Cats, dogs, rabbits, birds and small mammals such as mice, rats and hamsters are often presented to the veterinary surgery because their claws have become overgrown. Many observant owners will notice that the claws look longer than they should before any problem has arisen, however sometimes even caring owners can miss this stage and since the nails grow quite quickly the animal can begin to experience difficulty due to the length of their nails.
Animals' claws will often wear down quite naturally due to their normal behavioural patterns. For example, we are all familiar with cats using a scratching post to sharpen their claws and keep them in good order. Dogs' claws are often kept at an appropriate length when they are gently worn down by walking on hard surfaces. Likewise a budgie's claws are naturally worn when gripping onto perches and walking on the sandpaper floor of their cages.
However problems can often arise in pets who may be older and not agile enough any longer to perform these natural behaviours to the same extent as their younger counterparts, or in animals with anatomical deviations, such as supernumerary toes in cats. In these individual animals the claws may not wear down naturally and the length of them needs to be controlled by clipping back the claws. It is advisable to always keep an eye on the length of your pet's nails.
Prevention of overgrown claws:
Examine your pet's feet and claws at least weekly. The tip of the claw should be roughly level with the base of the pad when the claw is extended.
Provide cats with scratching posts, especially if they are always kept indoors.
Allow dogs to walk, run and play on a variety of different surfaces not just the grass.
Provide cage birds with a variety of perches with varying widths (fruit tree branches/ twigs are non-toxic and cheap).
Allow rabbits/guinea pigs to exercise outside sometimes using their run on different surfaces.
Provide small mammals such as mice and hamsters with toys using varied textures and surfaces to wear their claws.
Seek veterinary advice if you notice a problem with the claws. Sometimes a veterinary nurse will be able to give advice and if necessary clip the claws. Alternatively a good grooming parlour will have staff able to help, or you may be able to clip the claws yourself (ask a vet or vet nurse to teach you if you feel unsure).
When pets need to have their claws clipped it will be helpful if they are used to being handled so try from a young age to gently handle and restrain your pet regularly, including gentle handling of the feet and toes. This will make it less frightening for the pet if some treatment is ever needed and make it easier for the vet, who will be therefore less likely to cut into the "quick" which often happens due to animals struggling during the claw clipping procedure. If your pet has previously had a painful or frightening experience of claw clipping, gentle handling of the feet perhaps with food rewards for standing still when no treatment is needed may help to overcome their fears. Sometimes if the animal is very fearful and treatment is necessary the vet may need to ask a nurse to restrain your pet or a muzzle or even sedation may be required.
Common problems associated with overgrown claws include:
Claws catching in the carpet or other materials such as clothing, this may sometimes result in ripped claws if the animal has to use excessive force to free itself.
Pain when walking and subsequent limping as a result of the claw growing round and back on itself and into the toe itself, often in the sensitive weight bearing pad.
Torn or bleeding claws often as a result of catching when walking.
Excessive noise (clicking) when the animal walks on a hard surface.
Excessive grooming or biting of claws (probably due to pain or irritation).
Abscesses or infection due to ingrown claws.
Smell due to infection caused by ingrowth of claws.
Bleeding caused by ingrowth of claws or tearing of long nails.
If any of these signs are noticed the owner should take the pet to their vet promptly. Vets can usually very easily clip back overgrown claws in a conscious animal even when the claws have grown considerably into the toe. However in animals experiencing a great deal of pain or those that are excessively distressed by claw clipping may need sedation.
Claws are easily clipped back using veterinary claw clippers; these are much stronger than scissors and will not cause discomfort to the pet by squeezing the claws before cutting them as scissors can. They will result in a much better cut with less likelihood of tearing and snagging. The vet will take care not to cut into the "quick" which is the blood vessel running for a short length into the claw. This is easily visualised in white or clear claws as a red vein but in black claws the position of this vessel has to be estimated which can often be done by gently pressing the toe to extend the claw and cutting it so the tip of the claw becomes level with the base of the pad. If occasionally the small blood vessel is cut the bleeding can be stopped by cauterising with silver nitrate usually in the form of a "pencil". This is gently applied to the end of the claw after the blood has been wiped away and perhaps gentle pressure has been applied to the base of the claw to slow down bleeding. Sometimes more than one attempt may be necessary to stop the bleeding. In very occasional cases a bandage may be applied until the bleeding stops which it always will do unless the animal has a bleeding disorder of some kind.
These general considerations apply to all animals although smaller pets such as hamsters or budgies will need careful restraint and small scissors with which to cut the claws, together with a very steady hand!
Always contact your own veterinary surgeon if you suspect that your pet is in any discomfort or distress due to problems with their claws since rarely disorders of the claws can be an indicator of serious disease.