Common Dog Paw Problems And How to Prevent Them

By: Orvis Staff

Cooper may not enjoy having his paws checked, but the health of the pads is important.

Photo by: Phil Monahan

Don’t underestimate the importance of dog paw care. Consider this: especially if he’s a working or a sporting breed, your dog’s feet have an important job to do—same as your own feet. His fleshy foot pads give him extra shock-absorbing cushioning to protect his bones and joints, they help insulate him against extreme weather, safeguard him against rough ground, and protect other soft tissue inside his paws. But they’re not made of cast iron: the pads and the skin between your doggie’s toes, and his toenails, are fairly susceptible to injuries. How best to prevent or treat common dog paw problems? In a nutshell, it depends on what potentially causes them. Read on to learn about the most common dog paw and paw pad injuries, and how to treat and prevent them.

Possible Problems (And How to Fix ‘Em)

Ingrown toenails – The toenail grows so long it begins to curl under and to grow into the dog’s foot pad, and may become infected. A veterinarian will treat an ingrown nail with antibiotics and pain meds, but in the most severe cases the nail must be cut out surgically.

Prevention: if your dog’s nails aren’t naturally worn down by daily walking or running, give him a pedicure (or let a professional do it)—once monthly is safe for starters. Or use this benchmark for nail length: your dog’s nails should just about touch the ground when he walks. If his nails click against the floor, it’s probably time for a trim.

Torn toenails – A nail can tear when it catches on the carpet or other material, or in a scuffle with another dog. When the entire nail is missing, visit a veterinarian immediately to stop the bleeding and manage your dog’s pain. And when only part of the nail is missing, visit the vet anyway, because the remaining part of it may need to come out.

Prevention: life happens. But a nail that has grown too long is more likely to snag on the carpet. See nail trimming above.

Burns – Hot surfaces, including asphalt and sand, are hostile environments for dog paws and foot pads. When your dog is exposed to extremely hot surfaces, you may notice blisters on his paws, loose flaps of skin, and red, ulcerated patches. A seriously burned pad is an emergency and requires immediate veterinary care. Treatment will include bandaging as a protective barrier on the skin, and antibiotics and pain medication. For a minor burn, apply an antibacterial wash and place booties on the affected feet.

Prevention: keep your dog off hot pavement, and avoid midday trips to the beach in the heat of summer. Tip: place your hand on the pavement or sand and hold it there 10 seconds. If you can’t do it, the surface is too hot for your dog’s feet—go inside, or play in the shade.

Frostbite – It’s also a burn on your dog’s paws, but caused by extreme cold instead of heat. And because it’s a burn, it also demands immediate medical attention. Treatment for frostbite is similar to treatment for burned foot pads, and prevention is the same: limit your dog’s exposure to extreme cold. And if you must go outside in it, outfit your dog with booties to protect his vulnerable paws.

Salt- and chemical-induced burns – Rock salt and ice melting chemicals can burn your dog’s foot pads, and the burns are more intense when your dog’s pads have picked up salt and then come into contact with snow. Serious burns require veterinary care, stat.

Prevention: you can try applying petroleum jelly to his pads before your walk, to act as a barrier against these environmental hazards. Better still, put winter booties on him when salt or ice-melting chemicals are applied to surfaces where you routinely walk. If your dog’s feet come into contact with salt, wipe them down before you allow him to romp in the snow. And use a dog-safe ice melting agent at home.

Ticks – These little miscreants love to embed between doggie toes. If you find one there, it’s best to ask your vet to remove it. But if you must do it yourself, grip the tick from the head with tweezers, and gently pull it out—you must remove the entire tick, including the head. You can also try a special tool made to remove a tick. Never use a lit match or recently lit match to remove a tick from your dog.

Prevention: ticks are part and parcel of an active lifestyle with your dog in the great outdoors. Consult your vet for the best tick preventative for your dog. Try to avoid tick-infested areas if you can, and check your pal thoroughly for hitchhikers at the end of your adventures.

Hairy feet – Everybody loves a shaggy dog, but this is a problem that transcends aesthetics: too much hair on your dog’s feet creates a perfect lure for chewing gum, sticky asphalt, and organic material—burrs and thorns, for example—which can be difficult and painful to remove. Ingrown hairs cause problems, too: tiny pimples lead to furunculosis, an infection in the follicle that can abscess and cause tissue damage—consult your veterinarian. You can try gently removing trapped organic material with your fingers or a pair of tweezers. But never try to cut out chewing gum stuck between your dog’s toes with scissors. Try saturating it with peanut butter, olive oil, or mayonnaise, and then follow up with soapy water and a good rinse—you may have to repeat this process a few times to get all of it. For the worst messes, take your dog to a professional groomer.

Prevention: Get your dog to the groomer for a clipping—keep those toes neat and trim to prevent hairy problems.

Tips for Toes: Pamper Those Dog Paws

  • Keep your nose to the ground. Be more aware of the surfaces where you routinely walk your dog. Think about broken glass and other hazards where you walk him. Keep your yard clean of debris. And stick to this general rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t walk on it barefoot, neither should your dog.
  • Massage your dog’s foot pads. If he’ll let you—some doggies really do not like having their feet handled. But if he agrees to it, massaging between the toes will help improve circulation. It’s also an excellent chance to inspect his feet for anomalies and foreign objects, including foxtails, pebbles, broken glass, or other debris. Gently remove anything that should not be there with a pair of tweezers.
  • Start new dog activities gradually. Give your dog’s paws a chance to acclimate to new stressors—too much, too soon, and his pads may react with sensitivity, chafing, or cracking, especially if you start running or hiking with your dog.
  • Love your dog’s paws extra in the winter. When you come back inside after a wintry walk, fill a pan with warm, soapy water, dunk your dog’s paws in it, and wipe them clean with a towel. Or simply swab them with a wet towel if exposure to salt or chemicals was minimal. If his paws look cracked and dry in the winter (like those rough patches on your own hands and elbows), treat them with paw wax to help condition and restore them to health. Avoid using human moisturizers, which can soften dog pads and make them more vulnerable to injuries.
  • Keep a first aid kit for your dog. Put one in the cabinet next to yours, and another in your car’s glove box. If you discover a cut or wound smaller than a half inch in diameter on your dog’s paw, clean it with the antibacterial wash in the kit, and place a bootie on the foot. If the wound is bigger, ask the vet to treat it.

Your beloved canine deserves preventive maintenance and the occasional TLC to keep his paws and foot pads healthy—and maybe even some fetching booties of his own when the going gets tough. You know he’ll greet the familiar rattle of car keys and leash with tail-wagging enthusiasm—give your dog a big high five, and keep all four of his paws primed for work or play.

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