Even though for humans this may not seem like a stressful event for animals it can be very stressful and to them even seem life threatening. The reason why is because their feet are their means of escape and defense and when someone takes away their ability to either escape or defend themselves then high levels of anxiety can result. This is 100% natural and is no reflection upon the animal’s personality or anything the owner has done. Think about it in terms of the basic principles of life in the wild. You have two simple reactions to a threat: Fight or Flight. This defines all of us when we feel threatened it is one of these responses that drives our actions. We have taken away BOTH of those reactive abilities when attempting to perform a toe nail trim on an animal.
So how does an animal overcome this? Desensitization and building trust. It is that simple. We need to build trust with the animal and desensitize them to our touch and the toe nail trimmers. Here is a simple method to help start training your animal to accept toe nail trims and not have anxiety about the process.
1) The first thing you need to know is how to recognize subtle signs of fear, anxiety and stress in your pet. At the bottom of this instruction list is an outline of some of the most common subtle signs to watch for while you are training your pet to accept a toe nail trim.
2) The second thing you need to know is how to establish a touch gradient. This is much like a masseuse who utilizes proper touch gradient when humans get a massage. You start by placing your hands on an area that the animal is comfortable with and once a touch is established you maintain the touch until the procedure you are attempting to perform is finished. You do not want to touch, break the touch and then touch back as it causes apprehension to the pet because they don’t know where your hands went and when and where they will come back.
3) Have their favorite treats at the ready!
4) When you stroke your pet you need to be able to touch them anywhere and everywhere on their body without them getting upset or anxious. Start by establishing a touch gradient in an area they are ok with. Then move your hands slowly to an area that causes them anxiety. Right when you see they are beginning to get uncomfortable with where your hands are going, STOP, back up and give them a treat while petting. It is important to NOT continue to advance once signs of anxiety begin. The idea is to prevent them from getting upset and keep them calm. Once they are calm, happy and taking treats then advance your hand again until signs of discomfort start to show. STOP, back up and give them a treat again. For some animals this may take dozens of attempts to get beyond a certain point and for some this will progress quickly. You go at the pace the animal is comfortable with. The idea is to get your hands further and further along the animal’s body. For our example of a toe nail trim, you want to be able to touch their paws and toes without them showing signs of anxiety.
5) Once you are able to touch all 4 paws without any cause of concern to your pet. Then begin to pick up their feet and hold it off the ground. Start with a simple “up and immediately down” and then reward with a treat. Every time you pick it up hold it there for longer periods of time
until you can hold the paw up as long as you wish and the animal sits comfortably with no cause for concern.
6) Once you are able to hold the paws up individually without concern to your pet. Then start massaging each toe individually with your fingers. Putting your fingers between each toe and paw pad and touching the toe nails themselves. You are still utilizing the same technique as before by STOPING when the animal shows signs of anxiety and then backing up to a comfortable area and rewarding with a treat.
7) Once you are able to massage each toe and toe nail individually then get the toe nail trimmers out and let the animal see the trimmers, smell them, lick them, etc. Let them watch you open and close the trimmers. Once they are comfortable with the trimmers have the trimmers touch them in a place they are comfortable with and give them a treat.
8) Use the same technique with the trimmers by moving them along the animal’s body towards the toe nails. Remember to only go as far and as fast as the pet is comfortable with and reward with treats frequently.
9) Once you are able to touch the toe nail trimmers to the dog’s feet then pick up a paw and trim one toe nail, put the paw back down and reward the pet. Repeat until all toe nails are trimmed. They get a reward for EVERY toe nail trimmed.
It is important to ONLY go as far as the animal is comfortable with at every setting. It may take 1 day, 1 week, 1 month or be an ongoing process throughout the life of the pet. If you attempt to push your pet too far too fast they may react fearfully aggressive. Some pets will attempt to snap or bite during this process. If you think your pet may be one of those then please consult with a veterinarian about safe techniques. It is very important for you to be safe. If a muzzle is needed it is important to desensitize your pet to the muzzle just as you are attempting to desensitize him/her to the toe nail trim. Please consult with a veterinarian about whether anxiety medications are warranted to help with the pet’s anxiety for toe nail trims. There are many all-natural anxiety supplements as well as anxiety medications that are available.
Deerfield Veterinary Hospital has undergone training in fear free techniques and therapies to help your pet through scenarios such as this. Please let us know if we can be of service to you and your pet, we would love to help.