Dogs use their nails for a variety of purposes. Most importantly they provide traction and stability when standing, walking, and running. They also help when it comes to activities like play, digging, and grasping objects.
Ensuring your dog's nails are kept an appropriate length and feeding them a balanced and nutritious diet can help to prevent problems developing, but injuries, diseases and infections are still possible.
Serious nail problems can significantly impact on your dog's quality of life. Nail pain in dogs is typically worse than in humans because dogs put weight on their nails while walking. Early detection can make treatment easier and help to prevent ongoing pain and discomfort for your dog.
The Anatomy of a Dog's Nail
Dog nails contain a blood vessel and nerve encased in thick, hard keratin. The part inside the nail with the blood vessel and the nerve is often called the "quick." The nerve and blood vessel of the nail typically ends before the keratin shell, so you may note the rest of the nail is hollow or even filled with dirt. The place where the nail exits the digit of the paw is called the nail bed.
Signs of Nail Problems in Dogs
Nail problems in dogs may present in different ways depending on the cause of the problem. Any of the following signs can indicate a problem that requires veterinary attention.
- Limping or holding up the paw
- Excessive licking of paws or nails
- Brittle nails
- Discolored nails
- Bleeding or discharge from the nail or nail bed
- Swelling and/or redness of the nail or nail bed
Common Causes of Nail Problems in Dogs
Problems with dog nails are often caused by injuries, diseases, or even poor nutrition. Some of the more common problems are outlined below.
Nail Trim Accidents
Many of us have experienced the shock of trimming a dog's nail too closely. It's quite easy to do this "quicking" by accident and it results in severing the blood vessel and nerve inside the nail. Heavy bleeding is common and it tends to be very painful to the dog.
If you accidentally cut into the quick, the following steps are recommended:
- Try to remain calm. The bleeding may seem profuse, but the injury is probably not as bad as it seems.
- Apply pressure with a cloth or paper towel while you get something to stop the bleeding.
- If you have styptic powder (one brand name is Kwik Stop), you can dip the nail into some powder and press the powder to the end of the bleeding nail. If you do not have this product, cornstarch or flour can work in a pinch but is less effective and slower to stop bleeding.
- Try to keep your dog calm and still while you wait for the bleeding to stop.
- Contact your veterinarian if the bleeding continues for more than about 15 minutes, the nail or paw looks swollen, or your dog is limping or holding up the paw.
Nail injuries are relatively common in dogs. They can easily get caught on things while they are running around, causing the nail to tear or split.
If you think your dog has a nail injury, take the time to closely inspect the paw. Stop any bleeding and clean the area if your dog will allow you. If only the keratin part of the nail was injured, you should be able to trim off any sharp edges and then monitor the paw.
A nail injury that affects the quick or nail bed or that appears red, swollen or produces a discharge should be seen by a veterinarian.
Dogs can develop paronychia, an infection of the nail bed. However, nail infections may also be related to allergies, other skin problems, injuries, or disorders of the nail. Nail bed infections are usually bacterial or fungal.
- Bacterial Nail Infections: These often cause swelling at the base of the nail and the digit of the paw. The area may be red and warm to the touch. There may also be a discharge from the area that looks like pus or fluid. It's common for the dog to lick or chew the affected paw and limp. Bacterial infections may be caused by an injury that did not get proper medical care but could also be related to other nail and/or skin disorders.
- Fungal Nail Infections: Also called onychomycosis, these can cause the nails to become dry, brittle, and crumbly. To correctly diagnose and treat a fungal infection, your vet will need to take a scraping of the affected area to identify the fungus and will generally prescribe topical or oral antifungal products to treat the issue.
In addition to antibiotics or antifungal medication, treatment for nail infections include various topical and/or oral medications and possibly medicated foot soaks. Some infections take a long time to resolve and require diligent care by both the vet and the owner.
Food or environmental allergies that cause paw itching and chewing can also be common culprits for resulting nail bed infections. Your dog may need to undergo lifestyle and/or diet changes to reduce the allergic reaction.
Some common signs that a dog is not getting the right balance of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients in their diet include brittle nails, poor quality of the coat, weight loss, and lethargy.
Your veterinarian will work with you to come up with a diet plan that helps your dog. Never feed a homemade diet or give supplements without first consulting your vet.
Some autoimmune disorders affect the nails while others affect the whole body. It can take some time for vets to diagnose autoimmune disorders as many tests must be performed to determine the problem. Treatment varies based on the disorder but often involves long-term use of immunosuppressive drugs.
Tumors can grow on the paws or nail beds and can impact nail growth. Some of these tumors are cancerous and can be very destructive to the affected area. Your vet may need to take samples and perform radiographs (X-rays) to get a better idea of what is being dealt with. Treatment may involve surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation therapy.
How to Prevent Nail Problems in Dogs
The best way to prevent a nail problem for your dog is to take good care of them. Keeping nails trimmed short (taking care not to cut the quick) can help your dog avoid injuries. Regular trimming also allows you to look at your dog's nails, potentially seeing a problem before it becomes severe.
If you notice a nail problem, contact your vet right away for advice. Also, be sure to take your dog to the vet for routine wellness exams once or twice a year as recommended but your vet. Feeding a good quality diet that is complete and balanced according to your vet's standards is also important.