Most dogs have the luxury of four paws to help them navigate the world. Those paws are complex—constructed from many different body tissues. When something goes wrong in a paw, swelling is possible, and pain will result.
If you notice that your dog has paw swelling, get them in to see your veterinarian. Since dogs aren’t great at letting us know they are in pain, it’s up to us to get them help.
Let’s look at some of the common causes of paw swelling in dogs, what you should watch for, and how to treat your dog’s paws so they no longer feel pain or discomfort.
What is Paw Swelling?
A dog’s paw is made up of several different tissues: bone, muscles, nerves, joints, ligaments, tendons and skin. A swollen paw can involve one or more of these tissues.
Often, a swollen paw won’t be noticed until the dog starts limping. If your dog is limping, check for swelling by comparing paws to each other. If one paw looks larger than its opposite, then it may be swollen. Swollen paws may be red and warm to the touch.
What Causes a Dog’s Paws to Swell?
It is important to determine the cause of a swollen paw because treatments vary wildly depending on the cause. The context around the development of a swollen paw and how quickly the swelling develops can also help determine cause.
Causes of swollen paws in dogs may include:
- Fracture of a bone
- Inflammation of a bone (called panosteitis)
- Infection of a bone (called osteomyelitis)
- A bone cyst or bone tumor
- Inflammation of one or more joints (called arthritis)
- Infection of one or more joints of the limb or paw
- An immune system attack on the body’s joints
- A tumor in a joint of the limb or paw
- Stepping on foxtails
- Sharp objects (wood, glass)
The skin and the connective tissue just underneath, called subcutaneous tissue, can suffer from infection, a leaking of fluid from the vessels or cancer can develop within these tissues.
Tendon and Ligament Damage
Bones that come together at a joint are supported and stabilized by tendons and ligaments and are moved by muscles. Injury or rupture of a ligament, tendon, or muscle within a limb or in the paw itself can cause swelling.
A few examples of systemic diseases that can cause paw swelling include blood clotting disorders, severe heart disease, severe liver disease, significant kidney disease, or allergic reaction conditions.
Symptoms of Swollen Paws in Dogs
The symptoms of paw swelling in dogs can be obvious if you notice the visible signs, but other symptoms might not be as recognizable. Many causes of paw swelling cause inflammation and pain. When a pet feels pain, they may display more generalized symptoms such as difficulty moving and not acting quite normal.
Common symptoms of paw swelling in dogs can include:
- Foot pain
- Redness of the toes, or foot itself
- Ulceration of the skin
- White fluid between the toes or footpads
- Open bleeding
- Paws that are warm to the touch
- An abnormal walk or a limp
- Holding up a foot or not wanting to place a foot down
- Reluctance to walk up stairs
More general signs that may manifest if a dog is experiencing paw swelling include lethargy (low energy), inappetence (not willing to eat as much), fever, weight loss, exercise intolerance, and depression (interacting less than normal). These clinical signs can be seen in many medical conditions, not just in paw swelling.
Diagnosing Swollen Paws in Dogs
Paw swelling is a painful condition that often needs veterinary care to improve. If your pet has a swollen paw that does not improve by itself in a few days, if your pet is limping, or has any of the general signs above indicating they are not feeling well, it is important to make a veterinary appointment.
Because there are so many potential causes of paw swelling, it is important to be detailed when talking with your veterinarian. Your veterinary team may ask you a variety of questions—be patient and answer those questions to the best of your ability. Tell your veterinarian exactly what you noticed and when.
You should also document any recent trauma, how quickly you noticed the swelling develop, or if anything has changed in your pet’s medication regimen. Be sure to tell your veterinarian about your dog’s eating and drinking habits, whether you have noticed any changes in their bathroom habits, or if you have noticed any signs of sickness (coughing, sneezing, vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy).
Your veterinarian will perform a physical exam on your pet to look at the paw for clues. During this exam, your veterinarian will examine the eyes, ears, mouth, heart and lungs, intestinal tract and abdominal organs, lymph nodes, musculoskeletal and nervous system and, of course will examine the skin and paws.
The veterinarian will examine the bones and joints of the affected limb from the bottom up, feeling each bone. They will make sure there is an appropriate range of motion and look for any areas of specific sensitivity or pain. Depending on the history you provide and the physical exam findings, additional diagnostics may be necessary.
X-rays (also called radiographs): May be performed to look at the bones and soft tissues.
Blood and urine tests: Performed to determine the overall health of the body. This examination needs to include blood cell counts, body chemistry, and urinalysis. All three parts need to be included in this examination to give your veterinarian the information they need.
Puncture of a swollen paw: This may be recommended if an abscess is suspected. This procedure is painful and should not be performed without sedation or anesthesia.
Biopsy: This may be recommended if the swelling is thought to be associated with an inflammatory or cancerous process.
A joint tap: A veterinarian may recommended this procedure if an inflammatory, autoimmune, cancerous, or infectious process within a joint is suspected.
An echocardiogram: A heart ultrasound, called an echocardiogram, may be recommended if heart failure is suspected.
How to Treat Paw Swelling in Dogs
Management and prognosis will depend on the cause of the paw swelling. Veterinarians will usually recommend one or more of the following treatments:
- Antibiotics may be used to clear up an infection
- Anti-inflammatory drugs may be prescribed for arthritis, inflammation, allergic reaction, or to help control pain regardless of cause.
- Steroid medication or immune-modulating medications may be used for autoimmune conditions.
- Chemotherapy or surgery may be recommended if a cancerous process is identified.
- Surgical intervention may be necessary if an abscess is present or foreign material is in your dog’s paw.
General Costs to Treat Paw Swelling in Dogs
Examination cost: Approximately $50 – $150 + depending on where you live in the country and what type of veterinary service you are requesting (brick and mortar vs in-home)
Bloodwork: Approximately $150 – $200 depending on the particular diagnostic panel that is most appropriate for your pet.
Surgical intervention: Approximately $500 – $2,000
Joint tap: Approximately $500 – $1,000
Echocardiogram: Approximately $400 – $700
Antibiotics: Approximately $30 – $200 depending on antibiotic chosen and appropriate dosage for pet.
Pain or anti-inflammatory medications: Approximately $50 -$200 depending on medication chosen and appropriate dosage for your pet.
How to Prevent Paw Swelling in Dogs
The best thing you can do to prevent paw swelling in dogs is get your pet used to you touching their feet. Once your dog is comfortable, make a ritual out of checking your dog’s paws on a weekly basis.
During these weekly assessments, look between the toes and between the foot pads for abnormalities.
Keep your dog’s nails trimmed to prevent nail problems or infections. Use paw moisturizers, if your dog’s paws are dry and cracked. It’s effective on cuts, abrasions, sores, scratches, wounds, and more. And always protect your pet’s paws from extreme temperatures.
Staying on top of your dog’s paw health will help you identify paw problems early and help you and your veterinarian identify the best course of treatment.
- Infectious polyarthritis
- Autoimmune polyarthritis
- Hot pavement pad burns