What to Do When Your Dog's Nails Break or Split

Medically Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on November 15, 2022
5 min read

Your dog’s toenails play an essential role in their overall health. Dog nails have two main parts: a hard outer shell made of keratin and the quick, an inner spongy tissue made from blood vessels and nerves. These claws help your dog dig, hold chew toys between their paws, run, and scratch uncomfortable itches. If your dog breaks or splits a nail, this painful injury can prevent them from participating in everyday activities.  

Has your dog injured their nail? Often, your dog may break one or two nails at a time due to physical trauma that happens when your dog plays or when you incorrectly trim their nails. But this injury can also be a sign of an underlying health condition that may require veterinary treatment. Read on to learn about common causes, symptoms, and treatments for damaged dog nails.

Dog nail injuries often happen suddenly. You may hear a yelp while your dog plays or discover them limping when you call them in from the yard. 

Common signs of dog nails splitting or breaking include: 

  • Visibly broken or cracked nails 
  • Bloody nails 
  • Limping when walking 
  • Chewing or licking the paw
  • Sensitivity when you touch the paw
  • Pus or crust around the nail 
  • Brittle nails 
  • Swollen nail beds or paws

In some cases, the nail will get completely torn off, but you may also see dangling nail slivers that must be removed. A nail injury can also expose the quick, which can be very painful for your dog. The quick connects to your dog’s toe bone, which means that your dog can develop a severe bone infection if germs enter the exposed tissue. 

Seek veterinary treatment if your dog’s broken or split nail causes severe symptoms or if you safely can’t remove the damaged part of the nail.

Broken or split dog nails typically happen due to accidental trauma. For example, your dog may snag their toenail on the carpet, a heating vent, or plants while romping outside. They could also injure their nails if they have an awkward landing while jumping or running. 

Long nails break and split more easily than neatly trimmed, short nails. If you notice your dog's nails broken, you may need to cut their claws more often to prevent injury. 

Several dog nail disorders can also cause their nails to break more easily, like: 

  • Bacterial infections. Many conditions can cause bacterial infections in your dog’s nail beds, including environmental allergies and food allergies.
  • Fungal nail infections. Your dog may have crusty nails due to onychomycosis, a medical term referring to a fungal infection in the nail. One common cause of canine fungal nail infections is ringworm, or dermatophyte fungus. 
  • Ingrown nails. If you don’t trim your dog’s nails regularly, they can curl back and cut into the paw pad. Ingrown nails can lead to secondary infections, lameness, and pain when walking. 
  • Lupoid onychodystrophy. This rare inflammatory disease causes abnormal nail formation in dogs. Symptoms typically affect multiple paws and include abnormal nail regrowth, irritation, lameness, sloughing nails, and swollen toes. Any breed can develop lupoid onychodystrophy, but German Shepherds and Gordon Setters may be more likely to suffer from this condition.

Accidental nail injuries may only happen once or twice during your dog’s life, but a nail disorder can lead to recurrent issues if left untreated. If you suspect your dog has a medical condition affecting their nails, schedule a visit with your veterinarian.

In many cases, you or your veterinarian can visually observe breaks or splits in your dog’s nails. Other methods for diagnosing nail disorders include: 

  • Amputation of the third phalanx, or the lowest toe digit, for histological analysis of the claw plate
  • A bacterial culture to detect infections
  • Fungal culture and microscopic examination to check for ringworm and other fungal diseases
  • X-rays of swollen toes

A veterinary dermatologist can effectively diagnose and treat dog nail disorders.

If your dog has a minor injury, you can perform broken dog nails first aid at home. Simple steps for treating a broken or split dog nail include: 

  • Carefully restrain and muzzle your dog to prevent them from biting you when you touch their painful toe. 
  • Halt bleeding by wrapping a towel or gauze around the paw and applying pressure.
  • You can also use cauterizing powder, baking powder, or flour to stop uncontrollable bleeding. 
  • Use pet nail clippers to trim away slivers hanging from the rest of the paw.

More severe nail injuries may require veterinary treatment. Your veterinarian can use these techniques to care for a broken or split nail: 

  • Cut the nail above the break to remove any remaining damaged portions.
  • Cover the exposed nail bed with antibiotic ointment or powder to protect the exposed quick.
  • Bandage the foot.

Your vet may also prescribe an oral antibiotic and pain medication to prevent infection and keep your dog more comfortable as their nail heals.

Protecting your dog’s nail health starts at home with preventative grooming. You should regularly trim your dog’s nails using a nail clipper or a grinder. Remove the tips of the nails at a 45° angle and avoid cutting the quick. 

If you’re not confident cutting your dog’s nails at home, you can take them to your groomer or veterinarian for a trim. You can also ask these professionals to give you a quick lesson on proper nail trimming techniques.

A scratch board is another easy alternative to at-home nail trims. You can teach your dog to paw at an emery board. This action will wear down their nails gradually, reducing or eliminating the need for nail trims. 

You can train your pet to use a scratch board by rewarding them with a treat whenever they touch the board with their paw. After a few sessions, wait to give the reward until your dog moves their paw on the board. With regular practice, you can shape your dog’s paw motions into scratching. Many dogs find digging self-rewarding, so your dog may soon happily scratch away at the board without prompting.

By diligently monitoring your pet’s nails and keeping their claws short, you can reduce their risk of suffering from painful nail breaks and splinters.