Most all dogs have hair on their feet and some have it in between their toes. But it is not normal for dogs to have hair grow directly on their paw pads. If you see hair-like growth on your dog’s paw pads, it is likely hyperkeratosis, an uncomfortable skin condition. Rough, dry, or cracked paw pads are also symptoms of this condition.
Canine hyperkeratosis can be a sign of other health problems, but that is not always the case. When left untreated, hyperkeratosis may lead to a higher likelihood of secondary infections or pain and discomfort for your dog. While the condition can’t be fully cured, it can usually be managed effectively.
What Is Hyperkeratosis?
Hyperkeratosis is a skin condition involving the production of excess keratin, which is the primary protein present in hair, skin, and nails.
While humans may experience hyperkeratosis as thickened skin in corns and calluses or warts, dogs with hyperkeratosis typically have extra or thicker skin growing on their ears, noses, or paw pads. This skin is likely to become crusty or crack without treatment, and when that happens, it can become very sensitive or painful for the dog and increases the likelihood that infection of the affected skin may occur.
Dogs experiencing paw pad hyperkeratosis have crusty, rough, or cracked paw pads. In very severe cases, the dog’s paws may appear to have extra hair growing directly from the paw pads; however, this hair-like growth feels tough (akin to the texture of the dog’s nails) and may be a different color than the dog’s paws.
What Are the Symptoms of Paw Hyperkeratosis?
The primary symptom of hyperkeratosis is roughness or crustiness of the affected skin. In the case of hyperkeratosis affecting the feet, this would appear on a dog’s paw pads. However, hyperkeratosis can also affect other areas of a dog’s body, commonly including the nose or ears.
A dog with paw pad hyperkeratosis that is severe may also have cracked or bleeding paws, which could lead to increased likelihood of infections. Because of the excess of keratin, the skin might appear hairy—either as small stubbles or longer “hairs” that feel rough to the touch.
While dogs experiencing early stages of hyperkeratosis may appear unbothered, some dogs—especially those with more severe cases or with cracked, dry skin—may experience pain or sensitivity in their paws, which in turn may cause them to avoid walking and other physical activity. Because of this potential pain, it is important to investigate signs of limping or excessive paw pad licking.
If your dog is experiencing any of these symptoms, it would be wise to have them examined by a veterinarian. Because the causes of hyperkeratosis vary, your vet may need to perform additional tests such as blood tests, skin sampling, or biopsies to determine the exact problem.
What Causes Hyperkeratosis?
There are varying reasons why a dog might experience hyperkeratosis, and as such, treatments vary. Some causes of hyperkeratosis include the following:
- Age. In contrast to the thinning that occurs in human skin with age, dogs’ skin becomes thicker as they become older. Some older dogs may experience idiopathic nasodigital hyperkeratosis, which is a type of keratosis that affects the nose or the nose and the paw pads. Additionally, hyperkeratosis may be associated with chronic liver disease and pancreatic tumors.
- Autoimmune Diseases. Pemphigus foliaceus, the most common autoimmune skin condition in both dogs and cats, is one autoimmune disease that may result in hyperkeratosis. It is worth noting, though, that it is rare for pemphigus foliaceus to only affect the paw pads.
- Breed or Genetics. Familial footpad hyperkeratosis—also called “inherited footpad keratosis”—is a hereditary condition that is more likely to affect certain breeds, including the Irish Terrier, Dogue de Bordeaux, Kromfohrländer, and Rottweiler. Genetic testing may be able to determine whether or not your dog is genetically predisposed to hyperkeratosis.
- Canine Distemper. As one of the main diseases that dogs are vaccinated against, distemper is a very serious disease that is especially dangerous for unvaccinated puppies and dogs. It affects multiple body systems, including the skin: In fact, it is also known as hardpad disease, due to the hyperkeratosis that may occur after the acute stage.
- Parasites. Leishmaniasis is a disease caused by a parasite transmitted by infected sand flies. A majority of dogs affected by leishmaniasis will experience skin issues along with the other symptoms; one such skin problem that may occur is hyperkeratosis.
- Zinc Deficiency. Though the term seems to imply an inadequate amount of zinc, zinc deficiency in dogs may also be caused by problems with the small intestine’s absorption of zinc. Side effects of zinc deficiency include hyperkeratosis and other forms of crusty skin, especially around the eyes, mouth, or paw pads.
How is Hyperkeratosis in Dogs Treated?
While hereditary hyperkeratosis is incurable, there are various treatments that address the root causes of hereditary hyperkeratosis and other types of hyperkeratosis, providing relief and helping manage the symptoms. Very serious cases of hyperkeratosis may require more complex treatments, but generally, the condition is manageable.
A primary treatment that directly addresses the hyperkeratosis is the removal of the excess skin on the paw pad. While it is possible to have a vet teach you how to remove the skin yourself, it is not something you should initially attempt on your own because it is quite possible that a cut could go too deep or that the dog could move, causing unnecessary harm to the paw pad.
With the excess keratin removed, the dog should be more capable of walking and should feel less discomfort. Again, though, it is safest to leave the procedure to the vet.
If the hyperkeratosis is caused by an underlying disease or another condition, a vet should be able to diagnose that and treat the root problem. Additionally, sometimes hyperkeratosis may need to be relieved through vet-prescribed topic treatments like ointments or creams.
Although some cases may be too severe to fully tackle with at-home remedies, there are still ways you may be able to soothe the discomfort your dog might have from the hyperkeratosis. One at-home remedy to try is running hot water in your shower or tub with the bathroom door closed; once the room is steamy and warm, you can take your dog into the room and have them lie down to allow the steam to soothe their feet.
Another more hands-on at-home option for soothing hyperkeratosis is a dog paw balm that can be applied directly to the dog’s paw, proving relief to the affected area.
Dog Paw Balms that Soothe Hyperkeratosis
While there are many options for dog paw balms that might relieve hyperkeratosis, here are a few that might be worth considering:
Säker Paw Balm. Safe to lick and made with Vitamin E, shea butter, candelilla wax (a vegan alternative to beeswax), coconut oil, and olive oil, this paw balm works as a barrier to rough elements like snow and hot pavement while also moisturizing the paw.
The container is shaped like a large lip balm tube, which helps owners keep their hands clean while applying the balm to their dogs’ paws.
4Legger Nose & Paws Healing Balm. An unscented, non-toxic paw balm that includes organic carnauba wax, a vegan wax, among its ingredients. This balm can be used on paws and noses alike, and may be useful for dogs with paw and nasal hyperkeratosis.
Natural Dog Company PAWDICURE bundle. Including both a paw soothing balm and a paw wax that can also be bought separately, this bundle offers solutions geared toward both at-home and outdoor protection. The Paw Soother hydrates and soothes dry and itchy paws, while the Pawtection Wax provides a barrier to heat, cold, and grit. While the Paw Soother does not have any added scents, it is worth noting that the Pawtection Wax does include lavender essential oil.
How Can Hyperkeratosis Be Prevented?
Although there is no way to prevent hereditary footpad hyperkeratosis, other types of hyperkeratosis may be preventable: for instance, by having your dog vaccinated for distemper, you can avoid the chance that they would have hyperkeratosis resulting from that disease. Similarly, if you were going to travel with your dog to an area that had sand flies, you could ask your vet for preventative options.
If your dog already has hyperkeratosis, there are steps that can be taken to minimize the likelihood that it will become worse, including some of the aforementioned treatment options, like using a paw balm and having a vet trim the excess skin. Taking shorter walks or using a dog stroller, carrier sling, or basket would also alleviate the pain a dog with hyperkeratosis might feel while walking.
There are other preventative measures you could also take to prevent worsening hyperkeratosis, including having your dog wear boots or socks to protect their paws (especially if you live in a very hot or very warm climate) and keeping their indoor and outdoor environments clean to mitigate infection risks.
Hyperkeratosis can be very uncomfortable and may be a sign of additional health problems in dogs; however, it is also relatively easy to manage, as far as skin conditions go. If you believe your dog may have hyperkeratosis, it is important to have them checked out by a vet, but with some additional care and vigilance, dogs with hyperkeratosis can have good, quality lives.