Anatomy of the nail
Guinea pigs have four toes on the front foot and three on the rear foot, giving you a total of fourteen nails to care for per pig! Nails on the front are generally smaller and sharper, while the nails on the rear are thicker and usually grow somewhat faster than those on the front.
The nail is a boney structure consisting of a tip with no blood or nerve endings and a small reserve of blood, also known as the “quick”, that sits just below the tip and runs into the paw. This is clearly visible in a guinea pig with white nails as they are almost transparent. Guinea pigs with black nails are slightly more difficult to trim as you can’t clearly see the quick.
Quite often the nails on the front paws (and on the back paws to a lesser extent) can begin to grow sideways, curving outwards and laying on their side. This is largely caused by two things; allowing the nails to become to long, and a lifetime of walking on them. As guinea pigs walk around they put pressure on the nail and if the nail is not kept short, the nail is forced to curve around to the side, however this is also seen in elderly guinea pigs where the nails have been well maintained.
Dealing with bleeding nails
Trimming too low will cause bleeding and pain to your pet (they may squeak!), but accidents happen to the best and most experienced of us and you’re in good company. Nails tend to bleed a lot and this can be alarming if you haven’t experienced it before, however it is very easy to stop the bleeding.
You can quickly stop the bleeding by dipping the nail into talc, flour or cornflour to create a clot and holding it there until the bleeding stops. Alternatively, for a rather less messy method, you can purchase a rather handy styptic pencil that works simply by adding water to the end and then gently pressing on the end of the bleeding nail.
You may also wish to treat the paw with warm salty water to keep it clean and reduce the risk of infection, especially if the paw is a bit mucky. Before putting the guinea pig back in their hutch or cage, make sure the bedding is nice and clean, and then offer a vegetable treat.
There are two types of clippers: human nail clippers, and clippers made for kittens and puppies. Guinea pig owners are generally divided on which one is better to use, as some prefer the familiar hold and stiff action of the human clippers, while others prefer the scissor grip and spacious notch in the end of kitten and puppy clippers.
I personally prefer the kitten and puppy clippers because they are better suited to clipping the thicker nails of breeds such as the Rex, and I generally find it more comfortable with a scissor hold. However, if you are a beginner it would probably be beneficial (and safer!) to begin with human clippers due to their stiff clipping action which generally leaves less margin for error, something that new owners may find especially helpful for youngsters with tiny nails.
- Human clippers
This type of clipper is popular for the familiar way we hold it to clip our own nails, lending to good control. They tend to have a stiff clipping action and a small space to insert the nail that leaves less margin for error.
However, the small space for inserting nails means you can potentially squash the nail, especially in guinea pigs with thicker nails such as the Rex, for example.
Pros: Familiar hold, good control, stiff clipping action.
Cons: Small space may squash nails.
- Kitten and puppy clippers
This type of clipper works like a small pair of scissors with a notch at the end of the very sharp blades to accommodate the nail. They are designed for puppies and kittens and so there is ample space between the blades when used to clip the smaller nails of guinea pigs.
The scissor action can be quite loose which means you need to more accurate in order to cut above the quick. Unlike the human clippers where the space between the blades is small, the blades on these clippers open very far and rely on a steady hand to close them properly around the nail tip.
Pros: Large notch to accommodate thicker nails, sharp blades.
Cons: Loose clipping action.
Clipping nails on youngsters
Youngsters have very tiny and well presented nails with sharp tips and an experienced eye can tell if they have been clipped before. Clipping should begin once the guinea pig has settled into their new surroundings and is capable of being cuddled without fuss, however some practice of holding the guinea pig (see the photographs below for my holding methods) for nail clipping purposes may be in order to help the guinea pig become accustomed to it. I strongly recommend including this in your taming routine so they grow up to learn that behing held in this way is okay.
Clipping the dreaded black nails
Black nails are harder to successfully trim because they are dark and not transparent. If you view the nail from the underside you may be able to see where the quick is and where is safe to trim. If viewing the nail from the underside still does not identify where you may trim safely, try using a torch to illuminate the nail and discover where the blood supply is.
If this still doesn’t reveal the trimming point, very regular trimming of the tips to stop the nails from growing too long is the sensible answer. The quick will become longer as the nail grows, and if this happens it takes some time to frequently trim the nail back again to a healthy length and encourage the quick to recede. Especially with black nails, this is an important point to bear in mind when planning your nail care routine.
Some breeds of guinea pig have differences in the thickness of their nails. I’ve discovered that nails on a Rex guinea pig tend to be thicker and grow faster than any other breed. Also, many of the smaller smooth-haired breeds seem to have slow growing nails on the front paws.
Photographic demonstration – how it’s done!
For the purpose of this demonstration I have enlisted the help of Peri-Kevin, who at the time was eight months old and experiencing only his second ever nail clipping session, hence the “rabbit in headlights” look on his face!
I recommend you place a towel on your lap in case of “warm accidents” on your legs, and that you have either some talc, flour, cornflour or a styptic pencil handy should you accidentally trim too low.
Clipping nails on the front
The nails on the front don’t tend to grow as quickly as those on the back and if they are well maintained, should only need the very tip trimming each time.
In this photograph I’m sitting Peri-Kevin on my lap with his back against my stomach for support. I try not to tip him back too far because this can put pressure on the spine.
I’m holding him quite firmly with my left hand under his arms to encourage them to stick out (also making it difficult for him to nip me should be want to) so I can get to his front feet. I then lean over slightly to get a better visual on his nails and use the clippers in my right hand to carefully trim the tips. Note that I am using the kitten and puppy scissor-style clippers here, but the method is the same for human clippers.
Time for a break…
After clipping the front nails I sat Peri-Kevin normally on my lap and stroked him for a few minutes before continuing. Some guinea pigs prefer a break in the middle and this can help them to co-operate with you. This is especially important for youngsters and particularly nervous guinea pigs that need to be shown that nail clipping isn’t something to be frightened of.
Clipping nails on the back
For the nails on the back feet I change my grip slightly, as you can see in the photogaph here, so that he is sat on my lap while held firmly around his middle against my stomach to minimise wriggling. I’m not holding him as high under his arms as I would to clip the nails on the front, as I now need to gain more control over the back legs. Again, I lean forward slightly to get a closer look and position the clippers carefully over the tip before trimming.
It’s okay, because nail clipping can be very daunting for beginners and it takes some courage and a lot of practice. If you would prefer not to try this yourself, you can ask your vet to take over the regular nail clipping duties or you can ask the British Association of Rodentologists for your nearest Rodentologist. The vet will usually charge for the basic price of a consultation, however a Rodentologist will do the job for free.