, and do more later.

There are several choices of tools. With the old school “guillotine” clippers, you thread the nail through an opening. I am not a fan of this style, but they work well for some people, especially on smaller dogs. Scissor-style clippers are also good for smaller pups, but for grown dogs, big dogs, and dogs with thick, hard nails, I prefer really hefty clippers. You can shop local pet stores, online, or ask your veterinarian about the best clippers for your situation. You’ve probably seen tools advertised on television that grind the nails down using something akin to a Dremel. I haven’t personally tried these, and have gotten mixed reviews from other veterinarians and clients. Some dog owners have liked them, others found them too noisy or slow for their pet to tolerate. You can certainly give it a try, as grinding rather than clipping may leave a smoother finish, and you are less likely to hit the quick by mistake.

Hitting the quick. What everyone dreads. Try to relax. It looks and sounds worse than it is. Plan ahead. Have products on hand to stop bleeding, such as styptic powder or silver nitrate sticks. If you cut too short, don’t panic. The bleeding will eventually stop. Really. Let Wolverine calm down, regroup, make sure he is properly restrained, then apply pressure with paper towel or gauze. Now gently push styptic powder or silver nitrate right into the clipped surface. In a pinch, if you have nothing else on hand, pack it with cornstarch from the kitchen. You can also apply pressure where nail meets toe, or use an ice pack judiciously. Don’t feel bad. Even professionals who do this every day sometimes cut too short.

Not every dog needs his nails clipped. Some nails grow slowly. Others wear down with exercise. But plenty of pups of all ages need regular pedicures. If Wolverine’s nails grow too long, it can affect his gait or exacerbate lameness problems. Long nails are more prone to breaking, splitting, or getting torn. Some nails grow in a curl, pressing into the footpad if left untrimmed.

Not every dog owner should be doing nail trims at home. Wolverine may get too anxious or even aggressive for an owner to handle safely. You know if your dog is one of these. You touch his paw, he panics, screams, bites, or flails wildly. Here’s where your veterinarian can help. Sometimes an exam table, trained assistant, maybe a muzzle, is all Wolverine needs to settle down. Sometimes not.

Veterinarians face a dilemma when deciding how to proceed with these dogs who simply get too upset. If we over-restrain, it can emotionally traumatize both pet and owner. If we do not restrain adequately, people can get hurt. The concerns don’t end there. Occasionally dogs, particularly small or brachycephalic dogs (i.e., those with pug faces), faint, or, rarely, go into respiratory or even cardiac arrest just from the stress. Tranquilizers and/or anti-anxiety medications may help, but I have a few patients who actually require general anesthesia for us to safely cut their nails.

Recently I have been reading about new combinations of oral medications younger veterinarians are using with these anxious and/or fear-aggressive dogs, not just for nail trims but for other procedures like drawing blood. I figured this old dog could learn a new trick, and decided to give them a go. They haven’t worked for everyone, but my last panicky little dog did well with oral medication and her mother’s tip of feeding peanut butter while I drew blood. Although it may take several attempts to get dosages right for your dog, such medication combinations (and perhaps some peanut butter) may be just what the doctor ordered to help Wolverine relax.