Looking at proper nail cutting, maintenance, and care for hunting dogs from Dr. Joe Spoo DVM
Some of the most easily preventable yet most common injuries we see in active hunting dogs are broken toenails. It is so easy to neglect your dog’s nails until they become a problem. When they do become a problem, especially if not addressed immediately, these annoying issues can sometimes result in weeks of recovery and lost time in the field.
The feet are where the figurative and literal rubber meets the road with our gun dogs and the nails are a vital part of that system. Nail and foot care needs to be part of your early dog training with a hunting dog, getting them used to having their feet messed with so that you are able to maintain appropriate nail health throughout the dog’s life. Too often people are intimidated by the idea of clipping their dog’s nails because they are worried about causing pain or cutting them too short. Heaven forbid the dog have black nails, making it difficult to find landmarks which makes the task even more difficult.
A confession: I hate trimming nails, too. While I was in veterinary school I had a Chesapeake Bay retriever that was the most compliant patient in the world. One day I was in the kitchen of our tiny little apartment and decided to trim her nails with the old guillotine style nail trimmer. Right as I went to squeeze the clipper she pushed forward and I nearly performed a nail amputation. I ran to the bathroom to get gauze and a wrap, when I came back the puddle of blood under her food appeared to be the size of a dinner plate. That incident occurred more than 20 years ago, yet every time I pick up a dog’s foot to trim a nail those are the first images that come to mind. Believe me, I understand your fears.
Understand dog nail anatomy and nail trimming tools
In order to get comfortable with trimming nails it’s important to understand the anatomy of the nail, where the quick (the blood vessel) is and how to avoid it. Generally speaking, if you draw an imaginary line following the plane of the bottom of the paw pad up through the nail this is generally the line you will want to cut along. I prefer the nail trimmers that operate more like a scissors or pliers rather than the guillotine type; you can lay one blade of the trimmer along the pad and use that to guide the clip.
Some dogs will still react when having their nails trimmed even when you don’t encounter the blood vessel. This occurs for two reasons. One is that the nerve usually extends out beyond the vessel so there are times you will hit that but not the vessel. Second is that some dogs react to the pressure of the clippers rather than the cut itself. Dogs with white nails make it easy as you are able to see where the blood vessel generally is and you can stay away from it. Dogs with black nails, however, make it a little more challenging. In addition to using the bottom of the pad as a guideline I will also look at the bottom of the dog’s nails as you will be able to see where the nail is thick and meaty before thinning out to the tips that can be removed.
Another method to manage nails for dogs (or owners) that do not like to use the clippers is to use a grinding tool like a Dremel with a sanding drum. It has always amazed me that some dogs will go bonkers at the appearance of the nail trimmer but will absolutely allow these noisy grinding devices. The main reason this works so well is the anatomy discussion above. Because the nerve reaches out longer than the blood vessel you grind until the dog begins to react which means you have reached the nerve.
What happens if you cut the nail too short?
If you do cut the nail too short do not worry. Your dog is not going to bleed to death. There are a couple of ways to stop the bleeding. If you are proactive you can have a bottle of Quick Stop, a powder that when applied will stop the bleeding. Silver nitrate sticks are also used to stop bleeding, but they are something I haven’t used in decades in an awake dog because they appear to cause a lot of discomfort. If you don’t have either of these options then flour or corn starch can also work, as well as simply applying pressure.
Bleeding often appears worse than it is because we aren’t expecting it. It’s important to not panic and remember the toenails are a long way from the heart. One word of caution: quicking your dog aggressively, like I did with my Chessie, can lead to fearful behaviors in the future.
How to get your hunting dog’s nails back to good length
Once your dog has long nails it is possible to shorten them back to a shorter baseline even if the quick has gotten long. Typically after a nail trim the quick will regress a bit allowing the nails to be trimmed a bit shorter. With long nails, I usually recommend a second trimming in two weeks to try to shorten them even more. If it is something that you absolutely do not want to do yourself, most veterinary clinics will offer nail trims as do all groomers. The big thing to remember is to have it done and not ignore it or it will become a problem.
Cracked nails and other nail injuries
Nail injuries can occur to varying degrees, from a cracked nail all the way to ripping the entire nail off down to the bed. Cracks can sometimes be managed with further trimming and sometimes tissue glue while other injuries will require the dog to be sedated so that the nail can be removed. Whether it’s a simple fix or more complicated, it is important to have it addressed. I often see internet forums advocating to allow dogs to “lick” wounds or injuries clean, and I cringe. Dogs’ mouths are not clean and creating a moist environment sets up shop for bacterial growth. If we return to anatomy for a moment, the next structure back from the nail is bone and, while it is rare, I have had dogs develop osteomyelitis (bone infection) from a “simple” nail injury.
With a little bit of practice, trimming dog’s nails is a simple maintenance procedure any owner can perform if they desire, and something that is vitally important to avoid unexpected interruptions to your season.
"Dr. Joe Spoo is a graduate of the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine. After graduation he practiced in the grouse woods of northern Minnesota before relocating to the prairies of South Dakota where he has spent the last 16 years chasing birds with dogs. Spoo’s passion is the canine athlete and he believes in a cradle-to-grave approach to managing the canine athlete.Dr. Spoo is a Diplomate of the American College of Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation and the only such specialist who has committed his career to hunting dog health and expanding our field of knowledge of these amazing athletes. In addition to his practice responsibilities, he has an active consulting business serving sporting dog owners and the sporting dog industry. He also manages a website (www.gundogdoc.com), a comprehensive resource for all things gundog related."