A dog’s paws are equipped with pads to protect your dog, but do the pads themselves need protection? How can you keep your dog’s paw pads healthy, when should you be concerned about your dog’s paw pads, and what can you do to soothe them?
Your dog’s paw pads are comprised of various fatty and elastic connective tissues. They are tough and thickened to help protect your dog when walking on rough surfaces, but they are also sensitive enough to alert your dog if a surface is hot or cold. It’s important to keep your dog’s paw pads healthy because if they become dry, cracked, or otherwise irritated and inflamed, it can be painful for your dog to get around. In fact, someone may mistake a dog with injured paw pads as being lethargic when, in reality, it’s just too painful for them to be active and playful.
The texture and appearance of your dog's paw pads will change with their environment and activity level. Some dogs that are very active can develop calluses on areas that see increased wear. These calluses can be healthy and protective as long as they are not painful and do not interfere with your dog's gait. Although these adaptations can be normal, some changes to your dog's paw pads may be due to an underlying problem, such as an auto-immune disease. Always consult your veterinarian before trying to treat a possible problem at home.
For protection, there are a variety of boots and booties you can use to help protect your dog’s paws from hot asphalt or rough ice melt. Most dogs may wear these without much fuss, but others might not like the feeling and might not walk with them on their paws. There is also pet-safe ice melt for sidewalks that can be less irritating to your dog’s paw pads.
How to Keep Your Dog’s Paw Pads Soft
A common first step to help to keep your dog’s paw pads soft is an Epsom salt soak. You can do this in your bathtub for large dogs or a small plastic washtub for small dogs. Convincing your dog to let you soak (and then apply ointments to) its paw pads may take some training for both you and your dog. A lot of dogs don’t like their paws being touched because they don’t like getting their nails trimmed, and they associate having their paws touched with nail trims. To encourage your dog to stay in the bathtub or washtub while their paws soak, you can hold a lick mat loaded with peanut butter, squeeze cheese, or similarly textured treats. This not only holds your dog’s attention and keeps them engaged and wanting to stay in the tub, but it also creates a positive association with soaking their paws. It’s important to keep the experience as positive as possible. If your dog bolts out of the tub after only a minute or so, let it have a break. Some soaking is better than no soaking and forcing your dog back into the tub might create more stress and anxiety and make them more averse to future paw soaks.
After your dog’s paw pads are done soaking, gently dry them with a soft towel, and apply a small amount of moisturizing ointment approved by your veterinarian. To allow the ointment to soak in, give your dog a frozen treat, such as a frozen Kong stuffed with peanut butter, canned food, etc. Once again, this provides a distraction for your dog, letting the ointment soak in instead of just being promptly licked off by your dog. The treat also creates a positive association with the application and feeling of the ointment on their paw pads.
What Can You Do If Your Dog’s Paws Are Already Dry and Cracked?
Soaking and moisturizing ointments are preventatives. They keep your dog’s paw pads healthy, but what if your dog’s paw pads are already dry and starting to crack? For minor cracks, gently clean your dog’s injured paw pad with a dilute antiseptic, such as chlorhexidine, and then gently dry the pad with a clean, soft towel. Next, apply an antibiotic topical ointment and then give your dog a frozen treat to let the ointment become absorbed. If the skin in between the pads is red and inflamed, or if your dog reacts so painfully that you can’t even touch the pads, let alone clean them and apply ointment, you should seek the help of your veterinarian. They can give you prescription- strength topical remedies or oral antibiotics to help treat any infection from the inside out. They can also prescribe medications to help with any pain and inflammation.
You can prevent irritation to your dog's paw pads by regularly checking them and providing care as needed. This regular habit will help keep your dog's paw pads healthy and prevent any serious problems.
Tham, Heng L., et al. Autoimmune diseases affecting melanocytes in dogs, cats and horses: vitiligo, uveodermatological syndrome: a comprehensive review. BMC Veterinary Research. vol. 15, no. 251, 2019. doi: 10.1186/s12917-019-2003-9