Have you ever held your rabbit, only to notice long scratch marks down your arms afterward? Rabbit nails can be surprisingly sharp. They can hurt you or accidentally break skin, even if the rabbit doesn’t mean to.
In the wild, a rabbit’s nails will naturally get worn down during their day to day life. Digging burrows and running on a rough dirt and rocky ground provides the necessary wear-and-tear to keep their nails from getting too long. But as pets, rabbits don’t have the same rough activities to keep their nails from overgrowing. We have to do our part as caretakers and pay attention to the condition of their nails and trim them when necessary.
Before trimming rabbit’s nails, look for the vein that runs up each nail and avoid clipping it. If you cannot locate this vein, squeeze gently on the clippers before making a cut. If the rabbit pulls their foot away, try clipping closer to the tip of the nail. This is easier if with two people, but can also be accomplished by yourself.
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Rabbit nail anatomy
Like their teeth, rabbit nails are constantly growing. They have 18 toenails, 4 on each of their back feet and 5 on each of their front feet. The fifth nail on each of the rabbit’s front paws is on the inside of the foot. It looks somewhat like a thumbnail (but rabbits don’t have opposable thumbs). This is usually the most difficult nail to clip because it has a tendency to hide in the rabbit’s fur.
Rabbit toenails are claws but they are not the same as cat claws, which are extensions of a cat’s toes. Other than the quick, rabbits do not have nerves or pain receptors in the nail. The purpose of their nails is primarily to make it easy for the rabbit to dig holes, but their nails also serve to protect the rabbit’s feet and give them traction on slippery surfaces. Their claws can also be used to defend themselves against predators when the rabbits is cornered.
Rabbit nails have a vein, called the quick, that runs into the base of each of their nails. When you clip your rabbit’s nails, you want to avoid clipping into this vein. Clipping into the quick will cause your rabbit a little bit of pain and there can be a surprising amount of blood.
You can see this vein in the rabbit’s nails if they are a lighter color, but it can be difficult to see on darker colored nails. For these darker nailed rabbits, many caretakers recommend using a flashlight. Hold it in back of the nail to help you find the quick. I’ve found that it’s nearly impossible to try to hold the rabbit’s nails in front of a flashlight as you clip it, though.
Instead, to find the quick in a darker colored toenail, I put a squeeze of pressure on the clippers before I cut all the way through. If the rabbit flinches a little, this means I’m too close to the vein and need to cut a little further out.
How long should rabbit nails be?
There is no perfect length that a rabbit’s nails need to be kept at. The indicator that I use to know when it’s time to clip my rabbit’s claws is when the nails starts to extend beyond the fur of their feet. For most breeds of rabbit, this is the best way to know that their nails are getting a little long.
However for short haired and long haired rabbit breeds, this might not work. Shorter haired rex rabbits tend to have nails that begin to curl sooner than other rabbit breeds. For these rabbits, you should consider cutting their nails as soon as you see that little curl start to form. Longer haired angora rabbits will have nails that are too long if you wait for them to reach fur length. Monitor and cut them a little sooner for these breeds.
If the nails have started curling significantly, then it’s already been too long. You should clip them as soon as possible. Likewise, if your rabbit’s nails are so long that they can’t seem to hop around comfortably, then they are in need of a trim right away.
What happens if a rabbit’s nails keep growing
Overgrown rabbit nails can do more than scratch you up. They can get snagged on a carpet or other flooring, causing the nail to break or the toe to get dislocated. Their nails can also start curling in, forcing the rabbit to walk in an unnatural way. For your rabbit’s health, it’s important to monitor their nails and clip them every couple of months.
The quick grows along the nail
If you allow your rabbit’s nails to keep growing, the vein inside them (the quick) will also grow along the nail. This will make cutting the nails short again more difficult. Clipping too much off the end of the nail will mean you’re cutting into the quick. To get the rabbit’s nails down to an ideal length, you’ll have to clip a little bit off the end of the nail every week or so. This will give the vein time to adjust to the size of the nail again.
Stress on the rabbit’s feet
Rabbit nails that start to grow too long or begin to curl inward can put a lot of stress on the rabbit’s feet. They will be forced to shift their weight and walk in an unnatural way. This means that your rabbit will likely be walking more cautiously. They won’t be able to zoom and binky around as much.
The unnatural gait caused by overgrown nails will also put extra strain on a rabbits joints in their legs. It can also put pressure on the more sensitive parts of their feet. This can be a contributor to conditions such as arthritis and sore hocks (when a rabbit gets sores on the bottom of their heels), making it painful for the rabbit to move around.
Likely to snag and break
Overgrown nails are also very likely to get caught on something, such as the carpet, and break off. There can be a surprising amount of blood when a rabbit’s nail breaks off, which can be very shocking in the moment (but this is not life threatening for rabbits, like it can be for cats).
Getting one of their nails snagged on something can also cause a rabbit’s toe to dislocate. This is something that is very difficult to detect, but can cause pain for the rabbit. To avoid this, it’s best to keep your rabbits nails clipped and trim.
How to trim a rabbit’s nails
Clipping a rabbits nails can be very challenging. It’s one of the most difficult parts of grooming a rabbit. They will often kick and struggle as you patiently try to keep them calm and get their nails trimmed. If you ever feel that you can’t get your rabbits nails clipped on your own, or you’re afraid you’ll clip the quick, there is also the option to bring your rabbit to the vet to clip your rabbit’s nails for you.
Tools you need
If you are working with a partner, the only tool you should need to clip your rabbit’s nails is a pair of animal nail clippers. You can use the spring loaded clippers for a quick cut, or use smaller handheld clippers for more control. You should NOT use scissors or human nail clippers. These will make it difficult to get a clean cut, and you are likely to end up damaging the nail.
If you are attempting to clip your rabbit’s nails on your own, it is also useful to have a towel handy as well as access to a high surface that is unfamiliar to the rabbit. The high surface, such as a table or countertop, will keep your rabbit from easily running away from you. The towel is to put under them and give their feet traction. Or if you are dealing with a particularly fidgety rabbit, you can use the towel to burrito the rabbit while you clip their paws.
Clipping the nails with a partner
Clipping your rabbit’s nails with a partner is by far the easier option. If you have anyone who can help you out, I recommend asking them for assistance. One of you should have the job of keeping the rabbit still and calm, while the other uses the clippers to trim the rabbit’s nails.
- The person holding the rabbit should position them with their paws facing outward so the other person can access all of the nails. Alternatively you can put them in a half cradle in your arms. Your job is to keep the rabbit calm and as still as possible.
- With all the rabbit’s nails facing outward, you should be able to easily clip them one by one. Sometimes you’ll need to pause while the rabbit is calmed down or is repositioned so you can get at the claws more easily.
Clipping the nails by yourself
I won’t sugar coat this, clipping a rabbit’s nails by yourself is not easy. Keeping a rabbit calm while you handle their feet and find their nails is a challenge. This whole process can take a lot longer than it seems it should.
If you have a calm rabbit, you will likely be able to get through this process without too much trouble, but many rabbits are feisty and you will have to constantly go back to step one to calm your rabbit down again. Despite this, I can say that with patience you can succeed. The first time I clipped a rabbits nails on my own, the whole process took more than half an hour. But we did it, and I know you can do it too!
- Place your rabbit on a table. Make sure you have a towel on the table for traction so your rabbit will be more comfortable. Pet your rabbit and give them a massage so they will relax and calm down.
- Wrap one arm around your rabbit and gently pull one of their front paws out from underneath them. You want to hold your rabbit on the edge of the table against your body so they will feel secure. Make sure you always keep yourself between your rabbit and the side of the table. You don’t want them to struggle and fall off. Put your hand on top of your rabbit’s head to help them stay calm during the next step.
- Clip the nails on the first front foot. Try to get all five nails. The ‘thumb nail’ on the inside of the foot is always the hardest to find. This step will probably take a long time because your rabbit will keep pulling their leg back. If your rabbit will not cooperate at all, you can try putting them in a half burrito in a towel, with their front-legs sticking out in front of them. Repeat steps 2 and 3 with the other front paw.
- Hold your rabbit up on their hind legs and clip their back feet. Hold your rabbit underneath their chest, keeping them pressed up against your body so they will feel secure. Slowly clip the nails on your rabbit’s back feet. I find the hind legs are easier to clip than the front legs, but if your rabbit keeps getting out of your grip, rearrange how you’re holding the rabbit and try again.
After you’ve finished clipping their nails, give your rabbit a yummy treat and let them go to roam around as they please. Many rabbits will be very mad at you for a short period of time afterward. Leave them alone until they are ready to forgive you. Over time, as you handle your rabbit more and get used to clipping their nails, this process will get easier and your rabbit will get used to it.
How often to trim your rabbit’s nails
Most rabbit nails will need to be trimmed every 1 to 2 months. Rabbits that are given areas with rough flooring or places they can dig into will be able to wear down their nails a little bit in their daily life. Therefore they might not need their nails trimmed as often. It’s best to check the length of your rabbits nails every month or so, to make sure they are not at risk of growing too long.
Is it okay to trance a rabbit while you clip their nails?
Trancing a rabbit is when they are placed on their back, forcing them into a trance-like state. This was a technique that was traditionally used often to clip a rabbits nails because rabbits don’t struggle in this position. However, recent studies have shown that this is a very stressful position for a rabbit. Therefore, it is not recommended that you put your rabbit into a trance in order to clip their nails.
What if the nail starts bleeding
It does happen on occasion that you clip into the quick, causing the nail to bleed. There can be a surprising amount of blood when this happens, which can be unsettling. None of us want to hurt our rabbits, so seeing them bleed so much can be downright frightening.
While it is a little painful for the rabbit if you clip into the quick (kind of like when we humans break a nail), this is not a serious situation for the rabbit. They will be just fine. Your rabbit will recover in no time and wonder why you are making such a fuss.
If you accidentally clip into the quick and the rabbit’s nail starts to bleed, you can use a cotton ball with a little cornstarch to help stop the bleeding. Press the cotton ball against the nail for a couple minutes. After the blood has stopped flowing, allow your rabbit to go free. They will lick their nail to clean the ‘wound’ and then continue hopping around like normal.
The nail came all the way off, what should you do?
This is unlikely to happen, but it is possible. If your rabbit happens to move or struggle exactly when you go to clip a nail, it might be pulled off completely. It’s unfortunate, but should be treated like any other nail injury. Use a cotton ball with cornstarch or flour to stop the flow of blood and allow your rabbit to clean their wound.
Over the next few days, you should occasionally go and check your rabbit’s foot to make sure they don’t get an infection. If you notice any redness or puffiness around the root of the nail, you should make an appointment with your vet. If there is no infection, then your rabbit will be fine. The nail may or may not end up growing back. Either way your rabbit will be able to get around without a problem.
Other ways to help keep your rabbit’s nails short
You can help your rabbit keep their nails trim, so you don’t have to clip them as often. To do this, you’ll need to give your rabbit a variety of surfaces to walk on, not just soft carpet. For example, allowing your rabbit some space to roam on hardwood flooring can be helpful.
You can also give your rabbit digging surfaces to help them wear down their own nails. I have used cardboard boxes, cat scratcher mats, and corrugated cardboard cat scratchers for my rabbit to have fun digging into. This will also give your rabbit a chance to use their natural burrowing instincts without damaging your house or furniture.
Providing a rabbit with these other materials will not completely replace the need to clip their nails, but it should make the trimming sessions less frequent.
Is it possible to declaw a rabbit?
Rabbits should not be declawed. Their claws help them to maintain traction with the ground, so declawing them can lead to mobility problems in rabbits. It would also be a very painful process for the rabbit. They would have to continue walking around on their wounds after the surgery, making the healing process long and painful. In addition, the rabbit would not be able to perform basic behaviors, such as scratching behind their ears.
- McBride, A; Day, S., McAdie, T., Meredith, A., Barley. J., Hickman, J. and Lawes, L. “Trancing Rabbits : relaxed hypnosis or a state of fear?” Proceedings of the VDWE International Congress on Companion Animal Behaviour and Welfare, http://wabbitwiki.com/images/b/bb/Tonic_immobility_paper_ghent.pdf.
- “Rabbit Nails.” Rabbit Welfare Association And Fund. https://rabbitwelfare.co.uk/rabbit-care-advice/rabbit-nails.
- “Trancing.” Rabbit Welfare Association And Fund. https://rabbitwelfare.co.uk/rabbit-health/trancing.
- “Why Rabbits Should Not Be Declawed.” House Rabbit Society, July 10, 2011, https://rabbit.org/why-rabbits-should-not-be-declawed.
Do rabbit teeth need to be trimmed?
Like their nails, rabbit teeth grow continuously, but most rabbits who have a healthy diet with a lot of grass-based hay and a variety of chew toys will not need their teeth to be trimmed. However, if their jaw or teeth are knocked out of alignment, the rabbit’s teeth may become overgrown and need to be trimmed by a veterinarian.
How do you keep a rabbit from digging into the carpet?
To keep your rabbit from digging into the carpet, you will need to rabbit-proof your home. Cover the corners of carpeted rooms with plastic mats or cardboard, or completely block off access to these areas for your rabbit. You can also give them a digging box to keep your rabbit occupied and less likely to go after your carpet.