Rabbits have five toes on their front feet and four on their back feet. Their nails are very tough: they have to be, they’re designed for digging burrows.
Wild rabbits’ nails stay short from all the digging and hopping over rocks and hard surfaces but for our pet rabbits there is often nothing to wear the nails down. This means the nails may need to be clipped regularly.
The long and the short of it
If a rabbit’s nails get long, it changes the angle at which it puts its feet down. This may not sound like a big concern but it is very important as it can add extra wear on the joints because they are moving in an unnatural way.
Long nails can get snagged easily and can be torn, sometimes right out of the nail bed. This is of course extremely painful, and there can be a surprising amount of bleeding. It can also result in dislocation or breaking of the toes.
If our rabbits’ hind feet don’t sit at the proper angle, weight is forced back onto their heels and that can lead to sore hocks, also known as pododermatitis. This is a serious condition and very hard to treat. Prevention is most definitely better than cure.
As part of your regular checks of your rabbits you need to keep an eye on their nails. A good guide is for them to be level with the fur. The only exception to this is in Rex rabbits, where the fur is so much shorter!
If the nails need clipping and you aren’t confident to do this yourself then ask your vet or vet nurse to do it. They should be happy to show you how it’s done safely so you will be able to do it in future. There is a vein and a nerve running up each nail that has to be avoided. It’s known as the ‘quick’ and if it gets cut it will be painful for the rabbit and there will be a lot of blood. That said, after some clear instruction, it is fairly straightforward to cut a rabbit’s nails, especially pale, translucent ones where the quick can be seen, so it’s well worth learning how to do it.
A note about “hypnotising” or “trancing” rabbits
Some people when clipping rabbits nails will hold their rabbit on its back so it goes perfectly still as if in a trance. This is in fact extremely cruel as the rabbit is, in fact, terrified and playing dead as part of its prey animal response to being caught by a predator. Never do this to your rabbits.
You can either hold your rabbit with it’s backside supported as if it is sitting up to cut the nails or place it on a towel on a worktop and very gently pull the foot to the side to get to the nails.
Avoiding cutting the quick
If you have a rabbit with light nails it’s quite easy to see the quick but if the nails are dark it’s far more difficult. There are ways to get around it. You can shine a torch from behind the nail. The light coming through will show you where the quick ends, and therefore where it’s safe to cut. Another method is the squeeze, squeeze, cut method. Where you think it’s safe, give the nail a gentle squeeze with your clippers. If your rabbit reacts then you are too near the quick. If there’s no reaction, squeeze a bit harder. Still no reaction, give it one final quite hard squeeze just to be sure and then if all is well, it’s safe to cut. Repeat this with each nail.
If nails are very long and the quick is quite high, you can encourage it to recede by what’s known as nibbling. Clip the nails twice a week or even every other day, just by nibbling a tiny bit off. As the nails get shorter, the quick will too, until your rabbit has nails that are a comfortable length.
What tools will I need?
If you are going to cut your rabbits’ nails then you’ll need some decent clippers. These are inexpensive to buy. We recommend the scissor-shaped type, although some people find the guillotine type easier to handle. Have a chat with your vet at the same time as them showing you how to clip – they will be able to order a good quality pair for you. Or if you know what you are looking for there are plenty of places online.
As mentioned, to find the quick a torch will be useful.
It’s worth having cornflour too – yes, really. If you do cut into the quick, dab your rabbit’s nail into the cornflour and it will stop the bleeding. This is much better than using styptic powder which will sting the rabbit.