The canine paws represent an essential body part for your dog. Although a simple skin layer, either pink or black, covered with fatty tissue, the paw pads endow your dog with the ability to move and discover the surrounding environment. Paws serve many critical functions that we humans might take for granted. Yes, they are made for walking, as well as running, playing fetch, stretching, and high-fiving. But the intricate workings of a dog's paws also help with temperature control, offer protection from various terrain, and provide enhanced stability for licking a bone or a toy.
Paws also serve as an important indicator of your dog's health. If paws are smelly, nails are long, or the hair is overgrown between your dog's paw pads, these could all be signs of foot ailments that may require veterinary attention.
Certain external factors can cause issues in your dog's paws, issues that you must address quickly and constantly in order to preserve your dog's health and quality of life and avoid the onset of diseases such as pododermatitis (i.e., inflammation of the feet and paws).
Today, we will bring to light the most common issues that can affect your dog's paw health and discuss how, with a little bit of attention and grooming, your dog's paws can once again be sturdy and healthy!
Paws consist of five main structures: digital pads, claws, dewclaws, carpal pads, and metacarpal pads. Here's a quick breakdown of each of the five basic parts:
Digital pads: These are the four small pads located on each toe, used to support some of your dog's weight as well as their joints.
Claws: Claws are used for digging, providing traction, and (should a dog be in the position to do such a thing) help hold and tear at prey. They're made of keratin, just like our nails. But while you might use "claws" or "nails" interchangeably to describe this part, there is, in fact, a difference between the two. While we have nails, which grow from cuticles, and are essentially "dead" keratin, a dog has claws, which grow right from the bone in the foot. They contain nerves and blood vessels, which is why trimming them can be tricky.
Dewclaws: Dewclaws are the short, "extra" claws on the lower part of a dog's leg. Most dogs have them on their front legs; a few, like Great Pyrenees and Briards, also have them on their rear legs. For most dogs, dewclaws serve no apparent purpose; they're thought to be a sort of vestigial "thumb." But some dogs use them for gripping things they're holding in their paws. This is why you may have noticed your dog gripping a bone or dog toy with what looks like the side of their foot or leg.
Carpal Pad: The carpal pad is a small pad located above the dewclaw. It's found on the forelimb (or front leg) and is only found in animals that walk on their digits.
Metacarpal/metatarsal pad: This heart-shaped pad supports the dog's weight more since it is located in the center of their foot. On the front of the dog's paw, it's known as the metacarpal or palmar pad, and on the rear paw, it's called the metatarsal or plantar pad.
Keep an Eye Out for Injuries and Ailments
A dog's paws seem tough, but they're still a sensitive part of the body. Anything from a cut or hot pavement to an overgrowth of keratin—also known as canine hyperkeratosis—can threaten the overall health of such a delicate area. Here's what to look out for:
- Excessive licking or chewing the paws: Why do dogs lick their paws? While some licking is typical, excessive licking or chewing is the red flag to look for. This can be a sign of environmental or food allergies. Non-stop licking can also be an obsessive behavior and warrants a conversation with your vet or a behaviorist to unravel the possible causes.
- Swelling of the toes or feet: Swelling could have any number of causes. The mites that cause Demodicosis (or Demodex) cause swelling, hair loss, and scaling. Swelling can also be a sign of bacterial infection or a foreign object that's punctured the paw.
- Broken, cracked, or ingrown nails: Nail trauma is one of the most common nail issues and can range from a break to the nail being ripped out. A broken nail doesn't seem like a big deal to us, but it can be a different story for dogs. As noted, dogs' nails are claws which are a more integral part of the foot, so nail injuries can be very painful and, if untreated, can lead to infection and other issues. The dewclaw is commonly involved in nail breaks as it can catch on things, especially if the nail is too long. If your dog has a serious break, it's best to consult your veterinarian to get the correct treatment and prevent infection. Nails that grow too long into the footpads also require a veterinarian visit for pain medication and antibiotics.
- Crusty, cracked paws, or broken skin on the paw pads: Canine hyperkeratosis occurs when a dog's body produces too much keratin. A keratin overproduction can cause dry and crusty paws and sometimes even a hard, dry nose, leading to cracking and, ultimately, an infection. To alleviate hyperkeratosis, your dog might need to be prescribed a topical ointment or antibiotics. The elements can also contribute to dry, cracked dog paws. If you do a paw check and notice that your dog's paws are cracked, you can try applying a veterinarian-approved paw balm to their feet. You can also try to mitigate and prevent cracked paws from happening by washing your dog's paws in warm water and toweling dry immediately after a walk.
- Blisters and burns: Your dog can burn their poor paws on steaming hot asphalt. If you're walking on a hot day, check the pavement with your own hand. If it's too hot for you, it's too hot for your dog to walk on it for any length of time.
The best thing you can do to take care of your dog's paws is to check them frequently. While carefully looking over each paw pad, check for blisters, cuts, cracks, parasites, and other foreign objects that can cause abrasions.
The Tricky Business of Trimming Nails
This is where the difference between human nails and dog claws becomes painfully evident.
While we can snip any part of our nails until we reach the flesh of our fingers, dogs have a nerve and vein that runs through their claws called the quick. If you snip into the quick, it's painful and can cause your dog to never want anyone to go near their nails again.
As a result, the prospect of nail trimming can be stressful for dog parents and dogs.
If you've never tried cutting your dog's nails before, you may wish to have your veterinarian give you a lesson on how to do it. You may also decide to have your veterinarian or groomer handle nail trimming generally.
In a dog with overgrown nails, the brain interprets the neurologic signal from a long toenail contacting the ground as an inclined ground surface. This abnormal compensatory posture results in too much weight carried by the hind legs, thus overloading those joints.
When long toenails touch hard surfaces, they are pushed back up into the nail bed, thus putting pressure on all the toe joints and turning every step into a painful undertaking. Long toenails also pose the danger of becoming ingrown, further exacerbating the pain experienced by your dog. In extreme situations, your canine can accidentally hit a hard surface with its toenails and break them, resulting in a torn or fractured nail, which frequently bleeds and forces the dog to limp. If you notice that your dog has a hard time walking and is bleeding through his nails, don't hesitate to contact your veterinarian.
How to Keep Your Dog's Paws Healthy
Although canine paws have numerous hazards to avoid, dog parents can help their loyal companions keep their paw pads safe and healthy. By implementing a grooming schedule and with just a drop of carefulness, your dog's paws will have nothing to fear for. Let's describe the steps we recommend that you take in order to protect your dog's paws and his overall health:
#1: Regular Grooming Sessions
Are your dog's nails touching the ground? It's time for a grooming session! Dog nails grow at a different rate, depending on each dog breed, so you'll need to observe your dog's nail growth patterns and consequently schedule a meeting with a pet groomer. Dogs are not big fans of nail clipping, which is why you must train your canine from a young age that having their paws touched and their nails clipped comes with rewards. While at the pet groomer, be sure to get your dog's paw pad hair trimmed as well.
#2: Take Weather into Consideration
Each season comes with its own hazards for your dog's paws. The hot pavement and scorching sand can burn your dog's paws and cause blisters during summer. During winter, the chilling snow, plus the de-icing salt thrown on icy roads, will dry up the paw pads, causing them to crack and peel. Not to mention the toxicity levels (link to the first December 2021 blog) that dogs invite into their bodies when licking the de-icing salt of their paw pads!
During extreme heat or cold, your canine's best bet is to have his paws regularly moisturized. Fortunately, dog moisturizers can be found in various shapes and sizes, so you'll never run out of options. However, be careful not to moisturize your dog's paw pads in excess since too much moisturization will leave the paw pads susceptible to tearing or ripping. If you want to ensure the best protection for your dog's paw pads, you can always rely on dog booties, but don't expect all dogs to welcome footwear with the same degree of sympathy.
#3: Check Your Dog’s Paws Regularly
We humans regularly inspect our shoes for dirt and wear, so we should do the same for our canine companions' paws. We've already mentioned how anything from sharp objects, parasites, and toxic chemicals can stick to and wreak havoc to the canine paw pads. If you believe that your dog has been exposed to any of these hazards, take a moment to inspect his paws for debris. Moreover, especially during the winter season, when no precaution is enough, thoroughly wash the paw pads to clean away any potential toxic compound before your dog has a chance to ingest it through licking. To avoid any contamination, at least in your yard, check out these pet-friendly de-icing products!
A Parting Reminder
Paw pads are your dog's gateway to the surrounding environment, both for walking and discovering. We hope that this blog will help you better understand how significant paws are for your dog's overall health and well-being and how to keep them strong and healthy through attention and proper grooming. For more advice on dog nutrition, health, and training, make sure that you contact us or check out our blog!