Paws 101In order to fully understand dog paws, we first need to get down to the structural basics. There are five distinct parts of a dog’s paw: A) claws (4), B) the 4 digital pads, C) metacarpal pad, D) dew claw, E) carpal pad. (Photo credit: Amos T Fairchild, CC BY-SA 3.0)
1. Digital PadsDigital pads are the leathery parts directly under the dog’s toes that leave those iconic pawprints. Dogs have four digital pads per limb, but cats and other animals have five or more. These pads can range in color from black to pink or white— and one dog may have a combination of all three. Although they feel like leather, they are actually made of epidermis, an outer skin that’s the same as what’s on the soles of our feet. They contain fatty tissue which does not freeze, making them perfect for withstanding the cold, ice, and snow. Digital pads also regulate the amount of water lost from the body, and serve as a defense against picking up viruses and bacteria from the ground.
2. Metacarpal/Metatarsal PadIf the digital pads are considered to be like our toes and fingers, the heart-shaped metacarpal pad is similar to our soles and palms. The metacarpal pad is just below and at the center of the digital pads. Technically, they’re called the metacarpal pads when referring to the front paws, and metatarsal pads when referring to the rear legs. Like good walking sneakers, these cushion the stress caused by walking on the load-bearing limbs.
3. Carpal PadThe carpal pad is that stand alone gumdrop-shaped pad located higher up the leg. These are not used as load-bearing cushioning, but provide greater traction in times of abrupt stopping, such as during hunting or when sliding down slopes fleeing a predator.
4. ClawThe claw is what we have come to know as the nail. Claws are beak-like in appearance and are comprised of thick keratin, as is our hair and nails. Each claw is used for traction, digging, and grasping. The dewclaw shown here is the dark nail that does not make contact with the ground. (Image by Elf, CC-BY-SA-3.0)
5. DewclawThe official name for that solitary nail situated between the metacarpal pads and the carpal pad higher on the leg, the dewclaw is part of a vestigial toe and is basically a digit that’s no longer used. Dewclaws may be on both the front and rear legs, but are less common on the rear. Some breeds such as the Great Pyrenees and Briard may have double dewclaws, which is two claws growing from one spot on the rear legs. Dewclaws aren’t used for walking and most breeds don’t even let them touch the ground, that is unless your dog is a hard working breed such as a Border Collie, or actively running at top speeds to herd sheep or cows. In these cases, the dewclaw prevents the leg from turning, which may prevent arthritis or sports-related injuries. Dewclaws don’t look like your dog’s other nails; they can often grow in a circular manner, which necessitates cutting so it does not grow into your dog’s skin. Most dogs don’t have the opportunity to wear down this nail on their own, so extreme care is needed to cut it to a safe length. When dogs have black nails, it’s often difficult to cut their nails without causing blood loss from a nicked quick (the blood vessels and nerves that supply the claw). Unfortunately, the longer the nail grows, the longer the quick grows, making the distance before the quick shorter and more vulnerable to cutting and bleeding. Some dewclaws are genetically predisposed to trouble due to where they’re situated or how they’re attached, which may cause your pet to constantly snag them and become irritated. Your vet might have a discussion with you as to whether they should be surgically removed as a result. Some breeders remove the dewclaw when the animal is sold and some vets will remove the dewclaw when the animal is neutered.
Size Matters, as Does Shape"Cat Feet" refer to compact paw shape, above left. Illustration from fascinating article at www.watercubs.com. Dogs with large paws are generally from colder climates. Their larger footprint acts like a snowshoe when they travel over frozen terrain. Breeds characteristic of large paws are St. Bernards, Newfoundlands, and Labrador Retrievers. "Cat Feet," a term of affection referring to dogs with a short third digit, means they make paw prints that look rounded like a cat’s. Breeds that fall into this category are not particularly small and include Doberman Pinschers, Akitas, Giant Schnauzers, and many terriers. Certain breeds of dogs even have webbed feet. They are not as pronounced as a duck’s, but they serve the same purpose: to speed through the water with ease. Dogs with these paws are excellent swimmers. Newfoundlands, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, Portuguese Water Dogs, Spaniels, and German Shorthair Pointers all have webbed feet. Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s get into the more unusual.
Weird Facts & TipsFrito-Feet, anyone?
Corn Chip SmellMany pet owners believe that their dog’s paws smell like corn chips (think: Doritos-type smell) or popcorn— and no, they’re not crazy. This familiar smell is actually caused by the naturally occurring bacteria on your pet’s paws, namely Proteus or Pseudomonas. These are the textbook bacteria that show up just about everywhere including plants, soil, water, and even in humans. They’ve also been discovered in clouds and ice crystals that are millions of years old. When pseudomonas grows on rotting foods, it gives off a fruity odor. When it grows on your dog’s paws, it gives off a corn chip odor. More specifically, the bacteria renders and secretes a yeasty smell that we associate with bread, or corn chips, sort of like our digestive system producing enzymes. While a hint of odor from the ever present bacteria is no cause for concern, an overwhelming smell is a problem, since we’re still talking about bacteria. Keep in mind that this bacteria will form and attach on even the cleanest feet. There are steps you can take to curtail the blossoming of a full blown outbreak of yeast and bacteria that make your dog's paws smell:
- First, always make sure your pet’s paws are kept clean. When bathing your dog, make sure to scrub in between each and every toe with warm sudsy water. Thoroughly dry in between each and every toe as well.
- While your dog's paws are padded to insulate against cold, city sidewalks may have salt in the winter, which should be removed after a walk. To cut down on the bacteria that causes this smell, keep the hair between the toes shortly groomed to lessen the surface area that the bacteria can linger on and to promote good air circulation.
- Remember, dogs constantly step in dirt, which may contain trace amounts of feces, urine, and chemicals from lawn care and pesticides, or salt and snow removal. So before you take your dog out, place a small basin or bowl filled with sudsy water outside your door with a clean towel or paper towel. Upon returning from your walk or outing, dip each paw into the basin (that’s why it doesn’t have to be large), then clean and dry between the toes.By preparing the bowl before you leave, it will be ready for use without needing to traipse your dog and the germs or chemicals all over your house. Don’t reuse this water since you’d just be redistributing the same chemicals and defeating the purpose.
- Alternately, place a cookie sheet outside your door with sudsy water and just enough iodine to turn it a color resembling iced tea. Have your pet walk into it and stand for 30 seconds. Iodine will disinfect the paws of all chemical residues and treat a yeast infection in its early stages. Dry thoroughly.
Epsom Salts are generally available at your local drug store.
Treating Smelly PawsThe following recipes and remedies will be helpful and should not be washed off after treatment:
- Add 1–2 tablespoons of baking soda to one gallon of water to remove allergens that irritate the paws. Let your dog stand in the mixture for about two minutes or so.
- Add 1 cup of Epsom salt to your dog’s bath and in just 10 minutes your pet’s natural pH balance will be back to normal.
- Soaking your dog’s paws in 1 cup of organic unpasteurized apple cider vinegar, the juice of one lemon, and 20 drops of peppermint oil for 10 minutes will alleviate any irritation. Lemon is an anti-fungal, antibacterial, and antiviral ingredient. (Substitute hydrogen peroxide at 1 cup to a gallon of water instead of the peppermint oil if you don’t have any on hand.) Make a paw soak with: 1 c. organic apple cider vinegar, the juice of a lemon, & 20 drops of peppermint oil.
- To soothe dry irritated pads, use 1–2 cups of plain, unflavored, unsweetened oatmeal in your dog’s bath and let paws soak for 10 minutes.