Dog Dew Claws: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Quick question: how many toes does a dog have? Some people say 16, others look at themselves and say 20. The correct answer is 18.

Why such a random number? It’s because dogs have four weight-bearing toes on each foot, and only two dewclaws. Of all the toes, it’s these dewclaws that cause dogs and their owners the most trouble.

What Is A Dewclaw?

A dewclaw is the extra toe that is found on the inside of a dog’s front leg. It’s a completely normal digit with three bones, two joints and a nail. Dewclaws correspond in position to the thumb in humans except without quite the same mobility or uses.

pyrenean mountain dog
Spotto! Can you see the extra toe on the hind foot?

Dewclaws are only abnormal when they appear on the hind legs. Exceptions are breeds like the Pyrenean Mountain Dog or Briard where hind dewclaws are part of the breed standard. For the rest, my guess is that less that one percent have them at birth.

What Dewclaws Are For

dog chewing marrowbone

Dewclaws are definitely not useless. Watch a dog gripping a bone and you’ll wonder how they do it without them.

Then there’s their use in running. To demonstrate, here’s a fun task: pick up your dog’s front leg and look at its underside. Above the main four pads, even above the dewclaw you’ll see a small, circular pad seemingly lost high up on the back of the ‘wrist’. This is the stopper pad. What on earth is it for?

To answer that question, and at the same time to show what dewclaws do, just watch this video of a dog at full flight.

At a run, the wrist of a dog flexes so much that both the dewclaw and the stopper pad come into contact with the ground. The dewclaw provides extra stability, the stopper pad is a bumper that protects the carpus.

Why Dewclaws Break or Split

Most urban dogs don’t run enough to wear down their dewclaws. Reasons include:

  • A lack of suitable spaces
  • A lack of owner time
  • Medical reasons such as arthritis or being overweight
  • Not enough bodyweight to wear the nail down
  • Dogs that just don’t want to run!

It’s perfectly fine to just walk your dogs; the important thing is getting out, not what you do. However, for these dogs, the dewclaw often gets too long, like in the middle picture at the top. Then, it curls into a hook shape, which easily catches on anything.

Most of the time we don’t see what actually catches it, but the result is a nail that is either:

  • Pulled out completely
  • Half-removed (a ‘hang-nail’)
  • Split down the middle

Either way, this is very painful.

What To Do If A Dog Breaks A Nail

A dog that pulls out a nail needs the exposed nailbed protected from trauma and infection. This requires a vet to gently clip away the hair, apply a semi-occlusive dressing and use antibiotics. It’s also important that the vet carefully checks for any nail remnants left behind.

A torn, broken or split nail needs to be removed completely. No matter how loose it is, never do this without a vet giving sedation. It’s far too painful, and you run the risk of your dog never trusting you again if you try. Believe me, I’ve made this mistake.

Once again, the nailbed is best protected by a dressing. This can typically be removed after 3-5 days. Then to prevent it happening again, you need to start clipping the dewclaw. Here’s how…

How To Trim Dewclaws

Trimming dewclaws is a lot easier than clipping the other nails. Here’s a good ‘rule of thumb’:

correctly cut dewclaw
The same dewclaw as above, clipped to a good length
  1. Run your finger under the nail: a dewclaw needs trimming when it catches or hooks your finger.
  2. Trim it back only until your finger slides off it easily. If you cut too far you will cause pain and bleeding.
  3. Use good quality bypass clippers and make a quick, precise and confident cut.

Is It OK To Remove Dewclaws?

Now look at the right hand top picture. It shows a dog who had his dewclaws removed by the breeder shortly after birth. I call this a form of mutilation.

Yes, I’m aware that some breed standards demand dewclaws be removed. Some breeders also have a strong tradition of removing them. However, we used to say the same thing about tail docking.

Dewclaws on the front legs are just as useful to a dog as their tail, and should be kept unless they cause problems. I’m perfectly happy to remove them if a dog keeps getting them torn despite good clipping. In 25 years, how many times do you think I’ve had to do this? Once.

Hind Dewclaw Removal

Hind limb dewclaws are another matter. If you look again at the left hand picture and compare it with the middle image you can see how they curl tightly. To make matters worse, they almost never contact the ground enough to wear them down. Often they even lack a bony connection.

So we have a nail that:

  • Keeps growing regardless of exercise
  • Gets ingrown when it gets long
  • Is hard to trim without bleeding
  • Is not part of normal anatomy

That’s plenty of justification for removal. I’ll support owners if they want to manage them, but most people eventually forget. Without constant vigilance, hind dewclaws get ingrown, painful and infected.

The best time to have them removed is together with desexing. It’s quick, easy, and goes well if they keep their collar on to prevent licking.

If an owner ever does ask us to take the front ones off, we put it down to receiving bad advice. It only takes a minute for them to agree that their dog is better off keeping these digits. Troublesome or not, maintenance of dewclaws is within the skillset of every dog owner.

Have something to add? Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours of lodging.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These help topics are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story! The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.

Andrew

12 Replies to “Dog Dew Claws: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly”

  1. I’ve found a loose dew claw on my dogs left hind leg. He was chewing it this morning. I swear it wasn’t there last week! Should I see the vet for this? Thanks

    1. Hi Jeanette. Do you mean that the nail itself is loose or that it’s a floppy digit? In the case of the former, it’s best to see a vet to have it removed professionally. In the case of the latter, these toes are present from birth and as I say above, they are best removed surgically but it’s no emergency.

  2. Hi my dog has caught his Jew claw a few days ago . It was bleeding but bleeding has stopped but he is constantly licking it . The nail looks like it’s ok but the there seems to be a small swollen lump next to it . I think it’s part of the Jew claw . Do u think I need a visit to the vet or will this clear up in its own .

    1. Hi Karen. The fact that he’s still licking it suggests that the nail has been partly torn off its nail bed. I would definitely get that checked by a vet as it will probably be getting infected.

  3. Thank you for this article. I noticed over the weekend that one of my dogs dew claw is curved, also it is dark colored. I took a nail file to get it shorter but I am worried since I can’t see the the vein that I will cut it too short or it will split. Have gone to the vet a couple of times during quarantine (ear infection and skin rash) since they take him in alone he is freaked out going which has never happened prior. thanks.

    1. Hi Monica. Yes, they are hard to judge. This link (published later today) contains a picture of long dewclaws and repeats the advice to just cut them back until they do not catch the finger, but no further.

  4. One of my dogs lost her nail and it can seems to have gotten infected. It looks like a cauliflower. I am thinking of trying to cut it off as close to the leg as possible. Do you have any advice for me. I do have some Novacaine to numb the leg.

    1. Hi Jerry. That doesn’t sound like an infection, and you definitely need expert on-the-spot advice before attempting treatment.

  5. My dog has snagged her dew claw and it is now coming off. She seems to be in lot of pain when its touched or either just really doesn’t want it touched. Is there anything I can do at home to help her or should she go to vet?

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