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A dog's broken nail isn't necessarily life-threatening, but it's something to treat as soon as possible within a day or two. Minor issues you might be able to handle on your own, but there are other stages of damage best handled at a veterinary clinic.
Dog nails, also referred to as claws, are similar to human nails in that they're part living tissue, part protective coating. VCA Hospitals notes the nail quick consists of nerves and blood and attaches to the bone. Protecting the quick is a tough cellular protein exterior called keratin. "That is why trimming the tip of the nail is not painful for your pet but exposing the quick is uncomfortable," VCA states.
Jo Myers, DVM, of Salida, Colo. is a telehealth practitioner on Vetster. She says healthy dog nails of an appropriate length don't break, at least not without some serious trauma. Occasionally, she adds, some dogs have broken nails due to the condition onychodystrophy, which might produce weak or misshapen nails, but this is rare.
So why do dogs' nails break? "Claws require regular trimming, and if this isn't done in a timely manner, they become overgrown and can easily catch on things like carpet or a crack in the floor, and tear," Myers says.
If your dog has a broken nail, here's what you should know.
Spotting a Dog’s Broken Nail
More often than not, your pooch has a paw problem when you see him licking it or limping a bit, hear him suddenly cry out—or there's a lot of blood. Myers says this last bit is often alarming for pet parents.
"Even though bleeding can be upsetting and makes a big mess, it's important to understand that it's not dangerous or life-threatening," she says. "It may look like a lot, but the bleeding will eventually stop." Sometimes the nail injury is too painful for pups to even want to lick it, so there might be more blood than you expect.
Take a deep breath, then encourage your pup to be calm and comfortable for inspection. Have that treat bag close by! Keep in mind the area will likely be tender, and he might be reluctant to let you take a closer look. Myers says sometimes the claw is ripped all the way off, or it's left cracked and crooked.
Is a broken dog nail an emergency? Myers provides this insight:
Minor claw injuries are when the bleeding is under control right away and the claw isn’t tender for long. “It should be a non-issue within 24 hours with little to no treatment.” It still takes weeks for the claw to grow back, but that's not a concern as long as the claw isn't bleeding, painful, or getting infected.
A more serious nail injury is when the claw is either torn off or has to be cut through higher up, close to the toe. “This is also a non-issue after 24 hours if it's appropriately treated.”
More severe claw conditions, especially those with a broken fragment left below the injury, often require professional treatment and cause problems for weeks. “Any movement of the fragment below the point of injury delays healing by reinitiating bleeding, pain, swelling, and risk for infection.”
If infection sets in, Myers says, you'll notice your dog's toe becomes red and swollen. He might start limping again because the injury is more painful now, or even act sick. Additionally, "a foul-smelling discharge may also start to ooze from the broken claw," she says. "In a worst-case scenario, this infection spreads into the bone of the toe and can become quite difficult to manage without surgical amputation."
You'll likely notice a nail problem before infection sets in. But if you're uncertain as to how bad the injury is, take your pup to the vet after inspecting the area to ensure a steady road to recovery.
How to Fix a Dog’s Broken Nail
You know when you give your dog a bath how it's best to have everything you need set up beforehand? This practice is even more important when preparing to mend a dog's broken nail.
Here are Myers' tips for a doggie first aid kit in this situation:
A good pair of nail trimmers in the right size to fit your dog’s nails.
2"x2" gauze squares.
A roll of self-adherent bandage material.
Styptic powder to help stop the bleeding. Cornstarch or flour works well, too.
Cut Away the Injured Nail
Make this a two-person job: one to comfort the pooch, and another to take action. Here's what Myers recommends:
Use the trimmers to either trim off the broken bit or cut through the nail above the injury to remove a partially bent or broken claw. This hurts! So provide extra pats for your pup.
After the cut, stem the bleeding by firmly pressing the styptic powder directly onto the cut edge of the nail, either by packing it into the cut or placing the nail into the powder container cap. This process is messy, but it’s okay.
Fashion a small bandage with gauze squares and adhesive material. “I've also seen some great bandages by MacGyver-esque pet parents who stuffed one athletic sock inside another so the inner sock was balled up to provide padding around the toes, then secured the outer sock to the leg with duct tape,” Myers says.
Clean the dog’s fur—but not the wound itself—with pet-safe hydrogen peroxide.
When to See a Professional
More serious injuries need veterinary care. You might also prefer to let the experts handle your dog's broken nail if you're uncomfortable with the process or he's scared or doesn't want you messing with the area.
Myers says treatment for a dog's broken nail might include:
A regular exam, correction of the injury, and full nail trim.
Antibiotics and/or anti-inflammatories to reduce the risk of infection and ease discomfort.
Possible need for sedation if the pup is frightened or the injury repair requires cutting off the nail above the injury close to the dog’s toe.
Vet costs average between $50–$80 for the exam and supplies, perhaps an additional $20 for the full nail trim, $20–$60 for medication, and up to $100 for sedation. So you're looking at around $200–$300 total in costs to fix your dog's broken nail at the vet (better than the injury leading to infection!).
How to Avoid Broken Nail Issues
Prevent nail problems with consistent nail trimming as part of his grooming routine. Make it a positive experience with a treat reward to help him adapt more easily.
"For example, I never grab my trimmers without also getting a spoonful of peanut butter [we recommend the natural, xylitol-free variety!]," Myers says. "The best plan is to work with your dog from the beginning so he'll be comfortable about having his feet handled and nails trimmed. Then, the stress of nail trims becomes a non-issue and it's easy to do it frequently."
It's natural to feel a bit intimidated by the process. No worries, though—the experts at Daily Paws put together this helpful video tutorial so you and your pup can have a drama-free nail salon session once a month or so. But if he really doesn't want his paws touched, ask your veterinarian for recommendations.