First Aid for Broken Nails in Dogs

By Krista Williams, BSc, DVM, CCRP; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Ouch! How can such a little injury cause such a big hurt? A tiny tear in a tiny nail on a single toe can be excruciatingly painful. The pain of a broken nail can be so intense that it can bring the biggest, bravest dog to its knees. Any breed, tough or fragile, will hold up a foot, limp around, and whine in discomfort. Plus, the bleeding that accompanies a torn nail further complicates the matter.

Why do nails break?

Dogs break their nails by snagging them on carpet, upholstery fibers, grass roots, etc. Or they may jump off a chair or down from a porch and land on a toe in such a way that the nail bends back and breaks. Sometimes, the nails of older pets are so dry that they become brittle and break very easily. Longer nails tend to get caught on things more than short ones. Regardless of the reason, a broken nail hurts and bleeds so it requires immediate attention.

Why are broken nails such a problem?

The nails of dogs consist of a central collection of blood vessels and nerves that are called the quick. The quick is covered by a layer of hard material called keratin, which surrounds these sensitive structures to protect them. The quick is living tissue while the keratin is not. That is why trimming the tip of the nail is not painful for your pet but exposing the quick is uncomfortable. The quick is also attached to the bone, so any damage to the quick can lead to an infection in the bone, which is very serious.

There are normally five toes on each front foot and four on each rear foot, but sometimes an extra nail called a dew claw is located higher up on the foot. All nails except the dew claws are worn down when the dog walks on hard surfaces such as the sidewalk, but normal wear may not keep nails short enough, making it necessary to trim your dog’s nails. Dew claws do not bear weight so they need to be trimmed more frequently and are more susceptible to breaking.

What should I do if my dog has a broken nail?

If your dog yelps in pain and suddenly begins to limp or hold his paw up, check his foot for a broken nail and follow this treatment protocol:

1. Safely restrain your dog. Have someone hold your pet while you tend to the nail. Remember that even the nicest pet may bite when in pain. A muzzle may help avoid injury. Provide restraint in the form of a hug which immobilizes the dog and makes him feel secure.

2. Control bleeding by wrapping the foot in gauze or a towel and applying pressure to the injured toe. If the bleeding does not stop in 5-10 minutes, apply a styptic pencil, silver nitrate stick, or cauterizing powder to the nail. These items can be purchased at the pet store or in the first aid section of your human pharmacy. If you do not have these products at home, try covering the nail with baking powder or flour. You can also stick the tip of the nail into a bar of soap to help stop the bleeding.

3. Remove the damaged part of the nail. Sometimes, there is a loosely attached sliver of nail that can be trimmed away easily with clippers at home, but most of the time this job is best left to your veterinarian. Keep the foot wrapped in a towel as you proceed to your veterinary hospital.

The damaged or broken part of the nail needs to be carefully removed. This procedure is often painful but can be accomplished quickly and often requires no sedation; however, depending on the degree of pain and where the break is, sedation and/or numbing the area with a nerve block may be required. The nail should be trimmed above the break to completely remove the damaged portion and to provide a good foundation for the nail to re-grow.

4. Protect the nail bed from infection. Your veterinarian may apply antibiotic ointment or powder to the exposed nail bed and bandage the foot to prevent contamination and to minimize further bleeding. An oral or injectable antibiotic may be advised as well. Since the nail bed or quick is attached to bone, prevention of infection is crucial. Bone infections are serious problems and only certain antibiotics are effective in treating them. Your dog’s foot needs to be closely monitored so your veterinarian will schedule a follow-up visit to examine the affected nail and remove or change the bandage.

5. Control the pain. Without the keratin part of the nail to protect the quick, the tender live tissue including blood vessels and nerves is exposed and painful. Your veterinarian may prescribe pain medication for a few days to keep your dog more comfortable.

How can I help my dog avoid broken nails?

To avoid the hassle of a broken nail, keep your dog’s nails trimmed. Short nails are less likely to snag than long ones. Ask your veterinarian or veterinary technician to demonstrate proper nail trimming so you can clip your dog’s nails at home. If you are not comfortable doing this, simply make regularly scheduled appointments to have your dog’s nails trimmed at the veterinary hospital.

Regardless of who does the clipping, the goal is to trim the nail as short as possible while avoiding the quick. This is easier with white nails where the pinkish quick is readily apparent. Dark nails are more of a challenge. The right tools are essential for successful trimming. Sharp nail trimmers specially designed for dogs are a big plus. Dull trimmers shred the nail and increase the likelihood of a break.

Keep maintenance of your dog’s nails on your list of tasks alongside bathing and walking so that you and your dog can avoid the broken nail dilemma.

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