Sunday, September 09, 2007

Da Feet

No, I'm not defeated -- or dead or anything. Although our computer has been dead 3 or 4 times in the past few months. Seems like forever! Needless to say, emachines is not my very most favorite company right now although I will give them credit for honoring the warranty. We haven't been out of pocket for any of the repairs (3 or 4 motherboards, for starters -- heck, I've lost count!) Fortunately neither my hubby nor I need this computer for our work so no lost revenue either. Just one heck of a lot of inconvenience! And frustration!!

But enough about that -- the title of this post refers to one of my pet peeves about pets: overgrown toenails!!

I know, I know... many dogs are very unwilling to have people handle their feet. All dogs have very sensitive feet -- their feet are essentially as sensitive as ours, with lots of nerve endings and pressure points. Some dogs' feet are very ticklish, or very hypersensitive. Dogs who have neck or back or hip problems may have tingling sensations in their feet. Add to that the fact that most dogs have dark nails so that you can't see the "quick" (the fleshy core which contains the nerves and blood vessels) and it's easy to understand why so many pet owners don't keep up with their dog's nails.

But this isn't optional, people!! Nails that grow too long are a horrible thing for a dog to have to endure. Try taping or gluing popsicle sticks to your toes and walking around like that for a day. Overgrown nails can cause toe and foot malformations. They can predispose the dog to toe injuries. And in extreme cases the nail can actually curve under and pierce the pad.

With a little persistence, most dogs can be trained to allow their nails to be shortened without a struggle. This always begins with basic handling. You should be able to touch and handle any part of your dog's body but this takes training and patience. Anytime you are having a cuddle with your dog, take a few moments and gently stroke the dog's muzzle, ears, legs and/or feet. If any of these areas are sensitive, go VERY slowly. Start petting or scratching areas that the dog enjoys having you touch, and just make a few of your strokes venture toward the "forbidden" area. Watch your dog and if she tenses up then you know you've gone a little too far. Back off and pet her in a way she enjoys. Next time, don't go quite so far and try to keep her relaxed. A minute or two of this a day, or even just a few days a week will work wonders - before you know it, you'll be able to handle your dog's feet, ears etc. easily.

I use a LOT of treats when I'm doing this kind of desensitization. The treats are not only a reward for letting me touch the dog's feet, but also a reassurance and a positive reinforcement that will help the dog remain more relaxed in the future.

Even if you are fortunate enough to have a dog who's nails naturally stay short (these are rare creatures but do exist!) you should teach your dog to let you check her feet on a regular basis anyway. Dogs don't always limp when they have a foot injury - if it doesn't hurt any more when they put weight on the foot than when they don't put weight on it, they may not limp noticeably. And as dogs get older, their nails have a tendency to get longer even if they were always naturally short in the past. Last but not least, if the dewclaws (the fifth toe up on the inside of the leg, where a thumb would be) are present those will need to be trimmed even on the lucky dogs with naturally short nails.

**Now is a good time for a disclaimer: First of all, I am NOT a vet and am not presenting anything as "medical advice". Secondly, always be very careful when trying to desensitize a dog so you can handle sensitive areas like its feet. If you have ANY doubts about your dog's willingness to tolerate this, or if you have ANY reason to think your dog might even CONSIDER biting you, then consult a professional trainer or behaviorist before proceeding. Don't get bitten!!**

There is another reason so many dogs hate having their nails trimmed: nail clippers pinch!! If you use nail clippers on your dog, first of all always be sure that they are super sharp. The scissor type clipper can be sharpened, and you can get replacement blades for the guillotine type. I prefer the scissor type clipper because you have blades cutting from both sides of the nail. With the guillotine type, a lot of squeezing takes place before the blade actually cuts - and if you've ever gotten your finger pinched in a door, you know how very much that HURTS!! But even the scissor type squeezes the nail as it is cutting.

You can minimize this by beveling the nail as you cut it: Instead of cutting straight across the nail, cut a little at an angle from one side, then the other side and sort of whittle the nail down. This will greatly reduce the pressure on the nail, and has two added benefits: 1. You are less likely to cut into the quick and if you do, it probably won't be so bad (or bloody), and 2. this method reduces the razor-sharp cut nail edges.

This drawing demonstrates a straight-across cut which pinches (seen from above the dog's foot):

And this one demonstrates the beveling or whittling technique:

But the best method of all for shortening nails doesn't involve cutting them at all. A Dremel or other handheld rotary sanding tool works amazingly well. You do have to desensitize the dog to the noise of the tool, and you can't hold the tool on one spot on the nail for too long (more than 2 or 3 seconds) or it will get too hot and hurt the dog. You have to take care that long hair (yours OR the dog's!!) doesn't get caught in the rotating head. But a rotary sander gives you incredible control on how close you can get to the quick without injuring it, and you always finish with lovely smooth nails.

There is a FABULOUS web page that gives detailed instructions on exactly how to use a rotary sander to shorten a dog's nails. Go to and click on "How to Dremel Dog Nails" on the left side of the page.

Here are some pictures that show how a dog's nails SHOULD look:

Danes are one of the breeds that have "cat" feet, meaning that the foot is round and compact. With this type of foot it is especially important to keep the nails very short - otherwise the nails on the outer toes of the foot can wear sores on the sides of the inner toes.

Once someone told me that their vet told them that their puppy's nails were TOO short! This was a perfectly healthy pup with nice short nails. I have never heard of any other vet saying anything like this, and it amazed me!! And upset me - the last thing we need is some vet discouraging responsible owners from keeping their dog's nails nice and short! The only thing I could think of was that maybe the vet thought the nails had been "quicked back". This means intentionally cutting the nail very short, into the quick. It is cruel unless done under anesthesia - and even then the risk of infection can be high. But this puppy's nails had never been quicked, they had just been kept short.

Last thought on the subject: if all else fails take your dog to your vet or to a groomer regularly (that means at LEAST once a month) and have the professionals trim his nails. It's an inconvenience and an expense but if you can't or won't trim your dog's nails yourself, or if your dog might bite you if you try then it's your only choice.

Remember - taking care of your dog's nails is NOT optional!! It is a basic requirement, just as important as keeping the dog's coat free of mats and his skin free of parasites.

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