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How to Trim Severely Overgrown Dog Nails

White dog paw with long nails, isolated on a white background

Trimming dog nails isn’t a super fun task, but it’s something that has to be done. If you’ve rescued a dog with severely overgrown nails or just didn’t know how to cut your dog’s nails, this guide is going to help!

The first thing to understand about how to trim severely overgrown dog nails is how the dog nail quick works.

Need to know how to fix curled dog nails? Click here to learn more.

Dog Nail Quick Diagram

Dog nail quick diagram

One of the reasons that cutting a dog’s nails can be so scary is because if you do it wrong (or if you do it right and they jerk) the dogs can bleed all over the place.

Once I did this with Tillie (my little Rat Terrier) and she bled for hours! It was awful.

The bleeding is because of the dog nail quick.

The quick is a blood vessel that’s in each dog nail. The nail also contains a nerve, which hurts when it’s cut.

Important: The quick supplies blood to the nail and will GROW with the nail, so you need to use techniques that will make the quick RECEDE.

What to Do When My Dog’s Nail is Curled into the Paw? Click here to learn more.

How to Get the Dog Nail Quick To Recede

Pair of tan dog paws on a wooden surface

This part requires patience.

If you need to know how to cut dog nails that are too long or even somewhat overgrown dog nails – then you are going to need to get the quick to recede by trimming just a bit at a time.

As you trim just the end off (see the diagram above) the quick will start to recede BACK into the nail, allowing you to cut the nail shorter the next time around.

The other important thing to remember is that you shouldn’t cut your dog’s nails straight across.

The Correct Angle to Cut Dog Nails

Get the dog nail quick to recede.

When you use an angled cut instead of a straight across cut (see diagram) you will be able to more easily avoid cutting the quick and get the quick to recede further back into the nail.

Does It Hurt A Dog When You Cut the Quick?

The simple and unfortunate answer to this is yes. It hurts because there are nerves at the same place as the quick. And if you cut the nerves it will cause pain to the dog.

Note: Cutting the dog’s nail below the quick does not cause pain to the dog. But many dog’s just don’t like the noise, the pressure, or the handling of their paws.

Now that I’ve gone over exactly how the quick works in a dog’s nails and what angle to clip the nails at to avoid the quick, let’s take a look at how exactly to do the trimming.

Does it Hurt a Dog When You Cut the Quick? Click here to find out.

How to Trim Dog Nails That are Overgrown

White dog paw with a curled dew claw isolated on a white background

There is no major magic here. You just need to do several things to deal with extremely overgrown dog nails.

  1. Trim off a small part of the nail each time to let the quick recede
  2. Use the correct angle for cutting the dog’s nails (see diagram above)
  3. Use the right dog nail clippers for YOUR situation – see this post on DIY dog nail clipping for details on nail clippers.

When you trim off just a bit of the nail at at time at the correct angle you allow the quick to move back into the nail, this lets you get the nail a bit shorter each time you trim.

How to cut a curled dew claw

Side view of a tan dog paw with overgrown nails

My dogs both have one very curly dew claw. The key to cutting it is to take JUST the end off like what is shown in the diagram above.

I find that using scissors dog nail clippers works especially well in this situation. Personally, I think they are the easiest dog nail clippers to use.

When to cut your dog’s nails

German shepherd with a pair of dog nail clippers in its mouth

When you are dealing with dogs nails that are overly long you should look at cutting their nails every week to two weeks or so. This gives the quick time to recede and lets you cut a bit more off at each time until you get them to the right length.

Once you get their nails back in shape, then you can clip a little less frequently as long as they stay the correct length.

If you have a puppy you will want to start cutting their nails early, and use slightly different tools. Here’s what to cut puppy nails with.

Need to learn how to cut a small dog’s nails? Click here to learn more.

What’s the correct dog nail length?

Person cutting black dog nails with dog nail clippers

The correct length for dog nails is when they are not touching the ground while they are standing.

If you can hear them clicking on the ground or see them touching the ground when your dog is standing then the nails are too long and it’s time to cut them.

What to do if you clip the quick?

Red and white dog with paw in a bandage, isolated on a white background

Even with all the caution in the world it’s completely possible to clip the quick of your dog’s nail.

If you do clip the quick then the nail will bleed, but it won’t cause permanent damage. You’ll want to use a styptic pencil to stop the bleeding. This should be part of your dog first aid kit essentials.

How to use a styptic pencil on a dog

styptic pencil  open and laying on its side on a wooden table

When your dog’s nail bleeds you want to take two steps:

  1. Put pressure on the nail with a clean cloth or dressing.
  2. Use a styptic pencil to stop the bleeding.

To use a styptic pencil on a dog use the following steps:

  1. Get the end of the styptic pencil wet by dipping it in clean water or putting a drop of water on it.
  2. Take the styptic pencil and rub it gently on your dogs nail where the bleeding is in a rotating motion.
  3. This will seal the injured blood vessels and cause the bleeding to stop quickly.

Note: Styptic pencils are great for dog nails, but you don’t want to use them in most other bleeding situations. For dog first aid for bleeding of other types go here.

Summary – The Basics of What You Need to Know About Trimming Dog Nails That are Too Long

Brown dog sitting on a doc with its paw  in a person's hand

If you have a dog that has overgrown nails the biggest thing to know is that the quick grows into the nail (see image above).

To safely clip the nails take off a small amount at an angle every week to two weeks until the nails are no longer touching the floor when your dog is standing up.

It’s MUCH better to clip just a little bit at a time weekly then to try to take too much off at once.

It’s also important to know that if your dog’s nails are too long sometimes they can become discolored (here’s what that means) or their nailbeds can become infected. If either of these things are happening you should consult your vet.

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