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

Updated November 28, 2020

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.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. 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

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

  1. The front left dewclaw on my 11-year-old labradoodle has been bothering him for about a year. At the base of the dewclaw where the bone is is enlarged about the size of a pinto bean. And the nail grows out split and deformed. He licks it all the time and sometimes winces in pain if it’s knocked. The vet has trim back the nail multiple times and aspirated the swollen part and took an x-ray and we did a round of antibiotics as well. The swelling around the bone went down a little bit but has not resolved. The x-ray showed inflammation but not a tumor. The vet suggest removing the dewclaw but I’d like to prevent that if I can but this is clearly a chronic situation. What’s your recommendation?

    1. Hi Leah. I have to agree with your vets. Once these cause trouble like yours, they are very hard to diagnose and treat. You could be successful with very prolonged antifungal or antibiotic therapy but it’s speculative, and losing the digit is usually a simpler and better outcome with fewer risks. The nailbed at the bottom of this article for example had a fungal infection and wouldn’t respond to treatment, but removal gave a quick recovery and everyone was happy.

      1. Thank you for your reply! That photo in the article is pretty much what my dog’s nail bed looks like (although not that red, but that swollen, with a deformed crusty nail). Amputation sounds so painful and I wanted him to be able to keep his front dewclaw because they are useful, but I do worry about bone necrosis and chronic infection. I’m glad to hear that the procedure can quickly resolve the issue. How long is the recovery before walking and running around are allowed? I don’t even known what the original trauma/source of infection was to the nail!

      2. Hi Leah. We would normally keep the wound dressed for 10 days and once the stitches come out at that point they can return to normal activity.

  2. My dog is 13 and the dew claw on her front leg has troubled her for long time now my vet hasn’t recommended any treatment but it. Is troubleing her a lot the dog groomer does trim it but she licks all the time and won’t let you touch it seems swollen on top

    1. Hi Ivy. If a nail is swollen at the base, then the most likely explanation is either infection or tumour. Ask your vet to have a close look and they might be able to recommend more testing or treatment.

  3. My dog injured his left front dew claw out in the yard earlier today. It bled a little bit but stopped on its own, and it looks like he may have broken the digit because it is now at a more severe angle to his leg than before. I was able to put some antibiotic ointment on it, but is there anything else I can do to help until the regular vet opens on Monday morning? Today is Saturday, and I would like to avoid the trauma and expense of taking him an hour away to the emergency vet.

    1. Hi Amy. They tend to keep hurting if they are moved. Also, once the nail bed is partially separated, infection will take hold within a few days. Therefore, keep him quiet until he can be seen by a vet.

  4. Our 2 year old border jack is always licking her dew claw nail on her front right paw and her nail seems very skinny. We give her nexgard spectra chews once a month already. Any ideas?

    1. Hi Kelly. Several things come to mind – top of the list would be atopic dermatitis, then there could be a nailbed infection, or you could consider it a habit but only after other things have been ruled out.

  5. Hi Andrew, thanks for this explanation. I was all on board with having my pup’s hind dew claws removed during her upcoming desexing but then we had an urgent trip to the vet last week for removal of a grass seed she had sniffed up her nose and it was mentioned that her hind dew claws are actually connected by bone. Do you think removing ones connected by bone, rather than just skin, is still preferable over the risk of leaving them on?

    1. Hi Sian. In my opinion, it makes no difference how they are connected. Hind dew claws almost invariably become ingrown and the minimal extra surgery required to remove them during desexing is almost never regretted.

  6. Thanks Andrew, you’ve provided the info I needed and now my little mate is off to the vet to have his torn front dew claws repaired and the other trimmed. Happy 2022 to you!!

  7. How do you fix the abnormal dewclaw show in one of the three pictures? My dog has it and I have no idea what the fix is.

    1. If you are referring to the dewclaw on the hind leg, the best way is to remove it. This is explained more clearly in the text.

    2. Hello, I’m new to your site, today my cha. Was outside and all of a sudden she started limping, so I brought her in and had noticed her front left dewclaw had been ripped (not off as I could see), but she wouldn’t let me touch it nor even get any closer… But she’s been liking it. So what I’m asking you is, should I’ve have taken her to the vet? Is it good for her to keep licking it? PLEASE HELP ME!?!!?? ALSO, Should I buy gauze for her? Can I use hosp.gauze till in the morning???

      1. Hi Teri. It’s best to see a vet as soon as possible. If after hours or emergency care is not readily available, it’s OK to wait until the morning. In the meantime don’t bandage it but if possible try to stop her licking.

  8. Our Wheaten Terrier has a dewclaw on her back right leg. We’ve mentioned this to our groomer but seems like it’s often times forgotten. As of lately, she has really been favouring this particular leg. Not jumping like she normally does, or if she does, she doesn’t want to bear much weight on it afterwards. And she pulls this leg back if we try to touch her. We’re stumped as to what it could be. We have an upcoming appointment with our vet, but curious what the signs are of an infected dewclaw? Or signs that would indicate its needing to be removed? Thanks!

    1. Hi TS. It’s fairly normal for dogs to get annoyed or upset if you look at their legs (for this reason I always compare each leg when I examine them). If the nail isn’t ingrown, and the nailbed is not wider than the opposite one (i.e.infected) then the dewclaw is unlikely to be causing the problem.

  9. my puppy has a dew claw on only one front leg and the nail is a complete circle – i can’t find the end to trim it. is this an issue?

    1. Hi CC. If you can’t see the quick inside the nail, the best you can do is look at the opposite one as a guide to where to cut it. However it’s definitely best to get a professional to do as the end is likely to be ingrown and infected.

  10. My dog has 22 toes in total . Two extra toes bother him a lot. Cant trim them nails normally cuz he gets in pain, almost bites me. One person said that you can tighten it with string and it will fall off in few days or so. But i think he might get infection?… and the surgery is probably very expensive. Don’t know what is the right decision …

    1. Hi Les. If we did things to animals based on what people tell us, terrible things would happen and this is a good example. Certainly whoever said that is a fool. Surgery is the only option and it’s not very expensive in our clinic.

  11. In the 3 pictures above can you explain why the first one is abnormal? my yorkshire terrier has 4 like this they curl in and hurt him, we do trim them but i am just wondering why he has these, thanks

  12. Hello, how common is it for dislocation to occur when a front dewclaw is fractured? Seems like quite a bit of force occurred to cause the fracture, and the joint looks like it would be easy to dislocate. Do you do x-rays routinely on fractured dewclaws, or do you rely on physical examination to order a film?
    If there is dislocation, how is it treated, and how long does it take to heal? Thanks

    1. Hi Roger. I have never knowingly seen dislocation in a dewclaw, but that’s not surprising as it generally isn’t weight-bearing with enough force for that to occur. When I have seen it in other digits it’s quite obvious from the deviation of the whole toe, not just a nail. Yes, x-rays are necessary to confirm it but they’ve never been necessary for broken dewclaws.

  13. My Yorkie went to groomer and she cut off his dew claw she said she put a powder to stop the bleeding he will not let me touch it should I check it out with my vet it’s completely gone .

    1. Hi. An ingrown nail will need to be shortened at least enough to stop it puncturing the skin. How short you can cut it will depend on the length of its ‘quick’ but most ingrown nails can be shortened until it is no longer hooked. If an ingrown nail has caused a wound, it’s best to see a vet before cutting it.

  14. Thanks for this, me and my parents were intrigued about the dew claws as all our lives with our dogs they only had front ones. This was untill last year when we got buddy and we found he had 4 but his siblings only had 2.

    We wish we noticed before he got desexed as we would have got the back ones removed as they are just hanging on, thankfully the vet trimmed them for us this week as I noticed his back ones grew very long (much faster then his front) and were about to curl into the pad.

  15. Just got my puppy yesterday. So sweet. As I was petting him and checking to make sure all was good, I noticed he has one of those floppy dew claws on the back leg, but only one leg. This seemed strange that it’s only on one leg. He is a “Chihraniantzu”..1/3 of each…long haired Chihuaua, Pomeranian and Shih Tzu.
    I am thinking it is advisable to have it removed when he is neutered..would this be a suitable time?

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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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