Photos by Damian McDonald
When I ask my grooming customers, “What would you like done today?” at check-in, almost every single person replies, “Trim the nails!” They don’t give me much feedback on the coat style, but those nails are of utmost importance in most pet owners’ lives.
If you’ve been grooming dogs for more than a minute, you know that sometimes dogs’ claws get overgrown. In many cases, the tender “quick” (the soft tissue inside the claw that houses nerve cells and a blood supply) is so long that it’s difficult to trim the nails back enough so they don’t touch the ground.
When a dog’s claws are that long, they pose a variety of problems: They are prone to getting damaged or broken during regular activity, and they cause the dog to walk abnormally, putting painful stress on their toes and joints. In addition, over time, overgrown nails can realign the dog’s joints and cause the shape of its foot to change. It can be a serious challenge to get the quick to recede far enough that safely, painlessly trimming the nails back to a healthy level can be accomplished.
Fellow groomer Damian McDonald (“Who Groomed That Dog,” Alberta, Canada) explained to me her technique for humanely and successfully shortening claws quickly and safely. I first read about her method on a Facebook grooming page and, intrigued, I tried it myself. It needed to be shared, and she kindly agreed to tell our readers how she successfully solved the problem of overgrown dog claws.
Would you please explain how you came upon this idea?
“I came upon this idea after I learned about a method of nail trimming called the ‘Alternative Cut Line,’ or ACL. The idea of the ACL is to angle your cut so that the cut edge is more on the top of the nail at the point where it begins to curve down, rather than making your cut after this curve, so your cut edge is facing the ground. This cut line allows you to get closer to the quick without cutting into it and causing pain and bleeding, and it exposes more of the soft inner nail that groomers are trained to identify when clipping nails.
The soft inner nail surrounds the quick, but unlike the quick, it does not hurt the dog when clipped. There is a certain thickness of this soft inner nail between the quick and the hard protective outer nail. When you expose this inner nail, over the coming days, the inner nail will harden. The quick will recede to maintain this thickness between the quick, the soft inner nail and hard outer nail.
To me, it just seemed logical that exposing more of this inner nail would go much further in getting the quicks to recede in overgrown nails in a shorter time. So, I decided to begin experimenting with this method—similar to the ACL—but instead of just exposing the soft inner nail on the top of the nail, I wanted to see what the results would be if I used the Dremel to do it on all sides.”
When did you first try this?
“I have been Dremeling nails for years, but this specific method I’ve only been doing for the last year or so.”
Would you mind describing the method you use to shorten claws safely?
“On overgrown nails, I first use nail clippers to take off the majority of the nail (Fig 1). When I can see that I have trimmed back to the soft inner nail surrounding the quick, I stop cutting and switch to the Dremel (Fig 2). Envisioning the position of the quick inside the nail, I use the Dremel to file away the hard outer nail, going all the way around the tip of the nail (Fig 3). You can think of it sort of like sharpening a pencil. I use my judgment to determine how far back to go from the tip of the nail; on longer and thicker nails, I will go back further (Fig 4).
It’s a bit of a learning curve. It would help if you kept in mind that once you’ve Dremeled off the outer nail, the exposed part will be more delicate for a couple of days while it hardens. I make sure not to go too far back that a broken nail becomes a risk (this has never happened with one of my clients, but I believe it could be possible). Occasionally I have focused on getting as close to the quick as possible in extremely overgrown nails. In that case, I will ask the owner not to take the dog running or allow extreme exercise until the claws have had a couple of days to harden.”
What tools do you use?
“I use a Dremel brand tool, the Dremel 3000, to be specific. It’s a 10-speed Dremel, but I never go above speed five or six—you don’t need that much power. I appreciate the small increases of power it provides though, especially when doing this method of nail grinding. Lower speeds give you more control when taking off small amounts of the nail with less risk of grinding into the quick. I use a metal tip on my Dremel. I chose smaller tips than the standard sandpaper bands, and I find that I like them better. I believe it’s the best-suited tip for this method. The metal tips are much more forgiving when making contact with skin, and can be lightly skimmed against the dog’s paw pad when grinding the underside of a nail without irritating the paw.”
Would you please describe the results you have seen? And have you used this method on many dogs?
“I have used this method on too many dogs to count at this point because I do it, to an extent, on every dog that gets nail grinding done. However, in the year or so that I have been using this method, I have had several dogs come to me specifically for quick-recession services. These clients are instructed to bring the dog back between 10-14 days for a second session, and if needed, for a third session in that same time frame. These are the dogs that I have noticed a difference in. When I was trained, and in the years that followed, the method of getting quicks to recede was to clip or Dremel almost to the tip of the quick and then have the dog come back every week or two and repeat this as many times as needed. It would take several sessions to get quicks back to a semi-desirable length. With this method, I’ve been thrilled to see excellent results in usually just two sessions.”
Can you give some tips on how to do this for people who may not know how to buff nails with a Dremel-type tool?
“If you are new at buffing nails, I would first encourage you to familiarize yourself with the structure of the nail. Then, get to the point where you can identify the difference between the outer nail, soft inner nail and quick while trimming or grinding. Grinding into the quick while you are exposing larger portions near to it could be an unpleasant experience for all involved. But with a little bit of practice, this method will become second nature to you!”
Is there anything else you would like groomers to know before trying this?
“This method can be more difficult on a wiggly dog. This is where the Dremel 3000 can come in handy with its lower speeds. Remember, it’s not a race; do what the dog will tolerate, and take your time. If your dog will not tolerate the nail grinder, I would suggest reverting to the ACL method while you work on conditioning the dog to a nail grinder.”
Because you can teach an old dog (groomer) new tricks, I am grateful to Damian for sharing her method of altering the overgrowth of pet dog claws. This practice is changing the way I work and making dogs more comfortable because of it. ✂️