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Nail Trims: How to Turn a Chore Into Less of a Headache

I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking that nail trimming is one of the less glamorous parts of living with animals. With that being said, it's a crucial part of keeping dogs, cats, and birds healthy. Nails that grow too long make it hard for animals to move around. Super long nails change an animal's gait and can make their feet hurt. Some nails can get so long that they curl into an animal's paw pads. Many birds use their feet to eat and groom themselves (just to name a couple of examples), so not being able to perform species-typical behaviors due to long nails can literally be detrimental to their health.

From the animal's perspective, nail trims can be pretty stressful. From the restraint, to the funny feeling of the clippers, to the potential concern of their nails getting trimmed too short, no wonder it's so common to see so many animals that have issues with getting their nail trimmed. It really all boils down to a gross lack of agency (yep, there's that word again).

Agency = Freedom of choice. When agency is taken away, many animals experience "big feelings" like fear, stress, and frustration. This makes holding still (which is super necessary for a successful nail trim) really difficult for the animal. The more they move around, the higher the likelihood that a nail will be cut too short. This of course is painful and creates a negative association with the whole experience. If an animal walks away from a nail trim with a negative association built, then nail trims will continue to become progressively more and more difficult for all parties involved.

So how do we prevent or change our animal's perception when it comes to nail trims? There are a variety of options:

  1. We teach the animal to use a scratch pad in order to file their nails down.

  2. We pair nail trims with something that the animal finds amazing (food, affection, play, etc) so that nail trims become the predictor of something good.

  3. We don't trim all of the nails at once if the animal has a negative learned history with the experience. Nails can be trimmed over the course of multiple sessions to make the experience less overwhelming, stressful, and/or scary.

We will continue to elaborate on this topic as time goes on, but if you're struggling now, please don't hesitate to reach out!

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