How to Care for Your Dog’s Paws

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Admittedly, wild crabs are not your average paw hazard, but you should pay attention to the special places where the proverbial rubber meets the road.

photo courtesy Joe, Collegeville

Unlike human feet, dog paws are often exposed outdoors—they walk and run over rough concrete, cavort in the rain, and trot over snow and ice. Even though dog paws are tough, they require regular care and attention. Unfortunately, the task of protecting and caring for dog paws is often pushed down the canine to-do list along with dog dental care—another essential owner responsibility that frequently gets short shrift.

But keeping your dog’s padded tootsies in great shape is, in large part, what lets you enjoy long hikes together and play endless games of fetch in the yard. So let’s get up close and personal with those cute dog paws. We’ll answer the FAQs about dog paws and outline the essentials of paw care so your dog’s digits and pads stay play-ready.

Dog Paw Care: The Long and the Short of It

The basics of taking care of dog paws comes down to clipping and cleaning. Clip your dog’s toenails regularly. Overlong nails are to blame for some of the most common dog paw problems, including ingrown and torn toenails; they also undermine traction on hard floors.

How Long Should Dog Nails Be?

In general, dog nails should not extend beyond the paw pads. If you can hear your dog’s nails click on the floor, they’re already too long. When trimmed, they should remain longer than the quick—the blood vessel and nerve within the nail. Cutting to the quick causes pain and bleeding, and can make nail cutting a stressful experience for both dog and owner.

How Often Do Dog Nails Need Trimming?

This varies from dog to dog, and depends somewhat on their activity level and environment. For example, a lap dog who plays only on the carpet and soft grass in the yard will need her nails trimmed more often than a sporting dog who runs in tougher terrain; rocks and concrete file down the nails, if unevenly.

Even though dewclaws are well above the ground, they require trimming as well, because when they grow too long will snag easily and can press painfully into your dog’s legs.

How to Clip Dog Nails

Tools for clipping your dog’s nails:

  • Dog nail clippers or grinders – Choose the style you find easiest to use so you’ll clip your dog’s nails as often as necessary.
  • Styptic powder – An anticoagulant that stops bleeding fast if you cut the quick
  • Dog treats – They’ll help make the often unwelcome task more palatable for your dog, and easier for you.

Then you’ll use the clippers to trim your dog’s toenails, following the instructions that come with the variety you choose. Check out this helpful PetMD video of a dog getting a pedicure.

If you don’t have the time (or the nerves of steel!) to manage this task yourself, have your vet or a professional groomer trim your dog’s nails regularly.

How to Trim Dog Paw Hair

Flat and smooth-coated dogs don’t typically need the hair on their paw pads trimmed. But dogs with medium and long coats need regular trimming because long fur on paws and between the pads can collect dirt, burrs, and snow, become matted, and cause slipping. The tools for this process are ball-tip safety scissors or specialty clippers for paw trimming, and, you guessed it—abundant dog treats.

Have your dog lay down on her side, and work paw by paw, cutting or clipping down the hair between the pads to just below or even with the pads. Work slowly, snipping small sections of hair rather than cutting chunks, and taking extra care when cutting out mats.

If the paw fur hangs long, trim it so it is neat and off the ground. But keep in mind, the paw fur of show dogs isn’t trimmed at all, or is only lightly trimmed, to meet conformation standards.

How to Clean Your Dog’s Paws After a Walk

Your dog’s paws should get a quick once-over after every outing to make sure all is well, but in some instances more attention is in order. Keep a packet of dog-safe wipes near the door so you can give your dog’s paws a quick swipe after a romp in the yard or a walk around the block. Wipe dirt from the paw pads, as well as gravel from between the toes.

Her paws need a deeper cleaning after hiking, or walking in winter through areas with rock salt or de-icing chemicals. If you hunt or hike with your dog, make a quick paw wash part of your routine. Here’s what to do:

  • Wet your dog’s paws using a garden hose, a dog travel shower, or the sprayer in the sink or tub.
  • Use a dog-safe shampoo or soap and gently wash the paws, being sure to get in between her pads and toes.
  • Rinse and dry her paws.

How to Protect Dog Paws in Winter

Pay careful attention to your dog’s paws in winter, when snow and ice put her feet at elevated risk of frostbite, injury, and burns from chemicals and salt used to melt ice. Snow may also become packed between the paw pads, which can be painful and cause injuries. Tips for keeping your dog’s paws safe in winter:

  • Put dog booties on in winter, especially in icy conditions.
  • Keep fur between paw pads neatly trimmed because it can collect snow and ice melt crystals.
  • As best as you can, watch out for and avoid ice melt salt and chemicals during walks.
  • Use a dog-safe ice melt for your driveway, walkways, and sidewalks.
  • Inspect and wipe your dog’s feet with a wet towel after every walk in winter.

How to Protect Dog Paws from Hot Pavement

In summer, hot pavement can burn your dog’s paw pads. Tips to prevent burns:

  • Walk your dog in the morning and evening when it’s cooler.
  • Touch the pavement with your hand for several seconds. If it feels too hot, or you have to pull your hand away—don’t walk over that section of pavement with your dog.
  • Stick to shaded pathways.
  • On scorching days, stick close to the house and stay on the grass.
  • Be aware that dark pavement is typically hotter than light-colored pavement and that artificial grass gets hotter than natural grass.
  • Hot sand can burn your dog’s paws—avoid walking her on a sandy shore during the heat of the day.

Booties can protect your dog’s paws from hot pavement and hot, rocky hiking trails. Choose dog boots with a breathable material on top of the paws for airflow and so the boots don’t contribute to overheating.

Can Dog Paws Get Frostbite?

Yes! Your dog’s extremities (paws, ears, and tail) are vulnerable to frostbite in extremely cold temperatures and when you leave your dog outside in the cold and wind for too long. Dog paws are at risk in particular because they come in direct contact with ice and snow, and snow can become stuck in paw fur or between the paw pads, resulting in prolonged contact.

As a rule of thumb, your dog shouldn’t be outside without protection from the ice and cold. Make sure your best friend wears a warm dog jacket and dog booties in frigid conditions, and know the signs of frostbite and hypothermia. Remember, if it’s too cold for you, it’s too cold for her.

Why Are Dog Paws so Rough?

Dog paw pads get rough from all the running, playing, and jumping! If your dog is the outdoorsy type, her paws may be extra rough because of long walks on concrete or long treks in the woods. Ultimately, your dog’s paws are rough because they are her shock absorbers and offer a measure of protection, something akin to your favorite sneakers.

Her paws are not invincible, however, and can’t be tossed aside like sneakers when they get scuffed and scraped. Dog paw pads can become painfully cracked and dry from over-exposure to harsh concrete and rugged trails. Winter weather can also contribute to roughness and cracking, just as it does in people, and sharp ice can cut your dog’s pads.

How to Soften Dog Paws

Remember, a bit of toughness is protective, and softening paws puts them at risk of injury. Before softening your dog’s paw pads, talk with your veterinarian because this strategy may not be necessary. If softening is needed, ask your vet to recommend a moisturizer made for dogs—then follow the instructions on the container.

Does Dog Paw Wax Work?

Dog paw wax protects against damaging ice and freezing pavement. It works as a barrier against harsh conditions, and makes a decent alternative to dog booties, especially for dogs who resist wearing boots. But the wax is ineffective when you apply it incorrectly, or if it wears away before your dog returns indoors. In extreme cold, assume the paw wax won’t protect your dog enough, and don’t let her spend too much time outdoors.

How to Stop a Dog Paw From Bleeding

Apply consistent, firm pressure to the wound with a clean towel to stop your dog’s paw from bleeding. Take her to the veterinarian immediately if the wound is deep, a foreign object is lodged in her paw, or the bleeding is significant or doesn’t stop.

First aid treatment is necessary, either by you or the vet. The wound must be cleaned to prevent infection and bandaged to keep it clean and protected. As a follow-up measure, an E-collar may be necessary to keep your dog from chewing the bandage, or chewing or licking the wound.

What to Do When Your Dog Is Licking and Chewing Paws

If your dog licks or chews her paws on occasion, no need to worry. If the behavior occurs frequently, it’s time for a visit to the veterinarian. Chronic or excessive licking and chewing of paws can indicate an injury or ailment. Possible causes include:

  • Wounds
  • Ticks, fleas, or mites
  • Burrs
  • Grass awns
  • Allergic skin reactions
  • Yeast infections
  • Bacterial infection

Occasionally, the licking is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder in dogs stemming from anxiety or boredom.

Your veterinarian will recommend a course of treatment. Depending on the cause, you may need to give your dog prescription medication or begin behavioral training.

What Color Should Dog Paws Be?

Dog paw pads are either black, pink, almost white, or a combination of the three. The pigmentation is unrelated to fur color; a light-coated dog will often have black paw pads.

Get to know your dog’s paw pads so you’ll notice color changes due to inflammation, an infection, or other ailments. Red paw pads, for example, can indicate infections, burns, bee stings, and more. Black spots can signal frostbite on light paws; on black paws frostbite is harder to see, so watch for signs of sensitivity.

Why Do Dog Paws Smell Like Corn Chips?

Some folks say their dogs’ paws smell like corn chips, and others say popcorn. Whichever odor you whiff coming from your dog’s tootsies—why do they smell this way? The odor comes from harmless bacteria within the dirt and water your dog picks up during her daily walks. These bacteria give off a yeasty smell similar to the aroma of these familiar snacks.

If the smell gets too intense for you, shorten the time between dog baths or wash her paws more frequently. Keeping fur between the paw pads trimmed can also help.

Why Do Some Dogs Hate Having Their Paws Touched?

No discussion of dog paws is complete without acknowledging that many dogs dislike having their paws touched. Some truly hate it, others put up with it stoically. Consider yourself lucky if your dog is in the latter category.

For some dogs, the negative reaction may stem from a bad nail clipping experience. Another possibility is sensitivity, similar to the way some people are more ticklish in their feet than others. If your dog is suddenly aversive to having one paw touched, look for signs of injury or infection.

Establish a regular, gentle paw care routine that includes plenty of treats and praise to help your dog put up with the process without much fussing. Ideally, the routine starts when your dog is a puppy, but if you adopted an adult dog who doesn’t like having her paws touched, you can make improvements through desensitization and counter conditioning.

Regular paw care is a necessity for every dog. And while you may not look forward to the task, take a moment to appreciate your dog bounding out the door for all her adventures on four healthy paws.

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