Imagine how it would feel if your toenails were so long that you had to walk on your heels!
Toenails grow continuously during an animal's lifetime so regular foot and nail care allows our pets to stand and move about safely and in comfort. Proper foot care requires patience, understanding some basic anatomy, using the right tools, and awareness of environmental factors that may harm a pet's paws and overall health.
Cats, dogs and rabbits usually have five toes on their front and four toes on their hind feet. The fifth toenail is known as the "dew claw" and is positioned slightly higher on the front legs. Like other nails, dew claws grow in a curved manner, are sometimes difficult to see (especially on long-haired pets) and are often overlooked during nail trimming. When left untrimmed the dew claws continue to grow and eventually pierce back into a pet's leg. Purebred dogs (like the Great Pyrenees) and even mixed breeds may have dewclaws growing on their hind legs. Some dog breeders will have veterinarians remove the dewclaws from puppies when they are three to four days old. This procedure may make nail care for perspective owners easier.
The interior of the nails houses the quick (the pink area visible on pets with transparent nails) that contains blood vessels and nerve endings. The quick serves as a guide during nail trimming and the nails should be clipped below the quick. Dogs with dark nails create a challenge for locating the quick so great care must be taken with nail trimming or the quick could be cut causing the pet pain and bleeding.
Excessively long nails cause the toes to splay apart and this is especially painful if a pet is overweight. Long nails can also get caught in carpeting or rough surfaces and may be yanked out leaving a bloody, fleshy stump in need of veterinary attention.
Cats possess retractable claws and shed the outer layer by scratching on rough surfaces, however their nail tips can become very sharp causing damage to rugs, furniture and human flesh, therefore trimming their nails may help to blunt those sickle-like claws.
Pet owners are advised to never use human nail clippers because they may split the nail exposing the quick. There are several different types of pet nail trimmers available and include models such as plier, scissor, guillotine and nail grinder styles for pet nails of different sizes. Please note that the electrical or battery-powered nail grinders may not be suitable for long-coated pets whose long hair may get "grabbed" and tangled by the grinder and some pets may not tolerate the grinder's noise. After a nail-trimming session a dog's rough nail edges can be smoothed by using a pet nail file or walking the dog on a concrete surface.
Dogs and cats have hair that grows between the pads of their paws and if left to grow too long it reduces traction on slippery floor surfaces that can cause falls and serious injury. Long hair growing under and around the paws also collects debris like leaves, twigs, pine needles, snow or ice balls and even discarded chewing gum. The hair can be trimmed with a small pair of blunt baby scissors. The removal of excess hair allows air to circulate between the pads and may prevent fungal and bacterial infections from developing. After trimming the hair examine the condition of the pet's paw pads and look for cuts, cracks and lumps. Dogs can develop cysts and tumors on their nail beds and on or between the pads. All of these conditions should be brought to a veterinarian's attention.
Environmental factors may impact the condition of the paws and a pet's' health. Rinse dogs' paws after walking on ice/snow melt-treated surfaces because such substances may cause skin irritation and could be ingested when dogs lick their feet. Avoid walking dogs on dark, hot surfaces that can burn paw pads, areas where broken glass may be present and where pesticides and herbicides have been sprayed. According to Dr. John Kable seasonal and year round allergies can trigger itchiness of the ears, face and feet causing dogs to incessantly lick their feet-a behavior that distresses both dogs and owners. Kable states that secondary bacterial and yeast infections can exacerbate the problem. If an examination between the pads and toes reveals pink raw skin and/or rust colored hair staining, a veterinary evaluation is warranted.
To establish a foot and nail care routine, follow these suggestions:
•During "cuddle time" accustom your pet to having all parts of his/her paws touched and gently held. Provide healthy yummy treats intermittently.
•Select a quiet confined area with a non-slippery surface such as a table or floor covered with a bathtub mat or on a chair (if grooming a small pet on your lap). Play soft music in the background.
•Have all tools (trimmer, file, blunt scissors, treats, styptic powder or cornstarch in case bleeding occurs) within easy reach.
•Trim very small amounts of your pet's nail to remove the hook-like tip below the quick.
•With cats, gently squeeze the paw pad to expose the nails before trimming.
•If your pet struggles, take a break and return to this task later when your pet is relaxed.
•Quietly heap praise and give treats when your pet responds appropriately during paw care sessions.
•Be aware that a full paw care regimen may not be completed in one session.
•Nail and pad examinations can be performed weekly but nail and pad hair trimming may need to be done twice a month.
If you feel that you lack the skills, equipment, time and patience for providing paw and nail care, please engage the services provided by professional groomers or veterinary staff members.
Patience is a virtue when providing pedicures to pets!
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Iris Katz serves as a member of the board of directors and as an educational facilitator for the Humane Society of Carroll County. Her column appears on the third Sunday of the month.