Fear Free Means Happy Paws: Tips for a Stress Free Nail Trim

As a veterinary technician in a general practice, I’ve had many clients each week ask for help with a quick “puppy/kitty pedicure”. Some weren’t sure how to do a nail trim themselves, others simply preferred a steadier hand. And there were a few families who would say “he goes absolutely crazy when I touch his feet!” or “she’s terrified of it, every time I bring out the clippers, she cowers and runs!”

So there I am holding Pup’s leash, while Mom or Dad walks through all the ways that he hates having his nails trimmed. “But, you’ll be able to get them shorter, right?” Sorry, but unfortunately not (at least without sedation). Here’s why:

Your dog (or cat) is scared of having a nail trim. That’s what those signs are telling me. He or she is scared and doesn’t know how to tell you in English, so they are reacting in other ways. Whining, biting at you, urinating (on both of you), rolling around and trying to get away are obvious signals. Pulling away their paws, giving you the “wide-eye stare”, backing up, chewing on your hand as you try to manipulate their feet are more subtle signs that they are nervous or anxious about what you are doing.

So no, I won’t wrestle him to “git ‘er done”. I won’t back him into a corner and force the issue. Because ignoring those signs (or having a previous bad experience to start with), will make the situation much worse (for all of us). But we also don’t want to ignore his nails. Trimming the nails will help prevent them from breaking, which is painful and can lead to an infection. Nails that are too long can also change the way your dog walks and lead to more serious bone and joint issues. So now what?

Start From the Beginning

You need to change the way your dog or cat feels about having his feet touched. The goal is for him to 1) not care or 2) enjoy the experience. This will obviously not be something we can instantly change right there in the vet’s office. It’s a process, and it means practice for you at home.

Make it a game:

Teach Fido shake! He gets a treat each time he hands that paw over, and is none the wiser.

Massage Time:

This is great for puppies, because it is never too early to teach them how cool it is to get a paw massage. You and your pet are cuddling on the couch, watching a movie. If they have a low tolerance, have a peanut butter distraction or some treats. Offer that as you scratch or massage each paw. Stop the process if they seem stressed or are more interested in their feet than their treats.

Stress Reducing Tips:

Here’s a great article on natural ways to help reduce your pet’s stress. Any and all can be used, and they can encourage this process. I’m a huge fan of treats, pheromones and species-specific music!

Could it Be the Tools?

If there is already an association with your current clippers, buy a different set (make sure they’re the right size!) or a different color. Also make sure they are sharp, because blunt clippers can hurt the nail (ouch!).

Keep the Praise (or Treats) Coming!

Once we’ve turned paw handling into a more pleasant experience, you want to do the same with everything involved with a nail trim.

Slow & Steady Wins the Race:

You want your pup to get excited whenever you pull out those clippers. You also don’t want to rush from playing shake to clipping nails because it may undo the work you’ve done. Break up every step of the nail trim process and make sure pup is happy and comfortable with each before moving on to the next. Start small by giving pup a flow of treats whenever you show them to her (or she sniffs them or shows interest). Soon she’ll connect the two. Do the same with the following:

  1. Touching clippers to paw.
  2. Massage time while clippers are touching paw.
  3. The ‘click’ of the clippers.
  4. Massage time while you make noise with the clippers.
  5. A simple clip of the very tip of the nail.
Make Sure Fido is Comfy

Trimming nails is easiest when your pet is sitting up, or even better, lying on their side. This gives you the best view without having to twist his foot around too much.

This is a great example of a pup on the right track:

Force-free nail dremel session. Oakley doesn't love having his nails done. He will tolerate it but I only want to dremel his nails if he is comfortable with it. Watch at how we warm up to it and handle when he pulls away slightly. Tell me what you think! Want advice or have questions, ask away! #forcefreetraining #forcefreegrooming #dogtrainer #animalhusbandry #husbandry #dogtraining #grooming #ilovemydog #dogsofinstagram #thedodo #weeklyfluff #oakleythebrd

Posted by Tucker & Oakley on Thursday, January 26, 2017


Basic Nail Trim Tips

The illustration below is great for beginners:


Other tips:

  1. Using a flashlight (or small penlight) on dogs with darker nails.
  2. Cutting straight out from the pad instead of a 45 degree angle (as shown above)- also good starting point for dark nails.
  3. Trimming just before the nail curves- especially with cats.
  4. Constant treats throughout the process.
  5. Have enough light! Bring out the readers if you use them at all.
  6. Don’t squeeze the toes! Slight pressure should be all you need.
  7. Make sure the clippers are sharp. Dull blades will hurt.

What if That Doesn’t Work?

No stress! There are a couple different options:

  1. You’ve sped through the process a little too quickly for Fido. Back track and move very slowly through it again.
  2. Fido might need a little help taking the edge off, and your vet can help with that. It can be something light to help encourage him to relax while you’re teaching him how much fun nail trims are. Depending on his level of stress, he may enjoy a stronger cocktail. Your vet will have a few options!

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