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Dog Paws: Anatomy, Care, and Protection Tips

Dog covering face with paws
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Paws enable your dog to walk, run, jump, and do zoomies, so keeping them in top condition is important. 

Proper dog paw care begins with an understanding of their anatomy and learning to identify signs of a problem. Here we cover what you need to know about dog paws, then follow up with vet-recommended care tips to help keep your pup’s feet healthy. 

If your dog is exhibiting any unusual symptoms like limping, swelling, or redness, have a talk with your veterinarian.

What Are Dog Paws Made Of?

Dog holding paw up

Though there are some structural differences between dog paws and our own hands and feet, all are essentially made of the same components. The dog paw consists of skin, bone, tendons, ligaments, fat, blood vessels, and connective tissue, explains Dr. Jerry Klein, chief veterinary officer for the American Kennel Club, based in New York City.

The cushioned dog pads at the bottom of the paws are made of multiple layers of skin (plus collagen and elastic fibers) that house fat tissue. These pads help protect dog feet and insulate them from extreme temperatures. They’re not foolproof, however. “Dog paws and pads are tough but they are not impervious to pain, trauma, and disease,” says Dr. Klein.

Dog claws are comprised of two main components. The hard outer layer is made of keratin, a protein that is also the foundation of human nails and hair. The inner layer (called the quick), contains nerves and blood vessels that when cut, bleed and cause pain.

Anatomy of a Dog’s Paws

Owner holding dog's paw

Each component of the dog paw plays an important role. These are the basic structures you should know about.

Digital Dog Paw Pads

Dogs typically have four toes – called digits – on each paw that they use to walk on. “Each digit has an oblong to circular semi-firm pad on the underside that helps protect the digit bones (AKA phalanges) of the foot,” says Dr. Nancy Haiko, an associate veterinarian with Heart + Paw at their Glen Mills, Pennsylvania location. Without the cushion and traction that these paw pads provide, a dog wouldn’t be able to walk, jump, or run.

The carpal dog pad is located on the front paws. It’s “further up the leg, usually [higher than] the dewclaw if present,” says Dr. Ashley Barnes, medical director at Louisville Family Animal Hospital in Louisville, Colorado. Its role, veterinarians say, is to cushion the carpal joint – it’s what enables your dog to bust into a zoomie or jump off the sofa without injuring herself.

Dog Metacarpal and Metatarsal Pads

The metacarpal dog pad is the heart-shaped cushion on the bottom of the front of the foot, says Dr. Haiko. It “helps protect the metacarpal bones and cushions the impact of walking and running for the joints of the limb.” On the rear paws is the metatarsal pad, which serves a similar function.

Dog Dewclaw

The dewclaw is essentially a fifth toe – complete with nail and paw pad – located on the side of the leg, says Dr. Haiko. “The dewclaw is similar to a human’s thumb, but it does not have the same utility in dogs.” Most dogs have dewclaws on their front paws, though, says Dr. Barnes, some breeds, like the Great Pyrenees, also have it on their hind legs. (Some dogs have two declaws on the rear paws.)

The dewclaw allows dogs to hold their treats, makes it easier to dig, and provides a good grip when lifting themselves over higher surfaces. In some dogs, dewclaws are not well-formed and essentially don’t serve any known purpose.

Dog Claws

Each toe, including the dewclaw, has a claw (or nail) that Dr. Haiko says extends from the third digit bone. They’re designed to “help dogs maintain their grip on the ground or surface.” They’re also used for digging.

Types of Dog Paws

Dog holding paws up outside

Not all dog feet are alike. Depending on what a dog was bred for, the paw can take on one of three shapes.

Webbed Feet

Webbing is a skin-covered membrane situated between dog toes, says Dr. Klein. Though most dogs have some form of webbing, he says it’s more prominent in certain breeds (like the Labrador Retriever). “These are usually breeds that were bred to swim for their function or purpose. Webbing also aids in moving over snow.”

Hare Feet

Dogs with hare feet have two center toes that are longer than the others, giving them the appearance of a hare’s foot, says Dr. Klein. Dog breeds who are fast runners or sprinters – like Greyhounds and Whippets – have hare feet, says Dr. Haiko.  

Cat Feet

Cat feet are small, compact, and round, says Dr. Haiko. “This foot conformation is designed for stability, endurance, and can also support a significant amount of weight such as in Newfoundlands and Saint Bernard dog breeds.”

Healthy Dog Paws Vs. Unhealthy Paws

Owner holding dog paw outside

The condition of the paws speaks to your dog’s overall health and can signal a potential issue. 

Healthy Dog Paws

Healthy dog paw pads, says Dr. Klein, are smooth and have no cracks, calluses, burns, or blisters; and there’s no sign of inflammation, irritation, or bad smell. Additionally, the bottom of the paw should be free of mats and excessive fur, says Dr. Haiko.

Healthy paws also have strong, uncracked nails that are properly trimmed, “and the nails are not grown into the pad or surrounding skin,” adds Dr. Klein.

Unhealthy Dog Paws

Unhealthy paws might appear red and swollen, have matted fur between the toes, overgrown nails, and a foul smell, says Dr. Haiko. 

The pads may have cracks, cuts, callouses, or abrasions, says Dr. Barnes. A dog who’s started an intense exercise regimen, however, may get cuts or blisters on the paw pad, says Dr. Klein. “Over some time and use, pads become tougher and more resilient.”

Common Dog Paw Problems

Holding dog paw up close

Our pups can experience a range of dog paw injuries and diseases that affect their toes, paw pads, and nails. Speak to your veterinarian if you notice anything out of the ordinary. Some signs to watch for are swelling, redness, limping, bleeding, hair loss, and excessive chewing.


Pododermatitis, or inflammation of the skin on the paws, is considered a common malady in dogs. It’s caused by underlying issues like trauma, allergies, infections, and insect bites.

A dog with pododermatitis will commonly lick and chew her paws, and they’ll appear red and swollen. Pain and discomfort can cause a dog to limp.

Burned Dog Paws

Exposure to extreme heat or to chemicals (like battery acid) can destroy the paw pad – including the interior. Most dog paw burns occur during warmer months, when pups are more likely to walk on hot surfaces.

Self-Chewing of Dog Paws and Nails

Some chewing is usually considered normal, veterinarians say. Excessive gnawing, however, can mean a dog has allergies, parasites, or another underlying condition. Left unchecked, it can lead to issues like bleeding, swelling, redness, pain, sores, and infection.

Cracked Dog Paws

Cold weather, nutritional imbalances, and thickening of the outer layer of the skin are things that can cause dog paws to crack. Other signs include dryness, peeling, redness, swelling, limping, and bleeding.


Hyperkeratosis is the overgrowth of keratin on a dog’s skin, causing it to become thick, flaky, and cracked. It can also cause symptoms like loss of skin color, pain, secondary infections, and difficulty walking. Though hyperkeratosis is oftentimes harmless, it can also indicate an issue like canine distemper virus or zinc-responsive dermatosis, a skin condition caused by zinc deficiency. Given that Cocker Spaniels are predisposed, scientists think there may also be a genetic factor.

Paw Swelling

This is caused by things like bone fractures, arthritis, infections, bee stings, and even heart disease. Some common symptoms of paw swelling include pain, redness, bleeding, and limping. Affected dogs may also have low energy, loss of appetite, and fever.

Interdigital Cyst on Dogs

This is a bump or swelling between dog toes, usually on the front paws. It appears raised, reddish-purple, and swollen. Though interdigital cysts are often caused by a bacterial infection or allergies, they’re also linked to trauma – which can cause blood or pus to ooze – and excess body weight. Breeds at higher risk include the English Bulldog, Great Dane, and Labrador Retriever.

Dog Paw Parasites

Flea and tick bites can cause inflammation, redness, irritation, itchiness, and infection. These problems are exacerbated as the dog chews and scratches the paw to find relief.

Broken Nails

Dog nails can crack, break, or tear. If these breaks happen too close to the quick, their nails can bleed and cause dogs pain and discomfort. If left untreated, broken nails can also lead to an infection. 

Injured Dewclaw

When the dewclaw tears or breaks, the nail’s quick can become exposed, resulting in pain and bleeding. Dogs who are more active run a greater risk of snagging their dewclaws on objects.

How to Groom and Clean Your Dog’s Paws

Holding dog paws about to groom

Taking care of your dog’s paws is an essential part of good pet parenting. Here are a few vet-recommended guidelines to help you provide the best dog paw care.

Trim Hair to Prevent Mats

If your dog has a lot of fur between her toes, veterinarians say trimming them to prevent mats is a good idea. This isn’t as easy as it may seem, however, and it can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. “So it is recommended to learn from your veterinarian or groomer the proper way to clean and trim or have them do the job,” recommends Dr. Klein. Aside from mastering proper technique, using the correct grooming tools is also key.

Keep Those Nails Trimmed

Nails that are too long are at increased risk for splitting, which is not only painful for your dog, but may require a trip to your veterinarian. It can also create unequal pressure on dog toes and sore nail beds, causing your dog to slip and trip on certain surfaces.

Dog nails should be trimmed every 4 to 6 weeks to help prevent broken toenails, says Dr. Haiko. If you’re not comfortable doing this, ask your veterinarian or groomer for a demonstration. As with trimming excess paw hair, using a good pair of nail clippers is essential.

Wash and Wipe Your Dog’s Paws

Wiping your dog’s paws after being outside helps keep them clean and dry, says Dr. Haiko. “It also may reduce the amounts of allergens that can be absorbed through the skin. This can be an issue for dogs with seasonal allergies.”

While a washcloth and towel can do the trick, wipes and cleaners designed specifically for dog paws are useful in getting off heavy-duty grime.

How to Protect Your Dog’s Paws Year Round

Holding dog paws protecting them

Preventing problems before they become unmanageable is easier on your dog – and you. Aside from keeping your dog’s paws clean, trimming the nails and any matted hair, there are some other things you can do.

Perform Routine Dog Paw Checks

Though the veterinarian will check out your dog’s paws during wellness exams, this is something pet parents can also do at home. “Owners should make a routine of examining the paws, pads, and the interdigital spaces (between the toes) on a regular basis but especially if the dog shows any sign of lameness or licking the paws,” says Dr. Klein.

Check for Parasites on Your Dog’s Paws

Fleas are the size of a sesame seed and move stealthily, so it’s easier to search for signs of flea bites or flea dirt (they resemble coffee grounds) with a flea comb. If you do locate fleas, discuss a treatment plan with your veterinarian. 

Though ticks can be hard to distinguish from bumps, they’re generally brown and have hard, oval bodies with 8 legs. If you see one (you can use a flea comb to search), use gloves and tweezers or a tick removal tool to pluck it off your dog’s paws. Check with your veterinarian with concerns about Lyme disease or other tick-borne illnesses.

Take Extra Care with Winter Sidewalks

Cold surfaces can be brutal on dog paws. “In the winter months, consider having your dog wear protective dog boots. This can help prevent ice and snow from being packed in between the toes and on the underside of the paws,” says Dr. Haiko.  

Also watch for deicers used on streets and sidewalks, says Dr. Klein. “They are irritating to skin and pads and potentially toxic if ingested when a dog is licking their paws.” Aside from wearing booties for protection, he recommends soaking or wiping paws off after winter walks. 

Veterinarians also recommend using dog paw wax or balm to protect feet when it’s snowy and icy outside. Dog balms can help prevent damage to dog pads and can soothe, heal, and moisturize dog paws that are cracked and dry.

Avoid Hot Surfaces

If you’re unable to comfortably hold your hand against the pavement during warmer months, avoid taking your dog for a walk, recommends Dr. Barnes. Or you can fit your dog with boots.

Dog Paw FAQs

Dog sitting in dog bed looking sad

Why do dogs lick their paws?

The paws may be irritated, cut, itchy, burned, or have something lodged in them, says Dr. Klein. “Some dogs also lick their paws because of behavioral issues such as stress and/or boredom and may even start to self-mutilate themselves.”

Why do dog paws smell like Fritos?

This is due to the presence of yeast or bacteria. “The toes provide a place that is dark and moist to allow the microbes to thrive. This can be normal in small amounts, but too much smell may indicate infection,” explains Dr. Barnes.

Do dogs sweat through their paws?

Yes. Dogs have sweat glands on their paws, which scientists believe makes the paws sticky, thus providing better traction.

How many toes does a dog have?

Most dogs have 4 toes plus a dewclaw on the front paws, and 4 toes (minus a dewclaw) in the back. Some breeds have 1 or 2 dewclaws in the rear.