About Dog Paws

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Dog paws are made for much more than walking.
Dog paws are made for much more than walking. (Image: Александр Ермолаев/iStock/Getty Images)

Dog paws are specially constructed to protect foot bones and tissue while helping dogs traverse all kinds of terrains. Dog paws come in various shapes and sizes, depending on their ancestry, but all look at least a little rough due to daily wear and tear. Your pooch's paws require a little help from you to stay healthy.

Dog Paw Anatomy

Dog paws consist of five parts: claws, dewclaws and the digital, metacarpal and carpal pads. Claws provide traction and help dogs get good grips on surfaces. The digital pads, found directly beneath the toes, and the metacarpal pads, located directly underneath the digital pads, provide extra cushioning to protect foot joints and bones from shock. The carpal pads, located at the back of the front paws, help dogs keep their balance on steeply sloped or slippery surfaces. Dewclaws, short claws located on the side of some feet, help dogs grip items, such as toys or bones, while chewing on them.

Paws have thick exterior layers of fatty tissue that insulate the inner tissues against extreme temperatures. When dog paws get cold, the arteries in the pads circulate the chilled blood back into the dog's body so it warms up. The inner skin layers also contain sweat glands that shift perspiration to the outer part of the pads, which helps keep the pads moist and the dog cool.

Paw Variations

All dog paws have the same anatomy, but come in different shapes. That's because over time, paws adapted to a breed's environment or to help with the jobs breeds were intended to do. For example, breeds that originated in cold environments, such as Newfoundlands and Saint Bernards, have huge paws with large surface areas that help them navigate snowy and icy terrains. Newfoundlands also have webbed feet that make them great swimmers. Labrador retrievers, field spaniels and Portuguese water dogs, all bred to work in water, also have webbed feet. Other breeds have “cat feet,” or round, compact feet, due to a short third toe bone. This paw design increases a dog's endurance by using less energy to lift the foot off the ground. Doberman pinschers and old English sheepdogs both have cat feet. Hare feet are longer and thinner than the average dog paw. This shape gives the dog more speed and is often found in racing breeds, including greyhounds and whippets.

Summer and Winter Care

Dog paws serve so many functions that it's imperative they remain healthy. Your dog's paws need a little extra TLC during hot summer and cold winter weather. If you've ever walked barefoot on hot pavement, sand or concrete, then you know it's not a pleasant experience. The same hot surfaces that burn your skin can burn or blister your dog's pads. Exercise your dog early in the morning or late in the evening to avoid harming his pads. Keep him off hot, hard surfaces and on cooler grass whenever possible.

Winter can be tough on the paws of dogs living in areas that experience freezing temperatures, snow and icy roads, which is often treated by pouring rock salt or chemical deicers on the street. All of those can burn, crack, blister or chafe your dogs pads. When going for a winter walk, put some dog booties on those paws or rub a thin layer of pet-safe balm on them beforehand. After your walk, wipe his paws with a soft, warm cloth to get rid of any chemicals, ice or snow. Try to avoid treated roads and find a pet-safe deicer to use on your front steps and driveway.

Year-Round Care

Make sure you don't have any sharp, pointy things laying around your yard or home. If you don't want to walk on an object barefoot, your dog won't either. Inspect your dog's paws daily, preferably after an outdoor adventure. Check his pads and between his toe for little stones, stickers, foxtails, thorns, glass pieces, twigs and other bits of debris. Remove foreign objects with tweezers. If you spot minor burns or a small wound, such as one less than 1/2-inch around, apply antibacterial wash and wrap the treated injury with a loose bandage. Consult your vet for deep paw cuts or severe burns. Use a specially designed dog pad moisturizer to prevent cracking, peeling and dryness. Don't use moisturizers designed for human skin, however. Those products can make the pads so soft that they're easily injured.

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