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Veterinarian Technician April 2011 (Vol 32, No 4)

Inside Behavior: Nail Trims Do Not Have to Be "Torture" for Dogs or You

by Colleen S. Koch, DVM, KPA-CTP

    Nail trimming can be a dreaded task that many dog owners choose to defer to a professional. Some dogs are taken to a groomer, and some have their nails trimmed once or twice a year during their annual or biannual veterinary examinations. If a clinic does not have a groomer on staff, a veterinary technician often trims nails with the help of an assistant.

    The temperaments of patients during nail trims can range from “polite” dogs that tolerate or even enjoy the procedure to “Cujos” that would just as soon eat you as let you touch their feet. The upside to trimming the nails of Cujos is that their temperament often causes them to produce highly desired laboratory samples, such as feces and urine. However, nail trims should not be psychological “torture” for patients or veterinary staff. In addition, nail trims should not be painful for patients unless there is an underlying pathology.

    Box 1. Puppy Nail-Trimming Protocola

    • Nail trims are complimentary with every puppy examination.
    • Because human nail trimmers are small and easy to handle, they are used to nip the sharp tip of each nail.
    • Lots of treats are given to the puppy throughout the nail trim and the examination.
    • If the puppy stops eating or shows interest in what the staff is doing, the staff redirects the puppy’s attention to an enticing treat.
    • Squeaky toys, balls, and other toys can also be used as distractions.
    aOf the author’s animal hospital

    My practice (Lincoln Land Animal Clinic, Ltd, Jacksonville, IL) promotes positive nail trimming. Our goal is for patients to think that only “wonderful things” happen at our animal hospital. We start all puppies on our nail-trimming protocol (BOX 1) and encourage clients to follow up by regularly touching or playing with their pets’ feet. It is important to show clients how to kindly touch their pets’ feet; otherwise, clients may inadvertently teach their pets to withdraw their feet when touched. We also encourage clients to make “footwork” sessions fun, to carefully choose the timing of sessions, and to reward good behavior with lots of attention, play, and/or treats.

    So what should you do with a growling, anal-gland wielding “land shark” ironically named Princess or Sweetie? The answer is desensitization and counterconditioning. These simple techniques involve gradually introducing a pet to the feared stimulus (e.g., nail trimmers) in the presence of a valued reward (e.g., toys, treats, attention). When this method is used, the “evil” nail trimmer becomes a predictor of something good. However, timing is important; the pet must learn that the nail trimmer predicts something “good,” not that the “good thing” predicts the nail trimmer.

    Veterinary personnel are taught that “the client is always right” and that we must perform the services that clients request. For years, we have obliged clients by restraining and/or muzzling dogs and doing whatever else it takes to trim nails. (Videotapes of many nail trims would have to be prefaced with “Please do not try this at home.”) However, using traditional restraint techniques is unlikely to teach a dog to allow one person to trim its nails without restraint. Generally, increasingly more “brutathane” is required to trim a patient’s nails. In addition, dogs can become increasingly fearful of the animal hospital.

    As trusted veterinary professionals, we need to set the standard for care. When we know better, we should do better. Just as clients do not dictate how we perform surgery, they should not dictate how we trim their pets’ nails. Therefore, if we know a better way to trim nails without using force, we should perform it exclusively. We must be advocates for our patients’ physical and mental well-being.

    At my clinic, we explain to clients that trimming nails is not an emergency. If a dog is fearful of nail trimming, we tell the client that forcing his/her dog to have a nail trim decreases the dog’s trust in the veterinary staff and, possibly, the client. Most clients are receptive to this information and relieved to learn that there is an alternative to nail trimming by force. Most clients do not like to hear their dogs cry or see them being restrained during a nail trim, but they also do not know that there is an alternative to nail trimming by force.

    If a client would like us to proceed with a nail trim despite his/her dog’s poor temperament, we use sedation to decrease the dog’s anxiety. However, sedation increases the cost of the nail trim and has inherent risks. Our ultimate concern is for the long-term mental and physical health and well-being of the pet.

    In addition, we recommend that the client start our desensitization and counterconditioning program to teach the dog that nail trimming is a “good thing.” A step-by-step video on our Web site (BOX 2) shows detailed instructions on how to train a dog to accept nail trimming. If a client does not feel confident about training his/her dog or would prefer that we train the dog, we can make arrangements to do so.

    Box 2. Desensitizing and Counterconditioning Dogs to Nail Trimminga

    • Be patient. Desensitization and counterconditioning can take a long time.
    • Provide treats.
    • Go slowly, and let the dog determine the pace.
    • Allow the dog to approach the nail trimmers.
    • If the dog is fearful, allow it to move away.
    • High-value rewards should be used at the beginning of each step.
    • Remember that the nail trimmers must predict only rewards, such as treats.
    • Remember that all the nails do not need to be trimmed at one time.

    aWatch a step-by-step video on how to desensitize and countercondition dogs to nail trimming.

    If a client tries desensitization and counterconditioning at home and does not seem to be making progress, we ask the client to contact us. In many cases, a lack of progress is due to the client trying to “fix” the problem too quickly, which can cause a dog to become frustrated and anxious. Sometimes a pet may require a behavioral consultation to rule out other underlying anxieties that could be contributing to its fear.

    Nail trims can be performed by almost anyone. Desensitization and counterconditioning are simple techniques that can be used to help patients overcome their fear of nail trimming. With some time and effort, clients can gain the confidence required to trim their pets’ nails on their own. Veterinary professionals must continue to raise the bar and set the standards for compassionate care. Nail trims are a great place to start!

    NEXT: Managing Cardiopulmonary Arrest [CE]

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