This post is brought to us by Dr. Rolan Tripp. Dr. Tripp received his doctorate from UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and also holds a bachelor’s degree in music and a minor in philosophy. A regular guest on the Animal Planet Network, Dr. Tripp appears on both “Petsburgh, USA” and “Good Dog U.” Most dogs do not like their feet handled. This is a natural response because one defense is to run away, and holding a paw removes this option. If the dog is ever “quicked” (cutting the vessel and tissue inside the nail known as the quick) the pet may develop a nail trim aversion, which is an understandable response. Webster defines phobia as “an irrational, excessive, and persistent fear of some thing or situation.” An aversion may become a phobia because of genetic predisposition, pain threshold, severity of tissue damage, repeated bad experiences, and possibly other factors.
Veterinarians are ideally positioned to prevent nail trim phobia. Pet owners in our society routinely bring puppies to veterinarians when they are still in their critical learning period (4-12 weeks of age). In addition to providing preventive medical care, it is simple to show the client how to gently handle the pet’s feet and nails while giving a food treat. Ideally, this is done by the owner daily at the same time as other gentle techniques such as hugging, cradling, and massaging the gums and ears.
Other preventive strategies include maintaining sharp trimmers, and careful training of anyone in the practice authorized to perform this procedure. If a nail is quicked, this should be a signal to trim the other nails less aggressively, both to avoid a phobia, and because the operator has clear evidence of an anatomically long quick in this patient. If at all possible, the nails should be trimmed after a bath because standing in water softens the nails.
Assistants should be taught to trim at least 2 mm beyond the visible quick in clear nails. With pigmented nails, trim small increments and look at the distal end of the nail after each clip. In black nails the goal is to identify a “target sign” of concentric circles at the nail tip. This is created by the central dark, distal, painless center of the quick, surrounded by white connective tissue, surrounded by the dark pigmented nail.
After trimming the nail to the desired length, it is recommended to do multiple angled cuts of the same nail, attempting to create a domed instead of a flat nail end, and then file the edges. Removing this outer hard nail allows the quick to recede with use, and extends the time period between required nail trims. One indication for a nail trim is tapping when the dog walks on a hard surface.
If mild fear is observed, (e.g. pulling foot away) simply offering food treats or other distraction techniques such as muzzling, hooding or applying a head collar may be sufficient. Generally, acceptance of a food treat before and after trimming suggests no aversion. In an aversion, moderate fear (trembling, struggling, and refusal of food) is observed and it is recommended that behavioral treatment be initiated immediately because the prognosis is much better if treatment is started early. Advise assistants that a phobia is likely present if more than one person is required for restraint, or if thrashing, vocalization, elimination, or aggression is exhibited. Then stop and either postpone or use chemical restraint.
Veterinarians may wish to train staff on nail trim technique using an online pictorial description of correct restraint and nail trimming provided by the Washington State University Vet School Website at www.vetmed.wsu.edu/cliented/dog_nails.asp
For home behavioral therapy, the owner should purchase their own trimmer to be used during systematic desensitization and counter conditioning. The owner should store the trimmer in the dog food as a reminder to bring it out and leave it near the food dish while the pet is eating.
During desensitization, separate the senses. First the pet only sees the trimmer until it is ignored. Then while hand feeding, combine seeing and hearing the clipper as a positive association. Finally touch the trimmer to the nail, (without clipping), to earn a special treat.
Between meals the owner should begin to gently handle the feet and nails while feeding small high value treats. The goal is to gradually work up to actually trimming a tiny amount from one nail per day. If this is impossible, filing alone might be accepted by the pet, or consider tapering use of anxiolytic medication. An excellent video showing systematic desensitization and counter conditioning incorporating clicker training is available at www.YouTube.com by searching on “Tucker Nail Trim.”
Even if behavioral therapy is available, some owners may prefer the convenience of serial veterinary nail trims. For simple aversion or mild fear, oral pretreatment with a mild sedative prescribed by your vet may be sufficient.
For more severe nail trim phobia in healthy adult dogs, the author’s preference is oral pretreatment of medications prescribed by your vet, 1 hour before the owner leaves for the vet visit. Note that some medications carry the potential for dis-inhibition of fear aggression which can occur without warning. Therefore, any oral medication related to trimming is only indicated prior to trips to the veterinary hospital where the pet can still be muzzled if necessary, and medically supervised.
If oral pretreatment is not possible, then the DVM may choose injectable and ideally reversible sedation, but this introduces another injection in a pet that already has a phobia related to veterinary visits. These pets benefit from regular visits to the facility with only positive experiences like daycare, or food treats.
The goal for all veterinary staff should be prevention of fearful veterinary experiences using gentle and professional techniques. (See www.AnimalBehavior.Net/DistractionTechniques) If a nail trim phobia is identified, the only permanent solution is to work with a competent behaviorist incorporating systematic desensitization and counter conditioning.
About the Author
Dr. Tripp received his doctorate from UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and also holds a bachelor’s degree in music and a minor in philosophy. A regular guest on the Animal Planet Network, Dr. Tripp appears on both “Petsburgh, USA” and “Good Dog U.” He is a Veterinary Behavior Consultant for Antech Laboratories “Dr. Consult Line” and an Affiliate Professor of Applied Animal Behavior at both Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Tripp is the founder of the national behavior consulting practice, www.AnimalBehavior.Net. He is now the Chief Veterinary Pet Behaviorist of The Hannah Society (www.hannahsociety.com) which helps match people and pets, then keeps them together. Contact info: Rolan.Tripp@HannahSociety.com.