By Elizabeth Xu
Paw problems in dogs may not be obvious to pet parents, but if left untreated, these issues can cause a lot of discomfort for our canine friends.
“Paws are pretty sturdy,” says Dr. Deborah Mandell, VMD, staff member at the Matthew J. Ryan Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, “but when they do have problems, it’s pretty painful.”
To prevent paw problems such as torn nails, pad burns, and frostbite, it’s important that pet parents learn to protect their dog’s paws all year round. Here are some easy-to-follow tips from veterinary experts.
Ice, snow, salt, and other chemicals can all be harmful to a dog’s paws, our experts say. “Always make sure to wipe their paws when they come inside. It’s extremely important to get all the salt, ice, and dirt off,” says Mandell, who is also a member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council.
Your pup may love to play outside in the wintertime, but her exuberance could lead to pain if you’re not careful. “Dogs can slip and fall just like we can,” Mandell says. Ice can also have sharp edges that will cut a dog’s paws.
Like humans, dogs shouldn’t stay out in the cold too long. Frostbite can affect a dog’s paws and other parts of the body too, Mandell says. Luckily, it shouldn’t be a problem if you keep an eye on the time. Cold temperatures are generally safe as long as dogs are “just running around in the snow for a short time.”
Although a dog’s paws are better suited for cold and snow than human feet, she can still benefit from protection, says Dr. Katherine van Ekert, a veterinarian and co-founder of VetPronto, a veterinary network that provides home care for pet owners.
“The best step, if you’re planning on taking a dog out into the snow, is to put snow booties on them, preferably something with a bit of traction on the bottoms so they don’t slip,” she says. This will protect your dog’s paws from cold, ice and salt. If your dog isn’t a fan of boots, foot wax is another option, but it can be trickier, van Ekert says, because wax wears off and might be put on improperly.
Summer often means more outside time for dogs, but there are plenty of paw hazards to consider when the temperature rises. Surfaces like asphalt can really soak up the sun (and heat). “If it’s too hot for you to walk barefoot, it’s too hot for their paw pads,” Mandell says. Van Ekert agrees: “I would recommend, as a default policy, avoid walking dogs on paved surfaces when it’s hot.”
Dogs who walk on hot surfaces are at risk for pad burns that can lead to blistering, tissue loss, and extreme pain. Dogs might spend too much time on hot surfaces even if you’re careful, so it’s important to check their paws for burns. Some signs of pad burns include limping, licking the paw, a discolored pad, or bleeding, Mandell says.
Hiking is a great warm-weather activity, but rough terrain and unexpected objects might make it a dangerous one, too. You’ll want to be aware of what your dog is walking on, but Mandell says that’s sometimes not enough. “Just watching where they’re walking is helpful, but sometimes they can step on glass or different things that can lacerate their paw pads or the paws themselves,” she says. Dogs can also get things like thorns, burs, or sharp objects stuck in their paws while on walks. If the object is deeply embedded, a veterinarian may need to sedate your dog to safely remove it.
And if you notice your dog’s paws bleeding, Mandell says the first step is applying pressure to help stop the bleeding while arranging for veterinary care.
The heat of summer might mean it’s time to reevaluate your normal walking schedule to one that’s more comfortable for both you and your dog. Mandell recommends walking in the morning or evening, keeping walks short, providing lots of water, and supplementing with indoor playtime.
Many dogs don’t like when their paws are touched, van Ekert says. This can create problems during grooming or if a paw injury does occur. If you have a puppy, though, these problems can easily be avoided.
“As soon as people get a puppy, they should get that puppy used to having its feet meddled with and nails trimmed,” she says. “If we get puppies used to that as early as possible, it just makes everybody’s lives and experience a lot less stressful when they become adults.”
How often a dog’s nails need to be trimmed is breed- and lifestyle-dependent, but it’s still something you should be aware of.
“The longer [the nails] are, the easier they are to split and get torn off and that, besides being extremely painful, can set them up for infection,” Mandell says.
However, van Ekert says that some dogs’ nails are filed down naturally, so they wouldn’t need to be trimmed as often: “If dogs walk a lot on pavement, that kind of acts like an automatic nail file.” She does recommend keeping a close eye on the dewclaw, the nail higher on the leg, because it doesn’t make contact with the ground and can easily become overgrown.
Some floor cleaners contain harsh chemicals that just aren’t good for your dog’s paws, van Eckert says.
“Not only is there a risk of [their skin] absorbing the chemicals directly from the floor, they’re also going to have wet paws and they’re going to want to lick that stuff off and ingest more of the chemicals,” she says.
Chances are you can catch any paw issues early if you make checking your dog’s paws part of your normal routine. For example, skin that looks red could indicate that an infection is starting, van Eckert says.
Take the time to look even if your dog is acting fine, Mandell says. “Dogs will run and run until they’re exhausted, and their paw pads take the brunt of it. Really just knowing to look at them and know they’re okay is all it takes.”