- The end of the dogs kinetic chain is their toenails
- Long toe nails make dogs move as if they are walking uphill
- Long toe nails can lead to long term degenerative changes and pain
- Compensations such as an arched low back probably mean your dog’s toenails are too long.
I have noticed that many of my canine patients present to the clinic with long toenails. While toenail clipping can be a stressful situation for both pet and owner, it is an imperative process in maintaining your dog’s joint and spine health.
Joints are a continuing attachment of bones throughout the skeletal system in which everything is connected, and thus everything affects everything. When applied to the musculoskeletal system, this is known as the “kinetic chain”. The end of this kinetic chain in dogs is the toenail. As toenails lengthen the angles at each joint begin to slightly change from the paw up towards the spinal column, causing a flattening effect in the foot. This creates stress across joint planes, up the extremities, and in turn can cause joint pain and arthritis. Not only does this change the centration (the most efficient position of the joint) of the joints and potentially lead to degenerative changes, it also transfers over to the dog’s gait. The longer the toenails, the flatter the paw, and the less the joints can be aligned in their ideal position. These imbalances fool the brain into thinking the animal is always walking uphill, creating over-activity of the hip flexors. This causes the hind end to work harder than needed on a flat surface, and muscles begin to compensate throughout the body. If this becomes a chronic issue, over time the animal will form a roached back, which is an upward arching of the low back (lumbar spine). Overall leading to increased stiffness and pain, and increasing the risk of injury.
To put this in perspective, imagine a woman wearing high heels and how that affects the way she walks. Even temporary use can lead to knee and hip pain, etc. Now imagine walking in that discomfort all day every day. This is essentially what is happening in dogs with long toenails.
Dogs toenails are unlike cats in that they are not used as a form of defense, but rather as a gripping mechanism in movement when accelerating and rounding corners. Outdoor dogs that are highly active throughout the day over different surfaces maintain their nail length by wearing down their nails. However, housebound dogs are not getting this same exposure to these surfaces, and thus their toenails do not get filed down naturally. Therefore, it is up to us as the owners to keep their nails at proper length. I often follow a four-week trimming regiment. If I can hear my dog’s nails scattering across the hardwood or linoleum floors their nails are too long! Some breeds may also require more frequent trimming schedules, such as Italian Greyhounds, who typically need their nails trimmed every two to three weeks.
The number one key to trimming nails is safety. Nail trimming can be done by your local veterinarian or groomer. If you prefer to take on the task yourself and you have a wiggly pup on your hands, it may be wise to have someone else there to assist you in holding the dog steady.
There is a proper technique to follow in order to avoid clipping the quick, which is the blood supply to the nail (refer to the video link below). The nail should be trimmed at a 45-degree angle to the point at which the nail begins to bend downward. In dogs with white toenails you can easily see where the quick is located, deciphered by the pink portion of the nail. Dogs with black toenails are bit more challenging. The nail is often a lighter grey color, and when you get close to the quick it becomes a darker black tissue. When you see the pink or black color of the quick, this is your stopping point. Only use proper nail clippers specifically used for dogs when trimming nails. It is always a good idea to have Kwik Stop, or another form of bleeding stopper, on hand in case you accidentally hit the quick. Another option, rather than using dog specific nail clippers, is using a Dremel tool with sandpaper on end to file down the nails. This may be a more comfortable approach for sensitive dogs, and lessens the chance for hitting the quick leading to bleeding.
Below is the link to a helpful instructional video on nail trimming. I highly recommend watching this before attempting to clip toenails for the first time. And remember even if your dogs may not appreciate the trimming at the time, their joints and spine will be happy in the long run!