Dog getting nails trimmed

I hate to trim toenails! And, no, it’s not because I have better things to do and can’t be bothered with it. Nor is it because I’m no good at it. (I’ve been doing it for almost 30 years, so I'd better be an expert by now.)

It has more to do with the stress of the event.

By and large, my canine patients hate having their claws clipped more than any other routine procedure. In fact, injections, blood draws and even the dreaded fecal rod are far more readily accepted by the average dog than a nail trim. The majority of these patients shake and cower as we trim their nails. A sizable percentage must be forcefully restrained.

Vets and the Pup Pedicure

Although a significant percentage of my owners have trained their pets to accept the manipulation of their paws — and rely on a professional groomer to get the job done on a regular basis — a surprising many still rely on the every-time-we-see-the-vet trim. 

Let’s be honest: Any pet who gets a nail trim only when it's time to see the vet is receiving a dubiously beneficial service that often only serves to make him more afraid of the vet’s office. After all, claws grow out within a month — and less in many cases.

Still want his nails trimmed? Go to the groomer. Go to your local pet superstore. Go anywhere except the place where stress should be minimized at all costs, so a good attitude can be preserved for when injury and illness happen. 

You ask: But isn’t nail trimming medically indicated? Isn’t it an integral part of my pet’s good health? 

My answer: In my opinion, a vet should go out of her way to explain the importance of nail trimming for optimum pet health. It reduces such injuries as claw and toe fractures, prevents ingrown curved nails and minimizes orthopedic problems that can result from poor claw positioning.

But here’s the thing: I don’t bathe, brush, feed or exercise your pets. And they’re all necessary for good health. So why is it that I should be expected to trim their toenails? Expecting a veterinarian to do it is like assuming your physician will remove the wax from your ears.

Of course, there are always exceptions. Some animals were rescued and obviously never socialized to the task, so these pets sometimes require sedation or anesthesia for a trim.

Another Expert Weighs In

In case you think I'm being persnickety, I’m not the only veterinarian who detests the forced hospital toenail trim. Here’s applied animal behaviorist and veterinarian Dr. Sophia Yin’s take in one of my favorite animal books, Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs & Cats: Techniques for Developing Patients Who Love Their Visits:

“A toenail trim is not an emergency procedure. Do not perform one forcibly if the patient is unwilling to hold still. Doing so can train the dog to be more fearful of people, hate the veterinary hospital, and can even escalate to aggression immediately or in the future. Consequently, forced restraint is likely to cause the dogs to become behaviorally worse than when they entered. Instead, if the dog will not hold still, inform the owner that you are concerned about the dog’s behavioral health and ability to be treated in the future.”

Dr. Yin then offers a host of counterconditioning techniques that veterinarians and technicians can teach their clients to perform at home: treats, petting and a gradual approach to feet (and claws) through positive, gentle interactions. 

Sure, I can accept that our job is to make sure you understand why your pet needs that nail trim. But that doesn’t mean it should be happening at the hospital — not if it increases the stress of an already anxiety-provoking visit.

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