How to Care for Your Dog's Torn Toenail

Vet examining dog with hurt paw
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Broken or torn toenails are a common injury in dogs. The nails highest up on a dog's front feet, known as the dewclaws, tend to break most often.

If you notice your dog favoring or licking its paw, limping, or keeping weight off its foot, or see blood on its foot or in its footprints, take a closer look. It may have a torn toenail.

Before You Begin

Every dog is different—you know your dog best, but remember that when injured, a dog will instinctively try to protect itself. This means that your dog may reflexively bite or snarl at you, not really meaning to. It may be advisable to use a muzzle when treating a toenail injury, or enlist the help of another person, preferably one the dog knows and trusts.

What You Need

  • Nail trimmers
  • Clean towel
  • Warm water
  • Ice
  • Styptic pencil

Stop the Bleeding

It is a good idea to have shaving alum or styptic pencils at home for general first aid so when a nail is accidentally cut too short, you have the necessary tools on hand to stop bleeding. Alum and styptic pencils can be purchased over the counter at drug stores in the first aid supply area.

If you don't have alum or a styptic pencil, you can use flour or cornstarch to help stop bleeding. Pack a small amount in the cut nail end and apply pressure. Holding ice on the cut surface will also help stop bleeding, but some dogs may not put up with the cold.

Trim Any Broken Nail

If possible, remove any of the broken parts of the nail that may still be attached. This broken end often causes the dog more pain and may increase or continue the bleeding every time the torn piece is disturbed. However, these injuries can be very painful to your pet, so if they object, it is best to wait and let your veterinarian take care of it when they can sedate your dog or at least numb the area.

If the nail is barely hanging on it can usually be pulled off quickly with your hand. If it is broken low enough that the quick (blood vessel and nerve inside the nail) is not affected, you can use a dog toenail clipper to trim the broken section back.

Avoid using human toenail clippers; dogs' toenails are much harder to cut than people's nails, and you may prolong an already difficult process by not using the proper tool.

Wash the Affected Area

The injured nail needs to be gently washed off. Use warm water to remove any debris lodged between the nail and the toe or leg.

If there is active bleeding, wait before washing. Apply gentle firm pressure with a clean cloth to the area. A firm grasp around the entire foot works best if the dog will allow it. While you're applying pressure, speak to your dog in a calm, soothing voice. If you have a second person helping, they may be able to provide a distraction.

Consult a Veterinarian for Complications

This type of injury often leaves a bloody "stump" of tissue that would normally be inside the toenail housing. This is very tender and sensitive, and you should have your vet take a look at this type of injury as soon as possible.

If a large amount of toenail has been removed, most vets will bandage the area and prescribe pain medication and a short course of antibiotics as protection against infection. Another method is to use an antibiotic ointment (with frequent bandage changes) on the stump for lubrication and reduced friction and pain.

In severe or repeated injury cases, your vet may recommend removal of the nail.

Sometimes a toenail injury happens without any known trauma or reason. A veterinary examination is important to rule out other possible causes, such as an infection or tumor in the area, weakening the toenail and causing secondary breakage.

How to Prevent Your Dog From Tearing a Toenail

Keeping your dog's nails trimmed will help prevent most toenail injuries. If you're not confident about trimming them or have had problems in the past, take your dog to a qualified groomer.

Dogs are most likely to injure a toenail walking or running on hard, uneven surfaces such as cracked asphalt or gravel, where the nail may become caught, or running through brush. If your dog is prone to toenail injury, avoid these surfaces, or, invest in some doggie booties to protect its feet.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.