Pet Health Articles

First Aid for Broken Nails

first_aid_nailsOuch! How can such a little injury cause such a big hurt? A tiny tear in a tiny nail on a single toe on a single foot can be the source of excruciating pain. The pain of a broken nail can be so intense that it can bring the biggest, bravest cat to its knees. Kitties with broken nails will hold up the foot, limp around, and whine in discomfort. Plus, the bleeding that accompanies a torn nail further complicates the matter.

Why Nails Break

Cats love to scratch things, and our feline friends break their nails when they snag them on carpet or upholstery fibers or scratching post materials. Sometimes the cat may jump off a chair or down from the countertop, and land on a foot or toe in such a way that a nail bends backward and breaks. Sometimes, the nails of older pets are so dry that they become brittle and break without much provocation at all. Longer nails tend to get “caught” more than short ones. Regardless of the reason, a broken nail hurts and bleeds so it requires immediate attention.

Why Broken Nails are a Problem

The nails of cats consist of a central collection of blood vessels and nerves that are called the “quick”. A layer of hard, horny material called keratin surrounds these sensitive structures and protects them. The quick is living tissue while the keratin is not. That’s why trimming the tip of the nail is not painful for your pet but exposing the quick is uncomfortable.

Emergency Protocol for Broken Nails

If your cat yelps in pain and suddenly begins to limp or hold his paw up, check his foot for a broken nail and follow this treatment protocol:

  1. Safely restrain your cat. Have someone hold your pet while you tend to the nail. Remember that even the nicest pet may bite when in pain so try wrapping your cat in a towel. Provide restraint in the form of a hug which immobilizes the cat and makes him feel secure.
  2. Control bleeding by wrapping the foot in gauze or a towel and applying pressure to the injured toe. If the bleeding doesn’t stop in 5-10 minutes, apply a styptic pencil, silver nitrate stick or cauterizing powder to the nail. These items can be purchased at the pet store or in the first aid section of your human pharmacy. If you don’t have these products at home, try covering the nail with baking powder or flour. You can also stick the tip of the nail into a bar of soap to help stop the bleeding.
  3. Remove the damaged part of the nail. Sometimes, there is a loosely attached sliver of nail that can be trimmed away easily with clippers at home; however, most of the time this job is best left to your veterinarian. Keep the cat’s foot wrapped in paper towels as you proceed to the veterinary clinic.

The damaged or broken part of the nail needs to be carefully removed. This procedure is often painful but can be accomplished quickly and usually requires no sedation. The nail needs to be trimmed above the break to completely remove the damaged portion and to provide a good foundation for the nail to re-grow.

  1. Protect the nail bed from infection. Your veterinarian will apply antibiotic ointment or powder to the exposed nail bed and bandage the foot to prevent contamination and minimize further bleeding. An oral or injectable antibiotic may be advised as well. Since the nail bed, or quick, is attached to bone, prevention of infection is crucial. Bone infections are serious problems and only certain antibiotics are effective in treating them. The foot needs to be closely monitored so your veterinarian will schedule a follow-up visit in a few days to examine the affected nail and remove or change the bandage.
  2. Control the pain. Without the keratin part of the nail to protect the quick, the tender live tissue, including blood vessels and nerves, is exposed and painful. Your veterinarian may prescribe pain medication or give an injection to keep your cat more comfortable.

 

Avoiding Nail Breaks

To avoid the hassle of a broken nail, keep your cat’s nails trimmed. Short nails are less likely to break than long ones. Ask your veterinarian or veterinary technician to demonstrate proper nail trimming so you can clip your cat’s nails at home. If you are not comfortable doing this, simply make regularly scheduled appointments to have your cat’s nails trimmed at the veterinary hospital.

Keep maintenance of your cats nails on your list of feline tasks alongside feeding and cleaning the litter box so that you and your cat can avoid the broken nail dilemma.

Lynn Buzhardt, DVM
© Copyright 2016 LifeLearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.