- The dewclaw is the small toe on the inside of a dog’s front or back leg.
- Common injuries include torn or broken, overgrown, ingrown or infected dewclaws.
- If a dog has dewclaws, they must be commonly checked especially for overgrowth.
- The best way to prevent dog dewclaw injuries is to trim the nail regularly.
How many toes does your dog have? It may surprise you to learn that the answer varies from dog to dog. It could be as few as 16 or as many as 24! Most dogs have five toes on their front paws (four weight-bearing toes and a little toe, commonly called the dewclaw) and four toes on their rear paws. Some dogs, however, may also have a dewclaw, or even two dewclaws, on their back paws.
As fate would have it, the toe that’s smallest in size turns out to be the one that causes dogs—and their humans—the most trouble.
What is a Dewclaw on a Dog?
The dewclaw is the small, non-weight-bearing toe on the inside of a dog’s front or back leg. Almost all dogs have dewclaws on their front paws, but some will also have dewclaws on their hind limbs. Certain breeds, such as the Great Pyrenees and Anatolian Shepherds, will have a double dewclaw, meaning that they have two extra toes on the back feet. The Norwegian Lundehund, a rare dog breed, boasts at least six toes on each foot! (1)
The front dewclaw is typically a fully formed toe, meaning that it has bones and is firmly attached to the limb. More often than not, rear dewclaws are only attached by skin or a small tendon and are much more mobile and tend to flop around. However, on occasion, they can also have a bony attachment.
Contrary to popular belief, front dewclaws are not simply extra appendages. Front dewclaws are actually useful to dogs who have them. In fact, dogs regularly use them to grasp and stabilize toys or treats while chewing. Dogs also use their front dewclaw for digging and to provide traction as they hoist themselves up onto raised surfaces, like the couch or even over fences.
Research even suggests that the dewclaws contact the ground when dogs are running at high speeds (2). When this happens, the dewclaw digs into the ground, preventing the rest of the limb from twisting.
Common Dog Dewclaw Injuries
The dewclaws are injured more frequently than other dog claws. Signs of a dewclaw injury include limping, bleeding, excessive licking, swelling or warmth around the toe, and yelping or flinching when you touch the affected limb. Any of these signs mean that your dog should see a veterinarian.
Keep in mind that some dogs are very stoic and may mask signs of pain. Even if your dog isn’t showing it, if you notice they have a dewclaw injury, it is likely causing them a lot of pain.
The most common dewclaw issues include:
Torn or broken dewclaws
Dewclaws can easily become snagged during play or work due to their position on the inside of the leg. Therefore, torn or broken dewclaws are common in highly active dogs. Broken dewclaws can be quite bloody for such a small toe, but the amount of blood often depends on how severely the nail is broken.
When a dog’s dewclaw is torn or broken, the “quick” of the nail is often left exposed. The quick of the nail houses the nail’s nerves and blood supply, so it is incredibly painful when injured. An exposed quick is so sensitive that even cold air can feel uncomfortable.
Torn or broken dewclaws require medical attention. A bandage can be applied at home to help stop any bleeding, but this should not be a substitute for veterinary care. When your dog tears or breaks a dewclaw, the veterinarian will need to remove any part of the nail that is mobile or only partially attached, as any mobility of the nail will continue to irritate the exposed quick. Next, they will clean the area carefully with an antiseptic solution and shave the hair away from the nail to prevent infection. Additionally, a bandage may be applied to the paw for a few days to help protect the sensitive quick. It is very important to ensure the bandage is not so tight it limits circulation to the rest of the paw, as that could cause serious complications. Your pet will likely have to wear an Elizabethan collar (commonly called an e-collar) to prevent them from tearing off their bandage or licking the dewclaw, which can cause infection. Finally, your veterinarian will likely prescribe your dog pain relief medications and antibiotics.
Thankfully, dog nails grow and heal quickly. After a few days, the quick is usually no longer sensitive, and your pet’s nail will begin to regrow. Within a few weeks, the nail will look relatively normal.
Dewclaws are more likely to become overgrown since they don’t wear down from regular surface contact, especially in more sedentary animals who do not dig or play frequently. Overgrown dewclaws are also more likely to snag on things, like the carpet or couch, and become torn or broken.
Luckily, all it takes to fix overgrown dog dewclaws is the simple practice of regular nail trimming. (Check out our step-by-step tutorial on How to Use Dog Nail Clippers here.) The quick of the nail grows as the nail grows, so pet parents must be careful when trimming overgrown dewclaws, and only trim small pieces away at a time. With regular trimmings, the quick will eventually recede.
Due to their natural curvature, overgrown declaws will eventually grow into the flesh of the toe if left unchecked. This is common in long-haired breeds, whose coats often hide overgrowing dewclaws from pet parents. It’s also common in dogs who are active and naturally wear down their other nails with regular play. Since they aren’t going to the groomer or the veterinary clinic for regular nail trimmings, their dewclaws aren’t regularly maintained. As you can imagine, a dewclaw curling into the pet’s flesh is very painful, and a veterinary visit is required.
Your veterinarian will carefully trim the ingrown dewclaw, clean the wound, and may also apply a bandage for a few days. Additionally, your dog will need pain relief medication as well as antibiotics. It’s a good idea to have your dog wear an e-collar for a week or two while the wound is healing to prevent them from licking the wound, which can delay healing and cause infection.
Dog dewclaw infections usually arise from trauma to the nail itself or small abrasions to the skin near the dewclaw. Infections of the dewclaw are also common in dogs who chew their paws regularly and transfer bacteria from their mouth to the nail bed. These are usually bacterial infections, but can sometimes be fungal. If you notice your dog licking the area more than normal, smell a foul odor near your pet, see pus in the hair around the affected toe, or the skin around the dewclaw looks red, an infected dewclaw could be the culprit.
Prompt veterinary care is crucial if you suspect an infected dewclaw, as infection can spread to the bone of the toe if left untreated. Your veterinarian will perform a full physical exam to help determine the origin of the infection and may need to run additional tests, such as a nail bed cytology, blood work, and radiographs (X-rays).
Treatment will vary based on the underlying cause of your dog’s dewclaw infection. Most treatment plans will include oral anti-inflammatory medications, oral antibiotics and/or antifungals, and paw soaks. Soaking the paw in a diluted chlorhexidine solution or Epsom salts can help draw out pus and reduce inflammation. Your veterinarian may also recommend an e-collar to prevent your dog from licking the infection site, and you’ll need to keep the affected foot clean and dry during the healing process.
Should You Cut a Dog’s Dewclaw?
Given that the dewclaws do not touch the ground (unless running at high speed as noted earlier), the nails of dewclaws do not wear down naturally like those of the weight-bearing digits. Therefore, it’s important for pet parents to know whether or not their dog has dewclaws and check them regularly for overgrowth, especially in dogs with long or shaggy coats. If the nail seems long or is beginning to curl, it needs to be trimmed.
Some dogs are very frightened of having their nails trimmed, likely because they’ve had their quick cut in the past, which can be painful and traumatic. If your dog is very wiggly or fearful when you try to cut their nails, it’s best to take them to a professional groomer or a veterinary clinic.
If your dog is tolerant of nail trimming, tending to the dewclaws can be a simple DIY task. If the nail is clear, it’s easy to spot the quick and avoid cutting it. In dogs with dark or black nails, make sure to take little bits of the nail at a time, and stop cutting if your pet reacts painfully or at the first sign of blood. If you do cut the quick, styptic powder or cornstarch can be applied to stop the bleeding.
How to Prevent Dog Dewclaw Injuries
The best way to prevent dog dewclaw injuries is to trim the nail regularly. Some dogs will need the dewclaw nails trimmed more frequently than others, depending on how quickly their nails grow. When the dewclaw is kept short, it’s far less likely to become broken and torn.
Dewclaws can be completely removed by your veterinarian to help prevent injuries. This is not recommended for front dewclaws or dewclaws that have a bony attachment. However, it is a simple procedure for dewclaws that are floppy and only attached by skin or a small tendon. Your veterinarian can help determine if removing the dewclaw is an option for your pet.