Reviewed and updated for accuracy on December 20, 2019 by Dr. Monica Tarantino, DVM
The eyes may be the windows to the soul, but your dog’s paws can be a window into their well-being.
Since dog paws are not completely covered in hair, they provide a place for health issues to reveal themselves to you and your vet.
Depending on how your dog’s paw problems manifest, they can show signs of health issues ranging from allergies and infections to exposure and injuries.
Here are 9 common paw problems and tips for what you can do about them.
Allergies are one of the major causes for red, inflamed paws, and a common reason that a dog would be licking their feet.
When a dog’s genetics make them prone to skin allergies, the skin has a weaker protective barrier to the external world. This makes allergens able to irritate their skin even more—resulting in increased exposure to more allergens.
With increased allergen exposure, inflammation and infections start to develop on your dog’s skin, which leads to itching that weakens the skin barrier even more.
Often, dog paw allergies can lead to secondary infections, specifically bacterial and yeast infections.
A certain amount of bacterial organisms are normally found on your dog’s paws, but a secondary health condition, like dog paw allergies, can cause them to multiply excessively.
Symptoms include licking/biting, redness, swelling, pain/itching and abscess.
Your vet can take a sample tissue from the affected area and evaluate it to determine if bacteria are the problem.
If it is a bacterial infection, your vet will prescribe either oral or topical antibiotics and antibacterial shampoos and soaks.
Yeast organisms (fungi) are also normally found on your dog’s paws, but an underlying condition can cause them to multiply and cause problems.
Licking excessively is common with many types of infections that need treatment from a vet, along with red nail beds—a reaction to salivary enzymes, says Dr. Brett Levitzke, medical director of the Veterinary Emergency and Referral Group (VERG) in Brooklyn, New York.
Your vet can test the area to determine if yeast is the culprit and treat the infection with topical products, antifungal wipes and shampoos. If these treatments don’t do the trick, the underlying allergy may need to be addressed with oral antibiotics, antifungals and/or anti-itch medications, Dr. Levitzke says.
If a food allergy is suspected, elimination diets—where ingredients are taken out and then added back in—can help identify the trigger.
Ringworm is a fungus that’s contracted from direct contact with infected animals, soil (think dog parks) or other objects such as dog beds. Ringworm can infect your dog’s feet, and it’s not actually a worm. “It can look like a swollen toe or an abscess,” says Dr. Neil Marrinan of Old Lyme Veterinary Hospital in Old Lyme, Connecticut.
Your vet will examine a sample of hair or skin under a microscope or send it to a lab for diagnosis.
You can treat ringworm and prevent its spread with medicated bath products and a thorough cleaning of your dog’s environment.
Ringworm is contagious and may spread to humans or other pets.
Nails that are not trimmed properly or naturally worn down by walking outside can become painful ingrown toenails.
Your vet can treat them with antibiotics and pain medication, but severely ingrown nails might have to be surgically resected, Dr. Levitzke says.
A torn nail is also common in the emergency room, Dr. Levitzke says, often after a tussle with another dog or snagging a paw on carpeting or other material.
When the entire nail has been pulled off, take your dog to the vet for immediate treatment to stop the bleeding and manage the pain. Antibiotics also might be prescribed.
“If the nail has been incompletely removed, the treatment would be to remove the remaining bit,” Dr. Levitzke says. Often incompletely removed toenails are very painful for pets and sedation is used.
Hot asphalt can burn a dog’s paws, and burns need to be treated immediately.
Burns can manifest themselves as blisters or ruptures in the skin. Severe burns can actually cause a whole layer of skin to come off of a dog’s paw.
Antibiotics and pain medication are typically indicated. Bandaging is usually required to serve as a protective barrier on the skin or paw pad that’s affected, Dr. Levitzke says.
A dog with burns on their paw pads will also need to rest and minimize the use of their paws so that the skin can heal.
You can prevent these paw injuries by avoiding hot asphalt and not walking your pet where potential chemical irritants might be found.
Think of frostbite as a cold burn. As with burns from hot asphalt or pavement, these injuries need immediate veterinary attention.
Treatment for frostbite includes bandaging, pain control and anti-infection measures. Avoid this injury by limiting your dog’s exposure to the elements.
Prevention is the best way to avoid these injuries, Dr. Levitzke says. Put booties on your dog’s feet and use dog-safe salt.
If your dog does get salt on his paws, wipe it off with a towel/paper towels. “We find that it tends to burn particularly when the paw pads with salt on them touch the snow, so try to avoid walking through salt and then snow, or wipe off feet between getting salt on them and walking through the snow,” says Dr. Levitzke.
“One of the more common places we find ticks hiding is between the toes,” Dr. Levitzke says. Ticks can cause blood-borne diseases in dogs, so it is important to check their paws after any trips outside to wooded areas.
To prevent disease, remove any ticks that you find on your dog immediately. Dr. Levitzke says, “It is best to have a veterinary medical professional remove the tick.”
However, if you plan on removing the ticks yourself, never take a lighter or a recently lit match to the tick. You should use tweezers or a special tick-removal tool to grip the tick from the head and gently pull it out.
The head of the tick must be completely detached from your dog, along with the body, for successful removal, says Dr. Levitzke.
Mites such as Demodex canis can present a frustrating problem and require a deep skin scrape or a biopsy to diagnose, Dr. Marrinan says.
These mites can cause Demodicosis (commonly referred to as Demodex) in which the mites that normally live in your dog’s hair follicles multiply and cause swelling, hair loss and scaling on your dog’s paws.
Your vet will examine hair or skin samples under a microscope to accurately diagnose the condition, which is treated with medication (sometimes for several months).
Dogs with lots of hair on their feet can also get thick mats between their toes that pull on their skin, and this can be irritating and even painful. It can also contribute to infection.
If you have a pet with longer hair or particularly hairy toes and paw pads, be sure to get them groomed regularly and check the bottom of their paws between the pads weekly to make sure no mats are developing.
Never use scissors to cut out mats, as it’s very easy to cut skin that may be trapped within the hair. If the mats cannot be gently brushed out, then allow a professional groomer to gently remove them and/or seek veterinary care for help if it seems painful.
Pets can also catch gum, sticky asphalt, burrs and thorns in their paw pads, which can be hard to find and painful to remove.
Prevent these problems by having the hair clipped by a groomer. Keeping the hair trimmed provides more visibility so that you can identify these problems and take the necessary steps to fix them.