If you’ve ever cut your dog’s nails, then you’re familiar with how many claws they have. There are four at the front of the foot and one long claw on the inner part of the paw or foreleg.
What you may not know is what your dog’s dewclaw is, where to find it, or how to treat a dewclaw injury.
What Is a Dewclaw?
If you hold one of your dog’s front paws in the palm of your hand, you’ll see there are four claws across the front and one tucked away on the inside of the paw.
That inner claw is a dog’s dewclaw.
Functionally, the dew claw works like the human thumb. Cats use it to climb, to the everlasting vexation of many dogs, who dream of climbing up trees after squirrels.
Since most dogs are not tree climbers, their dewclaws work differently. They use it to:
- Stabilize objects for chewing on
- Offer traction when running
- Help grip when climbing over a barrier or out of icy waters
That means a dog’s dewclaw has a crucial role to play in holding onto that slipper your dog decided to steal from you. However, that’s only true of the front dewclaw.
If these operate like thumbs, the dewclaws are more like big toes. And whereas the dewclaws on a dog’s forepaws are firmly attached to the paw, the hind dewclaws are more flexible and attached primarily to the skin.
Wait, I Don’t See a “Dewclaw” on My Dog!
Not all dogs are born with hind dewclaws. In fact, it is relatively rare for dogs to have rear dewclaws. They are mostly found in larger working dogs. Some of the breeds that have rear dewclaws actually have “double dewclaws”, which effectively give them six claws on each rear paw or leg.
Also, if you have a breed that normally has dewclaws (front or rear) but you still don’t see them on your dog, they may have been removed by the breeder. This is a common but somewhat controversial procedure which is done right after birth to protect the dewclaw from getting snagged and injured. This is often done to hunting dogs who frequently run through dense cover and are at greatest risk of snagging the dewclaw.
How to Tell If a Dewclaw Is Injured
Now that you can recognize a dewclaw, how do you know if it is injured?
Since dewclaws are effectively elongated nails, when they get injured, you notice. Like any nail, dewclaws have a quick. That means if the claw gets torn or injured, it bleeds excessively.
You should be able to move the dewclaw gently forward and backward, assuming your dog allows you to touch their paws. If you can’t, or the claw looks displaced, it may be a sign of injury.
It’s also possible for dewclaws to become overgrown. For active dogs, this isn’t often a problem because the daily wear of walking and running with gusto keeps the dewclaw dull.
However, for more sedentary dogs, that’s not always the case. And because the dewclaw isn’t naturally dulled, it can become overgrown.
When this happens, the claw curls into the toe like an ingrown nail. Signs of an ingrown dewclaw include:
- Inflamed/swollen skin
- Long, inwardly curling dew law
What to Do for a Cracked or Broken Dewclaw
Cracked dewclaws happen. Sometimes, even when the dewclaw is the right length, it catches or snags on something and comes loose.
Cracked or broken dewclaws are easy to spot because the cracked or broken piece comes away from the rest of the claw.
If the break is below the quick, this can cause severe bleeding. Depending on the break, you may also notice the broken piece of dewclaw hanging or still partially attached to the rest of the claw.
Will a Dewclaw Heal Itself?
This depends on how the dewclaw cracks or breaks.
If the dewclaw breaks above the quick, and there’s minimal bleeding, the claw may well heal itself.
Cover up the injured claw until it can regrow, and persuade your dog to leave the homemade dressing alone. That may be the real challenge, and we recommend a bitter apple spray or other tart wound-dressing of choice to deter them from chewing on it.
Note that in multi-pet households, a devoted canine friend might try to help by eating the dressing. So, watch your dogs carefully until the vet gives the all-clear to uncover the healed dewclaw.
However, not all injuries are that easy. If your dog cracks or breaks the declaw below the quick, expect severe and immediate bleeding.
Not all breaks are clean, either, and an awkwardly broken dewclaw can snag or catch in everything from carpets to loose soil.
Recognizing a Dislocated Dewclaw
Cracking or breaking aren’t the only injuries your dog can sustain to their dew claw.
The sometimes awkward placement of the dew claw means a dog can dislocate it. You can tell this has happened because the claw will look out of position with the rest of the claws.
If you’re still not sure, try touching the area around the dew claw. If the dog won’t let you near it, the dew claw is probably dislocated and causing pain.
Other signs of a dislocated dew claw to look for include:
- Favoring one paw over others
- Swelling around the dew claw
- Excessive licking of skin around dew claw
Treating a Dislocated Dewclaw
First thing’s first; Call the vet. This isn’t an injury you can treat at home.
In the interim, putting a sock or dressing over the affected foot will minimize washing and biting behavior. This reduces the chances of infection.
The vet can then treat the dew claw as necessary. In severe cases, this may mean removing it completely. But that’s extreme.
In milder cases of dew claw dislocation, the vet will:
- Anesthetize dog and realign the claw
- Trim the dew claw
- Clean and dress the injury
It’s advisable to keep your dog off the injured foot to speed recovery, but sometimes that isn’t possible. If that’s true of your dog, stick to keeping the foot dry while it’s healing.
Signs a Dewclaw Is Infected
Even with veterinary care, it’s still possible for infections to develop in an injured dew claw.
Symptoms of infection are nebulous, but vets recommend watching for:
- Swelling or inflammation
- Puss or atypical discharge from affected area
Remember, bleeding doesn’t always equal infection, but it’s definitely not normal, and you’ll want to monitor it.
It’s also possible that you may see blood and puss together around the dew claw. This is a hallmark of infection, and you should notify your vet if you spot both together.
When to See a Vet
Dog owners who are confident with clippers can trim the broken claw and dress it at home.
However, this is dependent on varying factors, not least of them:
- How nervous your dog is
- Your confidence with canine nail clippers
- Your ability to touch/handle the dog’s paws
If you feel unsure about any one of these, call the vet. Cutting too far down the nail bed can increase the pain your dog experiences from an already painful injury. And even the least aggressive dog can snap and bite when in intense pain, so don’t to put yourself at risk.
Not only that, but the vet can provide anti-inflammatory and antibiotics you don’t have access to, ensuring not only that the broken dew claw gets treated but that it doesn’t lead to complications.
Despite often being overlooked, dewclaws are an integral part of your dog’s paws.
Look after them by trimming them regularly and monitoring them for signs of injury. If you aren’t sure how to treat the injury at home, don’t hesitate to call the vet.
Most importantly, don’t rush to remove the dewclaw. In cases of extreme injury, it may be necessary, but typically, with the right care and intervention, the damage is repairable. And you’ll soon have your dog back to munching ill-gotten objects, dewclaw and all.