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Why do dogs eat nail clippings?

Your nail clippings. Their nail clippings. Even the nail clippings of other dogs. Whenever nail clippings are being strewn about, it’s likely that your dog is eating them. 

But why?

While it’s gross to us, eating nail clippings is fairly ordinary for a dog. That doesn’t mean that your dog should be eating toenails or fingernails — and it certainly doesn’t mean that it’s completely safe, either. But it is still relatively common behavior.

Let’s take a look at why dogs eat their nail clippings — and what the consequences of that could be.

Why do dogs eat their nail clippings?

There are really a few things going on here.

First, your dog will eat its nail clippings because they smell good to it. As a dog owner, you may already know about “Frito feet.” Dog feet can smell faintly like corn chips. That smell can be alluring to dogs. Dogs aren’t going to start eating themselves alive, but they just might eat parts of themselves as they are clipped off.

Second, your dog just can’t distinguish well between food. Have you ever dropped something completely inedible, such as a button, on the floor — and your dog went to hoover it right up? It’s likely that your dog just doesn’t realize that it’s not something that’s edible. When the nail clippings hit the floor, your dog recognizes it as “potentially a snack” and goes to eat it.

Dogs can eat nail clippings because they are sick. There is a condition known as “pica” that encourages them to eat inedible things in search for nutritional value. But most dogs will eat nail clippings and most dogs are totally healthy.

Unfortunately, because we can’t ask dogs, we actually don’t know why nail clippings are so alluring. Many dogs will absolutely prioritize eating nail clippings during nail trim time, and it just appears to be a quirk of dogs.

Why does my dog eat my nails?

Your nails are very like a dog’s nails.

Once again, it’s hard to get into a dog’s mind. But it’s likely that a dog will eat nails for the same reason it will eat claws. One, it smells and tastes good. Your nails taste like everything that you’ve touched. That includes any food that you prepared, and it includes you, yourself. While your dog doesn’t likely want to eat you, you probably taste salty. Most animals are going to do whatever they can to consume enough salt; salt is vital to life, but in the wild, it’s pretty rare.

The other likelihood is that your dog simply sees something drop to the floor and assumes it’s edible. The truth is that fingernails don’t just smell and taste like salt; they also look a lot like crumbs. If you have one of those dogs that’s predisposed toward trying to consume everything it can, it shouldn’t be overly surprising to you when it tries to eat your fingernails and toenails, too.

What happens if a dog eats fingernails or toenails?

For the most part, nothing. Most dogs aren’t going to suffer any significant injury from eating fingernails, toenails, or even their own nail clippings. But that doesn’t mean that it’s entirely safe nor does it mean that it should be allowed. Emotional discomfort aside (it’s a creepy thing to do), there are potential health issues.

Dogs can’t digest nails. So, the first thing that can happen is the email can get stuck in the dog’s mouth or teeth. Nails can be very sharp once cut. So, the nail could cut open your dog’s mouth and eventually lead to a painful and dangerous infection. If swallowed, the nail could embed itself in the interior of your dog’s throat, also causing health issues. Once in the stomach, the nail could also pierce or injure your dog’s internal digestive tract.

This is very rare, it should be said. For the most part, dogs will eat nails or claws that they find on the ground and they will usually not experience any issues. Think about how many times you’ve absentmindedly chewed on your nails and then swallowed a bit of nail. It’s the same experience for a dog; the only problem is a dog can’t tell you if a piece of nail gets caught in its throat. You will want to watch your dog, but you probably don’t need to rush your dog to the vet.

That doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for them to experience problems, which is why you should always take care in making sure that your dog doesn’t have access to or eat nails. It only takes one incident to cause a serious health disaster.

What should I do about my dog eating nail clippings?

Mostly, keep your dog away.

A dog’s desire to eat nail clippings is largely a mystery, as noted. But what you should do about it is no mystery. When you clip your nails, do so in another room, or throw them directly into the trash. When you clip your dog’s nails, do so over a bin, or immediately throw away anything that’s been cut off.

Realistically, it’s likely not worth it to train your dog to avoid eating nails, because the situation is so unique. If you don’t want your dog to eat nails, you don’t have your dog around any nails that it can eat.

There’s one caveat though. While you can prevent your dog from eating nail clippings, it can be harder to prevent your dog from eating its own nails. This is a separate issue. Apart from nail clippings, it’s possible for your dog to start chewing on its own paws. As it does this, it may start to chew on its nails just as a person might, as well as swallowing them.

Further, it is possible that your dog is eating nails (and anything else on the ground) because your dog feels like its starving or because your dog has a nutritional deficiency. Some hormone imbalances can cause a dog to feel like it’s starving all the time, and some dog breeds (such as golden retrievers and labradors) are more predisposed to being big eaters. A nutritional deficiency will need to be diagnosed by a vet; you can ask for a nutritional and hormone panel.

How can I get my dog to stop biting his nails?

Dogs can bite nails while the nails are already on them. Unlike eating clipped nails, this is a more serious issue — because there’s usually a reason behind it.

Dogs habitually clean their paws. So, a little nail-biting is not only normal, but it’s an important and vital part of grooming and keeping clean. But when a dog starts spending a lot of time cleaning its paws, there’s an issue.

First, dogs might chew on their nails just like us — when they’re nervous. It can be anxious energy, in which case the only solution is to find out what your dog is anxious about and mitigate it. Your dog may need to get used to a new situation, such as a move, or a new cat. Or your dog may even need to get put on anxiety medication. Often, a tired dog is a happy dog. If you notice your dog’s anxiety growing, it may be time to up the amount of time you spend on walks.

Second, your dog may chew on its nails because it is itchy. This can happen if your dog has an allergy. Many dogs have allergies to things like soy, wheat, corn, and even chicken. Food allergies may not be caught because dogs often don’t display a lot of signs; they’re just itchy. You may need to feed your dog a reduced diet for some time, to reduce its reactions and test to see if it’s a food allergy. If it doesn’t seem to be a food allergy, it could be an allergy to the outdoors. These are usually countered with a combination of medications and bathing.

Third, your dog may sense that its claws are too long. Claws need to be cut short to be comfortable. If your dog’s claws are hitting the ground regularly (clickity clack), it’s likely causing your dog discomfort, which in turn is causing your dog to chew on its claws. Many people let their dogs’ claws grow out too long because their dogs absolutely abhor getting a trim. There are nail grinders available that are gentler than a clipper and which dogs often take to better.

So, if your dog is biting its nails, it’s probably a sign that there is something wrong — and it’s something that you should address. You can ask your vet to help. Your vet will be able to diagnose any issues such as allergies and can provide remedies. Further, your vet will be able to trim your dog’s nails, if that’s the problem.