Nail Clipping - Don't Panic!

Vet cutting guinea pigs nail

Nail or Claw Trimming - Tips & Tricks

Many rabbit owners have an in-built fear of trimming the nails (also called claws) of rabbits.

A seemingly simple task - for trimming a rabbits’ nails is no more difficult than trimming our own nails. But add in a feisty rabbits, dark nails, mysterious clippers and an apparent need for bicarbonate of soda/corn starch or a styptic pencil (depending on which article you read), and a simple trim suddenly becomes more akin to a surgical procedure!

So we’re going to take the surgery out of nail trimming and give you all the tips and tricks we have learnt along the way.

1. First and Foremost.

Be calm! Your little ones WILL pick up on your fear, so deep breaths are in order if you feel stressed about the task ahead. Clear your mind, and arm yourself with knowledge - the weapon against fear!

2. Be prepared.

There’s nothing worse that getting half way through and discovering you’ve left that all-important widget on the kitchen table as you’re in mid-wrangle with a feisty and singularly unimpressed rabbit. Or it’ll be just out of reach.....however hard you try!

To start you off, we’ve included a comprehensive list of ‘stuff’ you will/may need (yes, it includes some random stuff - which will be explained!!). But maybe when you’ve carried out a claw trim yourself, you can create your own list to help you get ready.

  • A decent pair of nail trimmers (such as Soft Protection Clippers). When it comes to nail trimmers, you really do get what you pay for! Some lower cost varieties may be great for smaller animals like guinea pigs, but for rabbits and up (dogs etc) a stronger pair of clippers will pay for themselves many times over. And make the job a bit easier.

  • An area to work. This may be a tabletop, an area on the floor, a chair or couch - whatever you feel comfortable with.

    Getting down to their level, and working on the floor is a great idea and may help keep their stress levels under control, but are you able to quickly get up with a bunny under your arms if you need to?

    Table tops can also be slippery for bunnies….plus you may not want your pride and joy etched from now until eternity with claw marks as your little one makes a bid for freedom. It’s also worth noting that whilst working from a tabletop is more comfortable and practical in many ways, you need to be sure that your little one won’t be tempted to see if they can fly. Jumping off a table can seem a great idea in the heat of the moment, but they may injure themselves quite badly in the process.

    Often sitting on a chair, or working on the floor with the rabbit on the chair is a good compromise; easier to get up from and not quite so far to fall if there’s an impromptu bid for freedom.

  • A towel. Useful if you’re planning the bunny burrito method of confinement (more on this later). Also useful to protect tabletops, give your rabbit a sense of grip (rather than a slippery tabletop). And an impromptu dressing if you nip the quick a little (breath…more on this later too!).

  • An extra pair of hands. Always useful. Not always possible. But if you’re nervous at the beginning, a bit of help is great, If only to pop the kettle on once it’s all over! If you can’t persuade a friend, neighbour or relative, then why not pop along to your local veterinary practice and enquire if a nurse can help you learn the technique? There may be a small charge initially, but you’ll get a helping hand and loads of useful advice too.

  • A torch. No, not in case of a power cut (though, actually…not the worst idea!). More on this later

  • And ok, yes, a styptic pencil, blood stop powder or cornstarch are useful to have at hand. Failing that, a bit of flour will do (plain or self raising, no matter!). Have to hand and open, ready for use. Just in case.

  • Phone. Well, you won’t need it, but you’ll feel better having it to hand!

  • And lastly, the most important bit; something tasty for your little one once it’s all over!

3. Getting the ‘Patient’ Ready.

You know your little one the best. He or she may be a delight to hold. They may offer out a paw ready for trimming and even help by spreading their toes. They may gaze at you in wonder as you snip away, completely at one with your skill.

Alternatively, they may hide, play ‘dead’, and not move a muscle with the vain hope it’ll all just go away.

Or they may fight tooth and nail, bite you on the boob as soon as they are held (one speaks from experience..), and continue to wrestle with you until the bitter end. Or until you give up.

Before you begin your nail trimming ‘procedure’ you need to decide how you are going to hold your rabbit. There are a number of suggestions, but knowing your rabbit, you’ll have a better understanding of what will be successful, safe and appropriate. For you both!

Our suggestions include:

  • The bunny burrito: wrapping your little one completely in a towel. Their legs the securely held so there’s no escaping or battling to be free. This is probably the safest technique and should help keep your little one quiet and so minimise stress. Often used by vets during a health check. It does, however, take a little time to perfect and ensure legs are accessible. Having completed a perfect ‘wrap’ to find the feet are nowhere to be found within the towel is a little disheartening!

  • A safe pair of hands - positioned around the shoulders from behind.

  • Gently holding around the rabbit with them tucked into your chest, and rear by your armpit.

4. And then the location…

The location depends much on how you plan to hold your rabbit, your mobility and also your confidence. Here's a few suggestions that may help you:

  • Using the bunny burrito technique, a tabletop is simple.

  • Placing your little one on you knee whilst sitting on a chair. This is great if your little one is calm and happy to be handled in this way. All feet are accessible, making the procedure quick and stress-free.

  • Kneeling behind and leaning over your rabbit whilst they sit quietly on the floor in front of you. Again, great if your rabbit is generally calm, but not ideal if you have troublesome knees!

  • Kneeling on the floor with your rabbit held comfortably between your legs.

  • Kneeling beside a chair with your rabbit on the chair. This allows you to easily move around the rabbit, accessing all four feet without too much handling.

  • Sitting on the floor with your rabbit in front of you, again slightly held between your legs. Their chest can be gently lifted up to access front feet.

What you shouldn’t do is put them completely on their back. This action, often called trancing, puts them into a state of tonic immobility, akin to being frozen in fear. It’s something prey animals do when they fear for their lives…play dead and hope it all goes away. The action increases their stress levels, breathing rate and puts an unnecessary strain on their heart. The Rabbit Welfare Association has an informative article on trancing, here:

5. And Now for the Cut!

Once you are ready, you need to locate each foot and isolate each nail in turn. There are five nails to be cut on the front feet, and four on the back

Whilst the front nails are often a little smaller so easier to cut the fifth nail, called the dewclaw, can be a bit tricky. If left to grow a little, it can curl inwards, making it sometimes a little tricky to get the clipper around it. So just bear this in mind before you start. And also bear in mind it's vital to keep this nail in check as the curling effect means the nail can start digging into the paw very readily if left to grow too long.

The four nails on the back feet are often a little thicker, but as there are only four, all in a row, they are usually a cinch to clip.

Now, a word of caution before you start!

Until a humans’ nail, which is flat on top of a fleshy finger, the rabbit’s nail is like a pointy cylinder covering around the entire toe. So you must cut beyond the end of this fleshy area, called the quick. Imagine what would happen if you cut your finger whilst cutting your nail; it’s no different for a rabbit - there would be blood and pain. So best avoided!

Seeing the quick is the simplest way of ensuring you do not cut into it. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? And it is in a good number of lighter coloured rabbits - you’ll be able to spot the pinky-coloured fleshy central quick through a whitish-translucent nail quite easily.

Unless your rabbit is brown, or dark coloured, or have dark nails, that is! In this case you’ll see nothing through the nail. Not one darn thing. Cutting could then become a little like asking a stranger to cut your nails with a pair of gardening shears, whilst blind-folded!

Fortunately there’s a simple solution to this very real problem. Normally, a good torch shone on the toe from below will reveal the quick in all it’s glory. In rare cases, the quick still can’t be seen, so a slightly different approach is needed; cutting less nail off, but more frequently may be the answer, but you still need to have an idea where the quick is, just to be safe. Estimate the distance around 1/3 of the nail from the tip of the nail (not paw), and gently squeeze the nail with the clippers, but do not make a cut. With a little pressure applied, there should be no reaction from the rabbit, but if there is, you may be too close to the sensitive quick. Move the clipper closer to the tip and try again, until you get no reaction. It is really better to have to cut the nails more often than to cut into the quick, so better to be cautious.

So, now you should be able to hold your rabbit, know how many cuts to perform on which feet and also locate the quick to avoid cutting into it. Simple!

But what if something goes wrong? Things may - but being aware of possible issues first will help you manage them. Don’t be worried about what follows - problems are rare - but be aware and decide on your approach in advance to save full on panic (been there!)

What if your rabbit starts to break free half way through? If it is safe for them to do so, it may be better to let them take some space and calm down. Restraining more may increase stress and make the procedure more stressful for them next time. If they are getting free whilst on top of the table, you need to decide what is safest to do, but getting them down to the floor may be the most appropriate action. Calming them down, reassuring them, and giving it another go in a few hours/days, may be better in the long run.

What if you only part cut through the nail and it’s sort of hanging off? If it’s safe to do so, cut the remainder off, assuming it not close to the quick. Otherwise, it may catch and rip the rest of the nail causing pain and a bleed.

If the nail is partly ripped away from the quick (a bit like partly losing a finger nail), it may need removing and may be best done by your vet. Having this done should be quick and spare pain, further injury or infection later down the line

What if you cut into the quick entirely?? Well first, there will be blood, and you may be worried about how much or the fact it doesn’t seem to slow very quickly. This is where the styptic pen/powder/cornstarch or your bag of self-raising comes into play. Cover the toe with the pen or powder, holding your rabbit safe and still, and the bleed will then slow and stop very quickly.

Don’t be surprised if there are little spots of blood appearing on your floor as your rabbit wanders (runs!) off. If there’s a little more than light spots, then you may need to bring out the styptic or flour for a short time again.

Needless to say, your loved one will not be too impressed. They may hide if you approach, so give them a little time to recover and forgive (they will). You may notice a bit of a slight limp or reluctance to weight-bear for a little while afterwards too. If you have any concern, of this continues for more than a few hours, you should speak with your vet just to be safe. Keep them calm, reassure them, and give them a tasty treat.

And please, don’t wrap yourself up in guilt. You are not alone. Pretty much all rabbit owners have made a mistake and hurt their little ones at one time or another. It’s a learning curve. You’ll be better next time.

To err is human, to forgive is bunny. Especially after a treat.

And needles to say, once you become a seasoned professional, as you surely will with a bit of practice (and a kindly bunny!), you can ignore all the above - and just snip and go!

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