Almost all animals that are kept as pets (marine life and invertebrates excepted) have some form of nail, claw or talon made of keratin. Just like human nails they continue to grow throughout the animals life and must be filed or cut back to prevent the nail growing into the foot or splaying the paw/ foot causing structural damage.
Animals in the wild that are able to express all their natural behaviours will usually maintain their growing keratin on their own by running on different surfaces or scratching on trees and rocks etc. However, when we bring animals into human care they often lose the opportunity to express the behaviours that would naturally maintain this growing keratin.
As a veterinary nurse I perform multiple nail trims on a daily basis; on dogs, cats, birds and even reptiles. Just as its not painful or stressful for you to cut your own nails it should never be stressful or painful for your animal. Unfortunately this is often not the case with animals needing to be muzzled and physically restrained in order to do this simple painless procedure.
Common excuses I hear for owners not working on this behaviour, or doing it at all are:
1- Ive never had to do it before, the nails were always ground down from running.
2- They don't like it when I touch their feet so I avoid doing it.
3- Im scared of hurting them.
4- I didn't know that this was something I needed to know about.
5- Why would I learn when you can do it.
6- My pet bites and I don't want to get bit so I want you to do it.
7- They are too old to learn something new.
My responses to these excuses are often:
1- While your pet is young and fit and running regularly, yes their nails will often be filed down naturally, however, as your pet gets older they will slow down and will not have the stamina to run as much as they used to. If they are spending more time on sand, grass or in the water they are not working down the nail. If your pet has an injury that impacts its ability to exercise it is not working down the nail. The nails will continue to grow and over time can begin to grow back into the pad or grow to the side causing the pad and bone structure to splay which can be quite painful. If you have never practised trimming and your pet has never experienced it before it can be very stressful for both you and your pet.
2- If your pet is already aversive to having its feet touched let alone its nails trimmed it is even more important to start working this behaviour. Being able to touch and look at your pets feet is an important part of their care, if they step on a bindi, a piece of glass or get a grass seed embedded in their pad you should be able to look at the wound and when veterinary care is not required be able to remove the foreign object and care for the foot. If you do not work on desensitising your pet to having its feet touched and your force it when needed you are setting your pet up to fail. If they have made it clear they do not like it and your force it more often than not your pet will express its fear and anxiety with aggression, be it growling or actually biting you or the vet or nurse.
3- Trimming a nail, claw or talon should never be painful! When you look at the structure of a claw or talon there is a blood supply called the 'quick' that runs through the centre, when this is cut the animal reacts in pain, much like you when you cut/ tear your nail too far. The 'quick' is easiest to see in animals with white nails, in animals with black nails it is almost impossible to see which is why extra care must be taken. In pets with black nails I will often cut the nail and then gently file down to just before the 'quick'. Your animal looks to you for guidance on how it should react, if you are stressed and afraid your pet will feel this and often mirror it. Practice makes perfect and you should never rush when cutting back a nail, by taking your time you will be more relaxed and in turn your pet will be relaxed.
4- Yes, Nail trimming is important for all pets! If you already have a nail trim behaviour or want to put in practice natural behaviours to help maintain the nail there are certain objects that can make maintenance easier. Pedicure poles and hanging rough boards for birds, scratching posts and beds for cats, rough rocks for reptiles and utilising rough concrete for dogs.
5- There are numerous benefits to being able to trim your pets nails yourself and not just avoiding veterinary costs and trips. By working on this behaviour yourself and at home your pet will experience reduced stress and anxiety, fear and aggression, forge a stronger bond between you and your pet, and you will have the knowledge and competence to care for your pets needs throughout its entire life.
6- If you have a pet that reacts with aggression it is your responsibility to work through this! If your pet feels that its only way to cope with the situation is to bite then somewhere in its development it has learned that aggression is the only way to make something unpleasant stop. If you, the person your pet trusts the most, cannot perform this simple aspect of your pets care without getting bitten then it is quite unfair to expect someone else (your veterinary team) to take that risk because you refuse to work on training. Since the nails have to be cut your veterinary team are going to have to muzzle and physically restrain your dog, or wrap your bird in a towel, or physically wrap and restrain your cat and in some cases if the animal is getting to stressed and worked up they may need to be chemically sedated in order to perform the procedure safely for all involved. It is unnecessary to cause that much stress or need to use drugs to sedate something for a procedure that should be quick and painless.
7- Never too old to learn!
With the right techniques and methods any animal can learn something new, be they young or old, large or small they have the potential to learn new behaviours. I can personally attest to this having trained and still continue to train my 14 year old deaf kelpie, amazon parrots in their mid 30's, even a 19 year old chinchilla and many more adult and geriatric animals! Training with your pet should never stop, it can help maintain your pets problem solving abilities and allow you to manage their changing needs and age related changes.
If you have used any of the above excuses don't worry! No matter what the issue APTM is here to help! Together we can ensure your pet has the best chance of success and the best quality of life in all aspects of its care and management.