If you have a dog, then download, print, file this article. Why? Because chances are high that your dog will injure their paw at some point and when that happens, here's what you need to know.
Why are paws so important? Because dogs use them for almost everything:
- to get around - Walk, run, jump. Paw pads provide traction on slippery surfaces and steer pups away from trouble when sensing sharp objects on the ground. Dog nails are not only vital for scratching that bothersome itch but also for gripping the ground when dogs make sharp turns.
- as tools - For digging through dirt, holding a toy or bone, and of course to perform high-5s and shakes.
- paw pads help to cool dogs down - Dogs don't sweat through their body; they cool off by panting and also by sweating through their paw pads. Since paws keep dogs cool, they're able to play and work longer.
Healthy paws are integral to a dog's wellbeing - simply put, if a dog's feet hurt, they can't get around easily. They'll spend more time lying down, which can lead to muscle loss, weight gain, and depressed mood.
There are many conditions that affect dog paws. This is part 1 of a 4-part series on common paw-related issues.
- Part 1 - Paw Problems - paw pad injuries, cracked pads, paw licking (and comments on dog socks and boots)
- Part 2 - Toe Injuries, torn or stretched digits, toe arthritis
- Part 3 - Nail Issues - torn nails, misshapen nails, nail filing techniques
- Part 4 - Toe Amputations - what to consider
PART 1: PAW PROBLEMS
Paw Pads - What's Their Function
1) Protect digits and paws - Paw pads are made of tough and specialized skin that protect inner structures. Pad skin gets tougher and more calloused as dogs walk on harder surfaces. The opposite is also true; pad skin gets softer and more prone to injury if paw pads are covered or not allowed to be exposed to regular outdoor environments.
2) Help dogs cool down - Paw pads help regulate body temperature - specifically, pads help dogs cool down. One of the most important things to remember about paw pads is that dogs sweat through their pads, not through their bodies (like humans). Covering paws with a boot or bandage for long periods causes the pads to sweat - if too much moisture builds up in a boot or bandage, it will lead to sores or fungal infections (e.g., yeast). The same holds true if a dog licks their paw a lot - the wetness can lead to sores and infection.
3) Absorb shock and impact - Under pad skin is a fatty layer that acts as a cushion to help absorb impact, add "spring" to a dog's step (like wearing sneakers), and protect bones and ligaments. Some dog breeds (e.g., Greyhounds) have a thinner fatty layer and are more prone to injury, calluses, or corns because the toe bones are closer to the surface of the skin and not as well protected or insulated.
4) Feel the ground and provide traction - Dogs "feel" the ground through their paws, which help them sense where they're stepping and avoid sharp objects or hot surfaces. The sandpaper-like texture of the paw pad provides good traction on slick surfaces like rocks, snow, or indoor tile. In hot summer months, sidewalks and sand can get very hot. Paw pads can withstand some heat but if it's a really hot day, keep your dog off the road or sand, or protect their feet from burns using light booties. Dog paws are much better able to handle cold conditions because of their fatty layer and good blood flow. But if your dog is in snow for long periods, again boots are recommended. Even sled dogs that are used to the snow sometimes wear protective boots.
sled dogs with protective boots
Paw Pads - Pink vs. Black
Puppies typically have pink paw pads, and pads tend to get darker as puppies grow and pads get tougher. Some adult dogs retain pinkish or lighter colored pad; these pads are more delicate and usually the first to injure. If your dog has light-colored pads, it may be a good idea to protect their paws with light booties if they're going on a hike or running on sand.
Signs of Paw Pad Trouble
Dogs are pretty good at letting you know that something's wrong with their feet. The most common signs are:
- Limping - though there are many reasons why dogs limp (problems can stem from the paw or spine or anywhere in between), it's just good practice to check paws daily.
- Excessive licking or chewing on toes or pad skin - even a splinter or scrape can cause your dog to "attack" their paw in an attempt to reduce discomfort. Chronic licking quickly turns a small injury into a big one as dogs can easily self-mutilate. We've heard people say countless times "I just turned away for 1 minute and he chewed his whole foot!"
- Redness, hair loss, and/or swelling of toes or paw.
- Dry or cracked pads or pads that are feathery in appearance (also known as hyperkeratosis).
hyperkeratosis - dry "feathery" pad skin
Paw Pad Issues and Treatments
Cuts, Scrapes, Burns
Once injured, paw pads heal slower than other areas of the body. Even a small cut can take weeks or months to fully heal because dogs continually bear weight on their paws, which causes healing skin to tear, reopening wounds.
Cleaning / Soaking the Paw
For small cuts: If your dog has a small scrape or irritation (e.g., around a nail bed or webspace), dabbing the area with a witch-hazel-soaked cotton pad should be enough to disinfect and help it heal. Don't cover the paw unless your dog is prone to licking or is going outside. Exposing the wound to air will help it heal faster.
If the cut is larger or bleeding, first flush and clean it with antimicrobial liquid. A diluted betadine solution (few drops of betadine in warm water) works well. The best way to flush a wound is to soak the foot for 3-5 minutes. If you have a small dog, this is easy to do; just fill a sink or a basin with a few inches of warm water and add a little betadine. With larger dogs, foot soaks can be challenging. Try using a small, plastic tub or plastic mason jar (do not use glass jars) filled 1/2-way with diluted betadine, then gently place the foot inside to soak. Drape a towel around the rim of the jar so your dog's leg rests comfortably on the rim while the paw soaks. Mason jars come in many sizes and can even accommodate very large paws - check size before ordering.
In a pinch, a clear plastic bag can be used to soak a paw. For smaller dogs, use the quart-size ZipLoc plastic bag; for larger dogs, use the gallon size. First, slip a hair scrunchy over the dog's leg. Then, fill the ZipLoc bag about 1/2-way with diluted betadine and insert the paw in the bag making sure there's enough liquid to fully cover the wound. Then pull the hair scrunchy over the top of the bag to secure the bag onto the dog's leg. Let the paw soak for 3-5 minutes.
Note: when making a diluted betadine soak, the water color should look like weak iced tea (see below).
this is what diluted betadine should look like
After soaking, dry the paw thoroughly making sure to dry between the toes. Cotton balls or pads work well to clean and dry the web spaces and in between toes. If your dog's fur covers the paw pads, carefully clip hair away with a small grooming scissors. Hair can get embedded in wounds and prevent them from healing.
long hair covering paw pads should be carefully trimmed off
- Apply anti-bacterial cream.
- Cover the wound with a non-stick pad. Non-stick pads have sharp corners that can irritate the paw so trim and round the corners with scissors before applying.
- Wrap with a light cotton bandage or gauze roll.
- Finally, wrap the paw with an Ace bandage or Vetwrap to hold the bandage in place.
If using an Ace bandage, make sure that it has a self-adhering end or tuck the end into to bandage itself or use tape to fasten it; do not use the metal clips that come with some elastic bandages since your dog might accidentally chew or swallow them.
If using Vetwrap, pull a long piece off the roll, and cut it and then wrap the foot. This will prevent the Vetwrap from being applied too tightly.
A dog sock can be used to protect the bandage or paw while inside the house. Socks also keep dogs from biting or licking their paw. When the dog goes outside, cover the sock with a boot. For short potty breaks, use a piece of Press 'n Seal plastic wrap to cover the sock or bandage to keep it clean and dry. This plastic wrap sticks well to socks and to itself so there's no need for tape.
Check the wound daily and reapply bandages, Vetwrap, and/or socks as needed. While healing, it is important that the paw be kept clean and completely dry. Even if your dog licks the bandage, be sure to replace it with one that is clean and dry. Once healed, continue to protect the paw with a sock (indoors) and a boot (outdoors) for at least another week to make sure that the wound does not reopen. As mentioned, new skin is very fragile and it's a good idea to give it another week or so to toughen up. Also, paw pad toughening agents help make pad skin stronger.
For pad burns: Dilute betadine with cool water (instead of warm water) and soak the foot to clean and disinfect it, then let the paw air dry completely. Gently cover the burn with Manuka honey cream or antibiotic ointment and lightly wrap the paw with a non-stick pad and bandage or cover it with a dog sock. Pad burns heal faster if exposed to air so leave the paw uncovered when possible.
For large wounds: These are best treated by your veterinarian. If the paw is bleeding a lot, use a hand towel and light pressure to stop the bleeding, then use an Ace bandage to wrap the towel in place. This should hold while you get your dog to the vet.
For large wounds, the trick is to reduce pressure over the wound so that it can heal without being stressed. Your vet may use a donut-shaped pad over the wound before bandaging the paw. This technique lets new tissue form without further trauma.
donut pad to relieve pressure on the wound is bandaged in place (from Swaim, SF, Marghitu, DB, Rumph, PF, Gillette, RL, Scardino, MS. Effect of bandage configuration on paw pad pressure in dogs: A preliminary study. J Am Anim Hosp Assoc 2003;39:209-216)
Paw pad skin is highly specialized and can become traumatized beyond repair. As a result, skin tissue instead of pad tissue may grow where the pad used to be.
skin tissue that has replaced pad tissue after the pad was severely damaged
Skin tissue is not tough enough to be walked on continuously and will need to be protected with a boot during outdoor activities.
Pad grafting is a surgical option for treating this issue, where pad tissue is taken from a healthy paw then grafted onto the pad that has failed to grow. If the dog is extremely painful or keeps re-injuring the toe, amputating the digit (or a portion of it) is also an option.
Dry and Cracked Paw Pads
Dry, cracked, or crusty pads are a common problem, especially in older dogs. Hereditary Footpad Hyperkeratosis is a genetic disorder that can also cause cracked pads. Other common causes for dry pads are zinc deficiency, distemper, pemphigus, chronic licking, and repeated exposure to chemicals like floor cleaners, lawn fertilizer, or road salt. Since dry or crusty pads can be associated with a more serious medical condition, it's important that you bring this to your veterinarian's attention. If related to zinc deficiency or pemphigus, your vet can treat the condition with supplements or medications. If you suspect that exposure to chemicals is the culprit, try switching to all-natural floor cleaners, avoid chemically-treated areas, clean paws with warm water after exposure, or protect paws with boots. Identifying the underlying cause of your dog's dry pads is the key to its most effective treatment.
Overgrown, crusty, and crumbly paw pads can make walking painful. Overgrown pad skin can be gently filed using a pumice stone - ask your vet to show you how. Moisturizing the paw pads with an ointment-based topical balm heals dry, cracked pads.
Ointments are more easily absorbed if the paws are first soaked in warm water. Once the ointment is applied, cover the paws with clean, light, breathable dog socks or boots to prevent the dog from licking off the ointment.
Dogs lick their paws to clean and free them from debris that may be stuck in the web spaces. When licking becomes excessive, it can be a sign of a more serious problem.
Other reason why dogs lick their paws
Regardless of the paw problem, chronic licking will generally make things worse so it's important to understand why your dog is licking. Licking behavior:
- can be related to an allergic reaction. Of these, food allergies or those caused by exposure to toxic chemicals such as road salt or lawn pesticides are the most common.
- might be caused by the overgrowth of an organism, such as a yeast. Yeast is normally found on dog paws but with chronic licking, yeast multiplies and can cause infection (yeast grows in moist and dark places). Yeast is "itchy", which causes a dog to lick even more.
- can be a habit. It helps to reduce boredom and decreases anxiety and stress much like humans who bite their nails when nervous. Licking can become a serious habit (Canine Compulsive Disorder).
- temporarily reduces pain. This can be a sign of a more serious medical issue like arthritis, especially in the wrists, ankles, and toes.
As with all paw and pad conditions, the most important step toward treating chronic licking is to identify the underlying cause of your dog's licking behavior.
Bitter Apple and other unappetizing sprays help keep pups away from their paws. E-collars also work. But these are temporary fixes and may not work on a stubborn dog. You may want to consult with a holistic veterinarian who can help identify the cause and treat the problem.
Beyond medical care and changing the dog’s environment, you can help reduce licking behavior by covering the affected paw using a breathable, protective sock or boot. Sprinkling anti-itch powder between toes, under the paw, and in socks or boots prior to applying them will go a long way to help reduce discomfort and soothe itchy paws.
If you have an anxious dog that's licking to help calm themselves, there's a lot you can do to reduce stress or nervousness. Regular exercise and treat-filled chew toys help tire and distract dogs. Compression vests and weighted blankets help soothe anxious dogs. Leave the television or radio on when you're not home or schedule dog walkers or other visiting companions. In severe anxiety cases, medications such as Prozac may be warranted.
The Skinny on Paw-Wear
Dog socks are made of cotton blend that allow paws to breathe so they can be left on all day while your dog is inside. Socks provide comfort and protection. If your dog's paw hurts, try applying 2 layers of socks (1 sock inside the other) to cushion the paw even more.
We recommend socks with safety straps to help them stay in place and with a rubberized bottom for traction. Socks tend to spin on a dog's paw so double-sided traction socks are highly recommended because even if they spin, they will still have traction.
The trouble with dog boots is that most are not breathable. Since dogs sweat through their paws, moisture can accumulate around the paw if boots are left on for too long. Moisture leads to skin breakdown and abrasions. Also, many boots have internal seams that can rub paws and create sores. If you're dealing with a healing wound, thick seams can delay wound-healing or even make wounds worse. Bottom line is that dog boots should only be worn as needed and for short periods.
If your dog needs to wear boots (e.g., to protect a healing wound, as a precaution against injury or re-injury), make sure the boots fit well. If a boot is too big, the paw will slide around inside causing rubs, or the boot may come off entirely. If a boot is too small, the toes will surely get rubbed.
Many dogs are not thrilled at having to wear boots but most tolerate them as long as they fit well. Boots for the front paws should fasten just below the wrist (accessory carpal pad area). This way, the dog can still bend the wrist and move freely (see image below).
Most dog boots fasten around the leg using a Velcro strap that sits just above the paw. Some boots also have a cuff that closes with Velcro or zipper. If you have a dog with very short wrists (like corgis or basset hounds), chances are the cuff of the boot will fasten above the wrist. If this happens, fasten the cuff enough so the dog can still bend at the wrist, then use the Velcro strap to cinch the boot in place.
Some dogs have trouble fitting into any boot. For example, 1) a dog's knuckles may be too high and rub inside the boot, 2) the cinching strap might fasten over the dew claw causing pain, or 3) the paw is misshapen and just won't fit. In this case, your dog may need more customized boots. Thera-Paw is one company that will customize boots for dogs.
Thera-Paw boot for the right paw that was expanded on top to allow for higher knuckles
IMPORTANT MESSAGE: If your dog has thin skin or spends more than 1 hour at a time wearing boots, we highly recommend adding anti-chafing powder inside the boot before you apply it on your dog. Anti-chafing power absorbs moisture and protects new pad skin. See this article for more tips.
Final Note – Use A Holistic Approach
If you've ever suffered from aching feet, you know that by the end of the day your whole body aches. The same holds true for dogs; when a dog has painful paws it can affect their entire body. Dogs with painful paws shift their weight to reduce pressure over the painful area. This adds stress to their neck and back, as well as on the legs bearing the extra weight. If your dog has been limping for several weeks or more, they would benefit from body work like stretching, joint mobilization, and massage (for re-establishing optimal soft tissue and joint balance), chiropractic manipulation (for spinal realignment), modalities (like therapeutic laser for healing), and acupuncture (to reduce pain).
Since dogs constantly use their paws, pad injuries can be very difficult to treat. Small injuries can quickly turn into big wounds. Tackling a small injury will prevent weeks or even months of needed care. Most paw pad problems can be minimized or avoided altogether by regularly checking paws or having the dog wear protective boots when in an unfamiliar or potentially hazardous walking environment. As with all care for your dog, please consult your veterinarian.
Other Related Publications
- Tips and Videos on Preventing Dogs from Slipping
- Wraps and Braces for Carpal and Tarsal Injuries
- Best Harnesses for Dogs that Need Help Walking
- Devices for Pets that Are Knuckling or Dragging
A Vital Vet Publication
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