How to Find the Quick When Trimming Black or White Dog Nails

by K Marie Alto October 21, 2021 9 min read

How to Find the Quick When Trimming Black or White Dog Nails

Just like humans, pet nails grow a little longer every day. Unlike you, though, your furry friend might not have a good time having theirs trimmed. There are quite a few reasons why your pooch might not like getting a pawdicure:

  • They might not like having their paw held.
  • They might not like the feeling, sound, or smell of clippers or grinders.
  • They might have had a bad experience in the past.

Bad experiences are one of the main reasons a dog might dislike nail trimming. Dog nails have a central core that holds a nerve and a blood vessel, both of which help keep the nail healthy. One of the most important parts of trimming a dog's nails is to never trim so far back that you clip that vessel and nerve combo, called the "quick."  

For dogs with white or light-colored nails, it's easy to avoid the quick. After all, you can see it! White nails are actually mostly clear, so you can see through them. The pink you see near your pooch's toe is the quick. As long as you avoid clipping too close to that pink bit, you'll be fine.

Those of you who have a fur baby with black nails, on the other hand, have a much harder time. Black nails contain melanin, which tints them. It's not harmful or cause for concern, but it does make nail trimming much more difficult. With that tint, you can't see the quick.

So, how do you avoid hurting your fur baby and making future nail trims much more difficult?

Train Your Fur Baby

The first thing you should do is take steps to make sure your fur baby is comfortable during nail trimming. Some pups take to it naturally, while others will find it anxiety-inducing. It's important to know how your canine companion reacts to nail trimming, so you can train out undesirable behaviors and promote good ones.  

Train Fur Baby

Luckily, we recently wrote a very complete guide on how to train your dog to let you clip their nails that discusses a variety of useful actionable tips as well as the best tools for the best pawdicure experience. Feel free to check it out.

Suffice it to say, training your dog to accept having his or her nails trimmed will make it much easier and reduce the chances of trimming too deep.

Understanding Your Dogs Nails

It’s worth noting some useful terminology before we continue.   For starters, I’d like to make it clear that dogs don't have nails like us humans, but instead they have claws. The main difference between dog claws and human nails lies in  the blood vessel and nerves located inside the claws.

Given that most pet parents tend to refer to them as dog nails, instead of dog claws, I have decided to use this more common terminology throughout the article. While it may seem just a matter of semantics for some, I thought it was important to briefly discuss the difference.

If you want to learn more about dog claws, check out this quick but comprehensive post on 9 facts about dog and cat claws.

Back to the quick, if you're looking to find the quick so you can avoid it, you'll want to learn how a dog's nails work.

Dog Raising Paw

In a sense, you can compare them to teeth.

  • In the center is a nerve and blood vessel, which is very sensitive to damage.  Cutting the quick causes pain just like having a deep cavity that’s reached the nerve.
  • Surrounding this central quick is a pulp, which is protective and helps spread nutrients to keep the tooth/claw healthy.
  • Around the pulp is the harder enamel (in teeth) and keratin (in claws) that protects the softer inner tissues.

Your goal with trimming is to cut back the nail enough to keep your dog's feet healthy, but not so much that it damages the quick. Over time, the nail grows out, the pulp turns into more nail, with more pulp growing from the quick.

When you trim your fur baby's nails, you'll be exposing the pulp, but not the quick. So, when you look head-on, you should see an outer ring of nail and an inner circle of pulp. The outer ring of nail will usually be white because the freshly cut nail will display melanin-free coloration until it wears down. The pulp will still be dark.

If you see a target or bullseye-shaped spot in the center of the pulp, that's the quick. You're just on the verge of cutting too deep and should leave that nail alone.

How Deep Should I Trim My Dog's Nails?

Trimming all the way to the quick is too deep. It's painful, it can bleed, and it can expose the nerve and blood vessel to infection. Obviously, that’s something we want to avoid.

On the other hand, if you don't trim enough, the nail will grow out, and the quick will grow with it. Then, the next time you trim your fur baby's nails, the quick will stick out further, and you won't be able to trim as much. This can lead to longer or even overgrown nails.

Trimming Dog Nails

The goal is to trim the nail down to the pulp. By exposing the pulp, the quick will naturally recede, and the exposed pulp turns into more nail. This keeps the nail short but still healthy.

It's also better to trim small amounts more frequently than to wait longer between trims. If you trim every couple of weeks, you will keep your fur baby's nails shorter, and the quick will stay receded, making it easier to keep up with.  

"How often and how much nail to trim is very individual and will depend largely on how fast a dog's nails grow and the surfaces the dog typically walks on. Getting into the habit of checking your dog's nails every 1-2 weeks will be helpful to establish a routine and get your dog used to his paws and nails being touched." – American Kennel Club.

Sensitivity Test: Give the Nail a Squeeze

To test sensitivity, you can give the nail you're about to trim a slight squeeze on the sides of the nail, right where you're about to cut. Since the nail portion has no nerves, your fur baby shouldn't react, so you can feel confident you can safely trim that bit of nail.

Squeezing Dog Nail

If, on the other hand, your fur baby pulls his or her paw away when you squeeze, it means you've put pressure on a nerve. If you were to clip at that point, you would likely hit the quick.

Be careful not to squeeze too hard! Dog nails are resilient to damage from digging and walking, but the sideways pressure of squeezing can still break the nail and expose the quick. It does you no good to avoid trimming too deep if you're exposing the quick another way!

Trim Bit by Bit

Dog nail trimming can be a stressful experience for both you and your fur baby, but trying to rush it is likely to make everything that much worse. Cutting too much, too fast, can break the nail or cut to the quick. That's because you can never reliably estimate how deep the quick is. As the nail grows, the quick recedes, but different dogs – and even different toes on the same dog! – will recede at different rates. Therefore you need to spend time trimming slowly, bit by bit.

Trimming Dog Nails

Basically, you want to cut no more than 1/6th of an inch of nail with each clip. Clip and check, clip and check. If you see nothing but white, you're still trimming just nail and haven't reached the pulp yet. If you see a circle of black ringed by white, you've reached the pulp and have trimmed enough.

Keep Your Pawdicure Tools Sharp

One of the biggest problems many pet parents face when nail trimming is using the same dog nail clippers for years. Just like scissors or knives, dog nail clippers dull over time with use.

Sharp Nail Trimmers

Dull dog nail clippers hurt the process in several ways.

  • They pinch more than cut, which can crack your dog's nails and break them instead of cutting through them. They also require more force to use, which can be painful for your fur baby even if you haven't hit the quick.
  • They make ragged cuts, which can abrade the pulp and make it harder to tell how deep you've cut your dog's nail, which means it's more likely that you won't notice and will clip too deep.

Unfortunately, using a dog nail grinder can have a similar problem; the abrasive grinding can make it difficult to tell if you've reached the pulp. With practice, you can learn, but it takes time and a patient pup.

Toe Beans Nail Clippers

Make sure you choose the right tool for the job!

"You should regularly check on the blades of your dog's nail clippers to see that they are fine. The importance of monitoring the blades increases even more once you have sharpened them. This is because the clipper is now more likely to become ineffective. Once it reaches that stage, you should simply replace it." – Patch Puppy.

While you can always sharpen your nail clippers yourself, a new set of durable dog nail clippers like the Clawper Pro equipped with 3.5mm stainless steel blades and a built in claw file can be both very effective and a great investment in your dog’s wellbeing. Keep in mind tough that it's often better to simply replace them when they get dull.

Be Prepared for Accidents

Sometimes you just don't see the pulp when you're trimming. Sometimes your fur baby jerks or moves at the wrong moment. Sometimes your tool slips, and you clip too far. Oh no! Now your fur baby is in pain, their nail is bleeding, and you're feeling guilty about hurting them.

When this happens, the most important thing is to not panic. It's a simple and common mistake, and you shouldn't feel bad for making it. After all, you are just doing what you think is best for your fur baby and that is helping them keep healthy paws.

Deal with it and move on. Make sure to keep handy a bag of your dog’s favorite treats to  calm and reward your fur baby for their patience during this difficult time. Watch this short video on how to treat a dog's bleeding nails just in case 😊

"If the toenail is cut too short, you can use a styptic pencil containing silver nitrate to stop blood flow, although many animals object to the styptic pencil as much, or more, than toenail cutting. The black end of the stick is held to the bleeding nail and gently rotated until bleeding stops." – Washington State University.

Nail Trimming Accident

Don't try to immediately get back to nail trimming. The trauma of hitting the quick will be made worse by trying to wrestle your fur baby back into trimming, especially if they already have anxiety about the process. Take care of the bleeding, then let your canine friend go about their day. You can try again the next day.

Don't Forget the Details

Some additional details can get lost in the shuffle of nail trimming.  

Don't Forget Details

First of all, pay attention to the dewclaw. Your fur baby's dewclaw is on the inner side of the front feet and likely not on their back feet. Don't worry if that's not true for your fur baby, though! Genetics can play a part, and some dogs have no dewclaws, while others might have double dewclaws.

The dewclaw is usually not in contact with the ground, so it grows more smoothly and isn't worn away like normal claws. This means you need to pay special attention to keeping it trimmed back so it doesn't become ingrown.

"Dewclaws are essentially the thumbs and big toes of the dog world. They are not directly equivalent to the human structures, of course, but they are similar. Looking at a dog's front foot, the toes that are in contact with the ground while standing correspond to our pinky, ring finger, middle finger, and index finger. The dewclaw is the "thumb." The same is true for the canine hind foot, with the dewclaw being the 'big toe.'" - PetMD

For dogs with longer fur, you should also consider keeping a pair of scissors or hair clippers in your grooming kit. Trim back the fur around the nails. This serves two purposes; it helps keep your fur baby's toes cleaner, and it lets you have a clearer view of his or her nails when you're trying to trim them.  

If you keep all of this in mind, and you spend the time you need to train your fur baby to deal with or even enjoy grooming, you'll be able to trim even the darkest nails with the ease of a pro. It takes practice, but once you get it down, you'll have a much better experience, and so will your fur baby.

As usual, we are always happy to hear from our readers. Please share your comments and questions below. Have you ever accidentally cut your dog’s nails too short? How did you stop the bleeding?

K Marie Alto
K Marie Alto

K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 19K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-).

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