Trimming Nails

Dear Baby Zoe: Chewing nails isn't the best grooming habit to learn.
Photo by James Weygand.

Keeping those Nails Short

The idea of trimming nails frightens most rabbit owners, but it doesn't have to be a scary ordeal. With practice, the task can be completed in 10 minutes (this also factors in the time to soothe any drama and looks of disapproval from the bunny). Short nails prevents rabbits from catching their feet on carpet, towels and other types of floors and bedding. It also helps bunnies maintain proper posture. If they are constantly shifting their weight to accommodate long nails, over time this can create certain health issues, such as sore hocks.

Trimming Nails: Things to Know

Although every rabbit is an individual, nails should be trimmed every 8 weeks. Each rear paw has 4 toes; each front paw has four toes and a dew claw, for a total of 18 nails.

However, not all rabbit nails are the same, nor do the nails remain static throughout a rabbit's life. Baby bunny nails are needle sharp, but very soft. As rabbits age, their nails become harder. Most seniors will have thick nails, which require a little more strength to cut through, but the nails tend to grow much slower, so you may only need to trim them 2-3 times a year.

If you own a Rex or Mini Rex, be aware that the quick (the vein inside the nail) is longer than in other rabbit breeds. This means that their nails will always look a little long, even if trimmed regularly. 

Some nails may be brittle or weak. Occasionally, these nails may break off completely during grooming (it either falls off, or if the rabbit happens to kick just at the right moment, the nail may strike your arm or grooming tool). It will usually take several months for the nail to grow back to the point where you need to trim it again.

Like a paper cut, there can be a surprising amount of blood. Use styptic powder and press against the nail. In a few minutes, the bleeding should stop. Check the wound again in 20 minutes or so. If nail is still actively bleeding, then seek out veterinarian help.

Scent Glands

In addition to trimming nails, the scent glands should be cleaned out too. These glands are located on either side of the anus. Scent glands have a strong odor and produce a brown, waxy buildup that is easily removed with a cotton swab, soaked in warm water.

If part of a regular grooming routine, the buildup is usually minor. If allowed to collect, the buildup hardens. Although it can still be removed with a wet cotton swab, you need to loosen it carefully to avoid tearing the delicate skin underneath.

Whoppy and Oso

My First Nail Trimming Attempt

The first time I tried to trim my bunnies' nails, it did not go well. I didn't know what to do. I thought maybe if I distracted them long enough, they wouldn't notice. My husband and I sat Whoppy on the couch and we gave Whoppy the biggest carrot in the fridge. While he was munching away, I pulled out one foot at a time and clipped the nails as fast as I could. Of course, Whoppy thought this was awesome! He got to eat a carrot literally twice his size. Meanwhile, Oso freaked out. He was convinced the carrot was poisoned and I was going to chop off his foot. Unfortunately, I did nick the quick on one of his nails and he left bloody foot prints all over the floor. I felt so bad! After that, I left nail trimming to the vet until I learned how to do it properly and without the aid of giant carrots.

The Tools

From left to right: Styptic powder, LED pen light, and guillotine-style nail clippers

There are two style of nail clippers: guillotine-style (as shown on the right) and the regular, scissor-like trimmers (shown below). Personally, I like the guillotine-style, because it makes a nice, clean cut. However, I will use the other type of clippers if, for instance, a dewclaw is so long as to curve in towards the paw. It's much harder to try and slip the nail through the center of the guillotine without causing the bunny noticeable discomfort.

Whatever style you decide to use, make sure the clippers are sharp. A dull blade will tend to bend or crush the nail, which is painful for the bunny. Some brands of guillotine-style clippers come with replacement blades.

A small LED pen light is essential if your rabbit has dark nails. When you shine the light behind the nail, you can see where the quick (the vein inside the nail) ends. It's also helpful to use it with lighter-colored nails too, ensuring you make a pain-free cut. 

Please note, not all pen lights are the same. Some are not very bright, making them useless for this task. An LED light, requiring regular-size batteries (AA or AAA), are ideal. You can also use any bright light source, including the flashlight on your smartphone. However, it can be unwieldy to hold your phone and the bunny at the same time.

Even the most careful groomers in the world will occasionally cut the quick. You can stop the bleeding by pressing some styptic powder against the wound until the bleeding stops. In a pinch, you can also use flour or cornstarch. Never use styptic powder on any wound other than nails, as it can damage tissue and delay healing.

Nail clippers for cats or small animals (rabbits, rodents, ferrets, etc.)
A nail file is a helpful tool to have when trimming nails. It can smooth away any rough edges. If you want to just take off the very tip of the nail (because the quick is especially long), it is safer to just use the file than risk injury by using the clippers.

Two Techniques for Trimming Nails

There are two different techniques to trimming nails. The first method is having the bunny lean slightly back in your arm while you work on the nails. Once a person becomes confident with his/her handling, this approach becomes an excellent way to check the bunny's feet, groin and tail, as well as cleaning out the scent glands.

The second method is having all four bunny feet flat on your lap and pulling forward one paw at a time to trim the nails. This is better with two people, so one person can make sure the bunny is relaxed and still, while the other person does the actual clipping. This procedure makes examining the underside and feet of the bunny harder. It also more difficult to clean out the scent glands. However, this is the preferred approach if your bunny is extremely stressed about being handled or if your bunny has head tilt, heart or respiratory issues or some other special needs.

Trimming Nails Starts with Proper Handling

If you are new to handling rabbits, read the article, Handling Rabbits and watch the video on how to pick up a bunny. Once you have mastered this skill, tasks such as trimming nails, grooming and basic First Aid will be much easier for you.

Key points to remember:

  • Make sure you support the back legs with one hand, and hold the chest with the other hand.

  • Use your body as a "third hand". Keeping your bunny close to your body will give your bunny an extra sense of security.

  • Never trance your bunny! That means never having your bunny flat on his back. Some people think this looks adorable, but in reality, this is a fear response in which a rabbit "plays dead" in a last ditch effort to escape a predator. The rabbit is under a lot of stress and it can be deadly.
Panda and I are having a conversation.

Trimming Nails: Step-by-Step 

Have the following within reach:

  • Thick towel
  • Nail trimmers
  • Nail file
  • Pen light
  • Cotton swabs, soaked in warm water
  • Styptic powder

1. If you are left-handed, use opposite hands from what I describe.

Bai-bai is sitting on a thick towel on my lap. She is facing my right side.

2. Take your right hand. Hook your thumb under the right arm pit of the bunny. Hook your middle finger under the left arm pit of the bunny. Your index (second) finger should rest on the chest of the bunny.  This acts like a harness on the bunny. It will be much harder for them to launch from your arms with this grip.

3. With your right hand, gently push the bunny back towards the crook of the left arm. Use your left hand to hold the rear feet. The bunny should be sitting up and only slightly leaning back. The bunny should never be flat or almost entirely flat on his back. 

4. Your left arm should be pressing the bunny firmly against your torso. Your body also adds an extra layer of security for the bunny.

While still holding Bai-bai against my body with my left arm, I use my left hand to hold the paw I want to work on. 

5. With your right hand take the pen light and shine it behind the nail to see the quick. Notice that the quick curves slightly. Use your left thumbnail to indicate where the quick ends at the farthest point. 

If you have trouble seeing the quick, shine the light from different angles. Some nails can be harder to see through than others.

6. Hold the nail firmly between your thumb and index finger. The edge of your thumbnail is where the quick ends, so make the cut above your thumbnail.

Tip: The goal is not to trim the nail as close to the quick as possible. When you trim your own nails, do you cut all the way to the pink? Typically not, because it hurts. Follow that rule with your bunny. Leave a little extra space above the quick. You'll find your rabbit flinches less. 

7. The dewclaw is always a little tricky. It's more to the side and back a little from the other toes.

8. If a nail didn't cut evenly or it just needs a sharp edge taken off, you can use a nail file to even it out. 

Hold the bunny nail with your index finger and thumb, and file with your right hand.

9. Locate the scent glands. They are small slits found on either side of the anus.

10. Take a cotton swab, soaked in warm water and gently remove the brown buildup.

Trimming Nails: Alternate Method

This is my preferred method if I am working with a very stressed rabbit or a rabbit with special needs, such as a head tilt bunny. It is best with two people.

1. The bunny should be sitting on top of a towel on someone's lap. The person should be petting the bunny, speaking softly and making sure the bunny doesn't leap onto the floor.

Lucas is a head tilt bunny. He is very relaxed on his owner's lap.

2. Kneel or sit on a small stool in front of the bunny. Gently pull out one paw - just far enough so you can work.

3. Shine a bright light behind the nail you want to cut. You want to be able to see where the quick (the vein in the nail) ends. Use your thumbnail to mark where the quick ends in the nail and cut above your thumb.

4. Hold the nail firmly with your index finger and your thumb and cut above the quick.

5. Once the front and rear nails have been trimmed on one side, gently turn your bunny around so you can work on the other side.

6. Once the nails on all four paws have been trimmed move the bunny so his butt is facing you and his head is against the person holding him.

7. Gently lift the tail until you can locate the anus. The scent glands will be next to it.

8. Take a cotton swab, soaked in warm water and gently work out the brown buildup. If the buildup has hardened onto the skin, gently loosen it with the cotton swab.

Tips on Trimming Nails

Years ago, I had the pleasure of grooming Rosie, who was an 18 lb (8.2 Kg) Flemish Giant. I would sit on the floor and place her between my legs. She was so relaxed, she would soon doze off. Most Flemish Giants do NOT nap during their grooming session, but Rosie was a very easy-going bunny.

I try to make grooming sessions as painless as possible. The whole experience of trimming nails must feel odd to an animal. It's my job to make it as least traumatic as possible. Over the years I've learned a couple of things that have helped me.

  1. As mentioned before, don't trim nails right up to the quick. I've broken my own nails in which I've had to trim right in the pink zone. It hurts!! When you cut right next to the quick, you are essentially doing the same thing. Put some space between the quick and your cut. You'll find your bunny will flinch a lot less and you will be less likely to cut the quick.
  2. The alternate method works well for very large rabbits, such as Flemish Giants. You can also sit on the floor (with your back against a wall or closed door). Sit the bunny up between your legs, reach around the bunny and trim the nails.
  3. Use your pen light, even if your bunny has light nails. It's good to be sure.
  4. Sometimes - for whatever reason - it may be hard to see the quick of a particular nail. This may be especially true for dewclaws because of the curve of the nail or light-colored nails with dark patterns in the nail. Try shining your LED light at different angles. Alternatively, you can guess how much to take off based on what you have already trimmed. The length of the individual quicks do not vary wildly on the same paw.  
  5. Be aware of the shape of the nail. Nails aren't round; they are oval with a flat bottom. This means it matters just how you cut them. When I use the guillotine-style clippers, I make sure I cut from the side. This, along with me holding the nail, ensures that the nail doesn't twist as it is cut.
Note the curve of the nail which rests against the curve of the blade. At this angle, the nail will not twist in the clippers, especially if you hold the individual nail and toe.

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