Dew Claw, All You Need To Know About This Little Toenail
Understanding dew claw
If you take a look at your dog's feet, you will notice a little toenail that sits higher up the leg far removed from the main bed of its paw. In some dogs, this appendage might be tightly attached to the leg while in other dogs it might only seem loosely attached by a flap of skin.
Those strange looking floppy digits are your dog's dew claws or the dog's thumbs.
What is a dog's dew claw?
All domestic dogs have four primary toes as well as a fifth digit on the front of the paws located in the same general position as the human thumb.
The fifth digit, aka a dog's thumb, is what is known as a dew claw.
A dog dew claw is the evolutionary equivalent of a human thumb albeit with considerably less versatility and functionality than the thumb.
In the slow-burning processes of evolution, some body parts change, adapt or disappear altogether.
...40 million years ago, a cat-like animal an early ancestor of the modern dog, miacis, used all five toes for climbing trees . However, the contemporary dog took a different evolutionary path that involved chasing prey on the ground.
Consequently, the dog's paws evolved to allow for more speed when hunting while dew claws became the leftovers of the canine evolutionary process.
The dew claw does not usually touch the ground during regular walking.
Majority of dogs have thumbs only on their front paws while a few like the Newfoundland has them on both front and hind feet. Further, most dogs have a single claw while others like the Great Pyrenees, Briard and St Bernard have double dew claws  also known as polydactyl (meaning "extra toe").
// Aaah, wait a minute, but what's with the strange name?
In case you are wondering how a bona fide dog's digit came to bear such a name, the Grammarist says the term dew claw appears to have first appeared circa the 1570s through the exact etymology remains a mystery .
It's speculated that the dew claw got its name from the observation that it never touches the ground, only getting to brush the dew on the grass.
Another theory says that the term derives from the root word teue-, an Indo-European root meaning to swell. So, nobody knows for sure.
Purpose of the dew claw
The dew claw is a vestigial organ in the evolutionary scheme of things.
Watching your dog traipsing about might lead you to conclude that the claws are little more than free riding digits with no critical role to play.
That's perhaps understandable because lapping up the morning dew sums up the action that majority of dew claws get in a typical day.
However, appearances can sometimes be deceptive.
Contrary to common belief, dog thumbs, especially those that are attached to a dog's front foot by bone, do serve a useful purpose. When dogs run, their front legs often bend to such a degree that their dew claws come into contact with the ground.
Dew claws provide extra support to the carpal (wrist) joint when a dog is running or making sharp turns at high speed.
Dog thumbs also provide extra traction when a dog is trying to climb out of the water through broken ice , or merely holding objects when chowing down on them.
You might be surprised to learn that certain breeds of dogs, including the New Guinea Singing Dogs, Catahoula Leopard Dogs and Basenjis, can climb trees nearly as well as cats, thanks to their, particularly maneuverable and robust dew claws.
It's thought that this adaptation came about as a matter of necessity to help these dogs climb trees after prey when food was scarce.
These dogs also happen to be great hunters---again due to their strong dew claws which give them extra traction during high-speed chases.
The usefulness of the claws on the hind legs or those that are only attached to the foot by skin is less clear.
Removing the Dew Claw
Because the claws do not touch the ground, they can grow quite long due to the lack of wear and tear.
Meanwhile, some dew claws are held tightly against the leg while others are loose and floppy thus increasing the risk of the claw catching something during a run on rough terrain.
If this happens, there's a real risk that the claw can grow into the toe pad or get torn off thus causing serious injury to the dog. Further, some dog sports such as agility and flyball pose a level of risk for injuries.
For this reason, some people clip large claws to minimize the risk of injury while others opt to remove them entirely through surgical means. For instance, some breeders remove claws from puppies at an early stage of their lives and even proudly declare so in their ads. If you choose to buy a pedigree dog from breeders, you are likely to find the procedure already done.
Because front claws do serve a useful purpose, they should not be removed unless there's a good reason to do so.
In rare cases, the dew claw might develop a cancerous tumor or a serious injury thus making it necessary to have them removed.
Removing your dog's front dew claws simply for aesthetic reasons is, therefore, a bad idea.
Veterinarian Dr. M. Christine Zink of John Hopkins University believes that the claws play a far more critical role than we previously thought . She provides anecdotal evidence where all but one of more than 30 dogs brought to her clinic suffering from debilitating carpal arthritis that severely limited their movement presented with their dew claws removed.
This suggests that removal of the claws could have contributed to the disease either directly or indirectly.
Dr. Zink says that dew claws help to stabilize the foot and prevent torque (twisting) especially when dogs run at high speeds.
She warns that many dogs are resilient animals with a high degree of pain tolerance, meaning you probably won't be able to tell there's something wrong with your dog until plenty of damage has been done. Her view is supported by other studies which have shown that canines generally have inherited an instinct to hide pain  even though pain experienced over a long duration of time can be hazardous to a dog's health.
Finally, she says that removing claws could lead to atrophy (wasting) of muscles that control the appendages.
If you still want to go ahead with the procedure, you will likely find yourself in a regulatory gray area.
The American Veterinary Medical Association has declared common surgical procedures performed on dogs including docking, ear cropping, declawing, and devocalization as being ''medically unnecessary.''
Despite the hotly contested nature of some of these procedures, however, most states remain quiet regarding their legality or lack thereof within their jurisdictions.
For example, only some municipalities in California and Rhode Island have laws that ban landlords from requiring feline declawing as a condition of tenancy.
However, the subject of removing claws in dogs has not explicitly been mentioned even in these states.
Pros and Cons of Removing Dew Claws
In some cases, it makes sense to remove your dog's claws surgically. Rear dew claws, double dew claws, and loosely attached claws can be removed because they increase the risk of injury while having no known function. However, even in cases like these, it's important to bear in mind that the actual incidence of injury is quite low so the value of the surgery remains up for debate.
Dew claw removal is routinely done on some breeds of dogs to improve their appearance in the show ring (removing dew claws on races like Great Pyrenees automatically disqualifies them from the show ring). The procedure is usually done on puppies under the age of five days and timed to coincide with other methods such as neutering and spaying.
The benefits of removing dew claws include:
- Lowers the risk of dew claw injuries
- Prevents growing of claws into the toe pad which can lead to wounds and infections
- Minimizes the chance of the claws themselves becoming infecte
The disadvantages are:
- Standards operation risk that comes with performing the procedure under general anesthesia
- Removing your dog's claws essentially involves amputating the digits which is a highly invasive and aggressive procedure. Some people might feel against it on humanitarian grounds.
- Removing front claws leads to loss of essential functions including traction and grasping.
- Although not conclusively proven, cutting off the digits could lead to atrophy of some muscles and also increases the risk of your dog developing severe conditions such as carpal arthritis.
How to Treat Dew Claw Injuries
Here are the warning signals that your dog might have injured a dew claw:
Favoring one paw: If the dog holds one paw in the air, check the nails including the dew claws for signs of injuries
Bleeding: Bleeding is not a typical symptom but can be a dead giveaway when present.
Licking: Whereas many owners tend to ignore this sign by assuming that licking is a dog's second nature, persistent licking of a paw should alert you to possible injury
Swollen toe or paw
Depending on the extent of the injury, you can treat the wound at home. Start by performing simple first aid procedures to stem any bleeding as well as prevent infection and further damage to the claw.
Step #1: Stop the bleeding
Bleeding is a sign of serious damage to the claw. Mild bleeding usually stops in 24 hours or less. If it persists longer than that, try the following remedies:
- Styptic powder: Apply directly to the wound. The cauterizing agent should be able to stop the bleeding immediately
- Styptic pencil: Hold the stick to the wound for a minute or two to stop the bleeding
- Cornstarch and baking soda: Apply cornstarch or baking soda to the wound and hold it in place with a towel for a few minutes. The bleeding should stop or decrease considerably.
- Potassium permanganate: Many vets use potassium permanganate to treat bleeding wounds in animals. Dip some cotton swabs in water to moisten them then stick a few potassium permanganate crystals on the swabs. Now hold the crystals against the wound for a few minutes, and the bleeding should subside.
Step # 2: Prevent infections
It's important to keep the wound clean to avoid any potential infections.
You can remove dirt and debris by soaking the injured paw in water then gently massaging it. Dry the wound then apply some pet antiseptic to disinfect it.
Step # 3: Bandage the wound
Bandage the wound is perhaps the trickiest part because many dogs do not like their feet all bandaged up. Just apply a bandage to the wounded paw then hold it in place using a first aid tape. If your dog objects to the bandage, try using a more loosely fitting clean sock instead. If the dog attempts to remove the bandage, use an E collar or Elizabethan collar around his neck to restrain him.
After following these procedures, many claw injuries should improve in a day or two. For serious injuries, however, you will need the help of a surgeon.
When Is Surgery Required?
Whereas it's generally not advisable to completely remove your dog's claws, sometimes fate can force your hand. Surgical removal of a dew claw becomes necessary if the nail has sustained severe injury leaving your pet in pain.
A visual inspection of the injury is usually enough to determine whether a claw requires the attention of a professional. If the claw has poorly been broken or torn and won't stop bleeding, it's time to call the vet. You can also choose to have the hind claws or double claws removed in your pups or even mature dogs as a preventive measure.
Dew claw removal cost?
The cost of surgically removing dew claws will depend on several factors including:
- The number of claws that you want to be removed
- The age of the dog
- If the dog has double dew claws
- The amount of muscle or bone attached the claw.
- Whether the surgery is isolated or is to be done concurrently with other procedures
Removing a puppy's claws is a much simpler process than doing the same on a mature dog because a puppy's tissues are still soft and pliable since not much muscle has developed.
The anesthetic is in most cases the most expensive part of the surgery.
You can, therefore, lower your costs by having the claws removed when the dog is under general anesthesia for other procedures such as neutering and spaying. It's advisable to get several quotes before making a final decision.
Surgical removal of dew claws: A Step by Step guide
A general anesthetic is used when removing claws from adult dogs. The vet will start by administering a pre-anesthetic sedative that will help your dog to calm down. He or she will then apply an intravenous anesthetic that will put the dog under and enable him or her to place a breathing tube down its throat. The dog will inhale oxygen combined with anesthetic through the tube to keep him unconscious throughout the operation.
For puppies under five years of age, a local anesthetic is used in place of a general one or the pup might simply be sedated.
Step #2The vet will carefully wash the skin around the claw to disinfect it.
Using a pair of surgical scissors, the vet will quickly cut through skin, muscle, and bone to remove the claw.
Step # 4
The vet then stitches up the wound using dissolving or non-dissolving sutures. A surgical adhesive might be applied in the case of pups.
Step # 5
The wound is covered in a bandage in older dogs and remains in place until the wound heals. An Elizabethan collar is also used to restrain the dog and prevent him from licking or gnawing at the wound.
Dew claw surgery is a quick procedure that usually takes 15-30 minutes to complete. Your dog can return home after 2-3 hours once the effects of the anesthesia have worn off. The vet will also put the dog on pain meds and antibiotics and advise you to continually check for signs of redness, puffiness, infection or any visible signs of distress. If non-dissolving sutures are used, the vet will take them off after 5-7 days.
How to take care of the claw
It's important to perform routine trims on your dog's claws, including the dew claws, to prevent injuries, ingrown nails and infections.
Use scissors or clippers to trim your dog's nails while exercising extra caution to avoid cutting the nails' internal area or injuring the skin.
But be warned: most dogs are quite finicky about having their claws trimmed.
That's why it's essential to start trimming while is still a pup until gets used to it.
Older dogs that were not inducted when young might require some form of restraint.
Dew Claw Trimming
Step # 1
Choose the right nail trimmer for the job. Scissor-type trimmers are ideal for trimming those long curved claws while guillotine-type trimmers are great for other claws.
Step # 2
Place the dog on a table then drape your arms over the dog's body. If the dog is too wiggly, lay him on his side and have a helper hold him down.
Step # 3
Place the scissor-type cutter at a right angle to the claw and cut it to within two millimeters of the quick. The quick is a dog's nail bed, i.e. the area that is supplied with nerves and blood vessels.
The quick is visible in light-colored nails as a pink colored region but much harder to pick in dark colored ones.
It's therefore important to exercise extra caution when trimming dark colored nails to avoid injuring the dog.
Step # 4
If you accidentally cut a toenail too short and it starts bleeding, use a styptic pencil to stop the bleeding. Hold the black end of the pen to the injured part and gently rotate until the bleeding stops. In many cases, the bleeding can stop in about five minutes even without using a styptic pencil.
When it comes to your dog's dew claws, the mantra ''If it is not broke, don't fix it'' seems to apply aptly. Here's is a summary of how to take care of these often neglected appendages:
1- Front dewclaws play an important role in your dog's life and should, therefore, be left intact unless injured
2- Hind, double, and loosely attached dew claws might be candidates for surgical removal. The real value of the procedure though remains questionable if they are not injured.
3- You can treat simple claw injuries at home.
4- Badly torn or injured dew claws require the attention of a professional
5- Trim your dog's claws regularly to minimize chances of injury or infection