You’re playing with your dog, and the next minute one of their nails is sticking out sideways.
Sometimes they’ll yelp, or limp, but other times it just looks bent or dislocated. There may even be a little bleeding. What do you do?
The dog’s nail in the picture above is a good example. His owner was told it was fine to wait for it to fix itself, but after several days she wasn’t so sure.
Will A Broken Nail Heal On Its Own?
Most broken nails will heal by themselves over 1-2 weeks. However this causes unacceptable discomfort in the meantime. The loose nail is still partly attached to the injured nailbed, and even the slightest movement creates intense pain.
Additionally, if untreated the area of separation between nail and nailbed quickly gets infected. You will notice this by the appearance of a smell around two days after the injury.
Remember the number one message from vets to dog owners is: they don’t complain.
Can I Pull The Nail Off Myself?
You will find people online advising you to remove the broken or damaged nail by pulling, cutting or snipping. Here’s why that’s a bad idea:
- The nail fragment is often very well attached. Sometimes it also contains vital parts of the nailbed that should not be removed.
- Pulling the nail often leaves small slivers that you cannot see still embedded in the nailbed.
- Puling a broken nail is extremely painful. They may not complain, but it is likely that you will lose your dog’s trust in touching their nails for ever after.
The last point I have seen many, many times. As a young vet I (like most back then) would just ‘pull’ the loose nails and apply a dressing. It took years of experience to see how differently the dogs related to me afterwards. Pain is the best educator.
Those people online? I can only guess that they haven’t torn one of their own toenails yet. And here are my personal observations: their use of styptics on bleeding wounds is unacceptably painful, and their home dressings are generally too tight.
When Should I Go To The Vet For A Broken Nail?
A broken nail is rarely an emergency requiring out of hours care but you should make an appointment with your vet at their soonest available in regular business hours. Preferably, go in the morning and do not feed your dog.
Most vets agree that the best humane treatment is deep sedation to abolish pain before any attempt to remove the nail. This also allows us to clip and closely inspect the injury before action. You can see in the picture above that there is some pus and bleeding around the base of the nail.
Sedation also allows us to carefully ‘peel’ the nail away without tearing the underlying tissues. Any remnant pieces of nail which will cause ongoing infection are easily identified and removed. The area is cleaned and finally a dressing is placed.
How Long Does It Take To Heal?
Once the damaged nail is removed and the infection controlled, a new nail starts growing straight away. Then, as long as it is kept clean and dry, the dressing can usually either be removed after three days, or changed and removed after six.
The last thing to consider is prevention. Most nails that get broken are dewclaws that have got a little too long.
For this reason, you will notice that I check a dog’s dewclaw by sliding my finger underneath. If it catches my finger, this means it can get caught on anything else too. That’s when I get the clippers out: not to cut it very short, just to stop it being hooked on the end.
So to finish up, read my Guide To Good, Bad & Ugly Dewclaws
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These help topics are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story! The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.