Dealing With Ingrown Nails in Cats and Dogs

Nobody likes to think they’ve done a bad job taking care of their pet. How complicated a simple ingrown nail can become in the field of human emotions!

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Older cats have more problems related to their nails. Photo: liz west

Nobody likes to feel guilty. Nobody likes to think they’ve done a bad or negligent job taking care of their pet. Nobody likes to think that someone else thinks they’ve done a bad job taking care of their pet.

How complicated a simple ingrown nail in a kitty or a dog can become in the field of human emotions!

We see a few ingrown nails a month, mostly on kitties. When little Tom Thumb’s nail has been so overlooked that it’s growing in a circle into poor little Tom’s pad, you think we would blame the caretaker.

We don’t. This condition can happen to a loving and caring pet person.

However, when the same pet comes back with the same overgrown nail again, we begin to think that we have failed to educate the pet parent.

Ingrown Nails

For a number of reasons, a nail can become ingrown. This is not always a case of neglect.

You would think a nail growing into a pad would be very painful, but many of our fur faces don’t tell us anything is wrong until the little toe is swollen and putrid.

Those Pesky Dewclaws

Even if you aren’t diligent about nail trims, most pets will wear their nails down from normal walking so as to avoid an ingrown nail. But the dewclaws (nails comparable to our thumbs) don’t hit the pavement — and they especially need trimming.

Dewclaws on the front feet are normal. Dewclaws on the rear feet are considered an anomaly and must be monitored even more closely. These are the nails most likely to grow in a circle and into the pad. (Certain breeds like Great Pyrenees are born with rear dewclaws, and this is normal for the breed.)

In the video below, Greg Martinez, DVM, talks more about dew claws in dogs:

YouTube player

So Many Toes. So Little Time.

Cats in particular can be born with common congenital toe anomalies, which can cause problems. The most common are cats with “extra toes” like the famous Hemingway cats of Key West.

Many times these cats have an additional toe between the adorable big “thumb” and the rest of the foot. This nail will commonly grow into the pad and must be kept trimmed.

If I see extra buried toes in a kitten that will grow around and into the pad, I suggest to the pet parent that this 1 nail be removed at the time of spay or neuter so as not to cause continual problems later in life. This is not declawing. It is removing 1 problematic nail that the cat should not have been born with in the first place.

Most shelters and low cost spay/neuter clinics don’t do this. If you adopt a kitten or cat that has already been spayed or neutered, check out all 4 feet to make sure there are no toe anomalies.

Dachshunds tend to need professional help with nail trimming. Photo: latteda

Not All Nails Are the Same

Particularly with dogs, nails differ from breed to breed.

Nails have very different shapes and thicknesses, and grow at different angles to the pad. It’s the same with humans. Come on, you ladies who love your mani/pedis! Don’t tell me you haven’t looked over at the next chair to check out if her nail shape is as nice as yours.

In the PEDI-PAW nail salon, if you will, dobermans, doxies and Shar-Peis, for example, can have a thick nail that curls close to the pad. It can be quite difficult to get a nail clipper into this tight space without hurting or nicking the pad.

Add to that the fact that many jumping Dachshunds and grumpy Shar-Peis don’t like their feet touched! These are breeds that frequently need professional nail trimming help.

Nails on Senior Pets

Old pets can have changes in the quality of their nails and how fast they grow. It’s a geriatric issue, just as with many older people who need to visit the podiatrist.

The nails can become thicker, more brittle and not shed as easily. This is common in older cats who sleep all day, do less grooming in general and don’t sharpen their nails as often as in the past.


Broken nails in dogs or in cats, trauma to the nail or nail bed (as with our cuticle), or tumors of the toe can all cause aberrant nail growth. Don’t assume a strange-looking nail or nail growing at a strange angle is normal. Have it checked out by your veterinarian.

What to Do About a Funky Nail

If a nail looks “funny” to you, or a toe is swollen or smelly, I strongly suggest you have your vet take a look right away.

Trimming these ingrown nails is not an easy DIY project. Occasionally, the problem is more sinister than an ingrown nail. The vet may have to remove a nail, treat a deeply infected wound or take a biopsy.

Besides being unpleasant and difficult, cutting these nails can be painful for your pet. Examining the toe may require some anesthesia, and the patient may need more wound care than you can provide at home. Antibiotics and possibly pain meds are usually indicated to make for a speedy and healthy recovery.

Your friend may leave the hospital with a bandage. Kitties should use paper litter until the toe is completely healed.

Final Thoughts on Ingrown Nails in Cats and Dogs

It is not your fault if a nail problem develops without your knowledge, but get it examined right away. Trying to clip ingrown nails at home is not a great idea.

You will not be able to control the pain, may not know what you are looking at, and your pet is most likely going to need medication.

For happy, uncomplicated nails, keep them trimmed regularly!