Many dogs have dewclaws on their front paws, and some also have them on their back paws. Once upon a time, this fifth toe was used to help early tree-climbing canine ancestors live among the treetops.
Nowadays dogs don't spend much time climbing trees, so do they still need dewclaws?
What Do Dewclaws Do?
Take a peek at your pup's front paws, and you'll most likely notice an extra nail on the inside of each foot. Front dewclaws are sort of like thumbs for dogs, although they don't use them as humans do. Rear dewclaws are equivalent to "big toes." Some dogs even have double dewclaws.
But why are they there?
Why Do Dogs Have Dewclaws?
Millions of years ago, between 33 and 65 million, early ancestors of dogs lived up in the trees. Climbing trees was paramount for these creatures, called Miacis, which belonged to a group of carnivores known as miacids. This animal group was a predecessor to several modern species, including coyotes, wolves, jackals, and dogs.
However, over time, the species developed to live (and hunt) on the ground, creating a higher need for speed over climbing. Therefore, thanks to evolution, the dewclaws shifted position. They ended up on the side of the paw, barely ever touching the ground. Also, many breeds don't have rear dewclaws, only featuring the extra claws on their front feet.
Do Dogs Need Dewclaws?
Single front dewclaws firmly attach to a dog's foot with various ligaments and bones. Your dog uses these dewclaws to get a better grasp on items they want to chew (like their favorite Rolly Cannoli). Some breeds, like the Louisiana Catahoula Leopard and Treeing Walker Coonhound, use them to climb trees to chase prey on a hunt.
Although the dewclaws typically don't touch the ground when a dog is walking and standing, they can help add traction when dogs run fast and make sharp turns. The front dewclaws also help stabilize and preserve the carpus (a dog's "wrist").
Without front dewclaws, a dog's carpal ligaments can work overtime, leading to an increased chance of tearing and injury. Eventually, stretching and overwork of the ligaments could lead to more stress on other joints and even the spine. Your dog could become more prone to conditions like arthritis.
Rear and double dewclaws aren't as common as single front dewclaws, and they usually attach to the paw with skin. Dewclaws on rear paws may have once offered more stability and balance on rough terrain, although today, their purpose, if any, is unclear.
Should You Remove a Dog's Dewclaws?
The short answer is, no, you shouldn’t remove your dog’s dewclaws except in a select few instances. According to Leigh Siegfried, a dog behaviorist, trainer, and founder of Opportunity Barks, “Unless the dewclaws pose some significant health concern I wouldn’t recommend that [sic] are removed.”
However, there are those that push for dewclaw removal. Some breeders opt for a veterinarian to remove dewclaws when puppies are just under one week old. They worry that pet parents won’t take care of them properly, forgetting about them. If this happens, the nail could end up ripping, becoming injured, or worse. Therefore, removing the dewclaws seems like a logical choice to avoid potential injury. However, perhaps the more appropriate solution would be to educate new pet parents on the proper care of dewclaws.
Others feel that dewclaws impede a dog’s overall appearance in the show ring (although removing them disqualifies certain breeds). Since many people assume that dewclaws are non-functioning, removal doesn’t seem to have a downside. However, as previously mentioned, the front dewclaws do serve a purpose, which is why pet parents should only remove them in certain situations.
Reasons Removing Dewclaws Might Be Necessary
In some cases, it’s in your dog’s best interest to remove the dewclaws. If the claw is only attached by skin and dangling (a likely situation for rear dewclaws) there could be a risk for severe injury. Likewise, if the dewclaw is already partially torn off, talk with a vet about removing it completely. Other reasons would be various medical conditions, including illnesses, nail diseases, and cancer.
For certain hunting and field breeds, dewclaw removal is often recommended to decrease the risk of injury. If your vet agrees that removing your dog’s dewclaw is the best course of action, they will do so under general anesthesia. Afterward, your pup will need to wear an e-collar, reduce activity, and take pain medication.
It’s important to stay on top of follow-up care. You’ll need to give your dog medication, change their bandages daily, and monitor the removal site. Scarring and infection are possibilities, so make sure to call your vet if you notice anything. It’s also vital to observe your pet’s behavior. Keep an eye out for limping, swelling, and other signs of pain or discomfort.
Overall, recovery should take a couple of weeks. After 10 to 14 days, your vet will remove the sutures. For very young puppies, (three to five days old), healing takes a few days and sutures likely aren’t necessary.
How to Take Care of Your Dog’s Dewclaws
When caring for your dog’s dewclaws, treat them like your pup’s other nails. Trim the dewclaws and keep them short so they don’t catch in and on things or become ingrown.
However, you may need to trim dewclaws more often than the other nails. Since they normally don’t touch the ground, they won’t wear down as much as your pup’s other claws.
If you notice your dog biting or chewing at their dewclaws, take a peek. Make sure they are trimmed properly. If they’re overgrown or appear infected, bring your pup to the vet.
You might find what looks like a dewclaw on the floor. Don’t panic. Dogs can shed their nails from time to time, so you more than likely are looking at a nail casing. However, if you start noticing this more often, it’s worth a trip to the vet. Your dog shouldn’t shed nails like they shed fur.
The Deal with Dewclaws
All in all, if your dog has dewclaws, keep them unless your vet recommends removing them for medical or safety reasons. Front dewclaws come in handy for grasping, climbing, and helping add stability and control when your dog runs. They also may help safeguard your dog’s other joints and carpal ligaments.
But if the nail is torn, infected, or prone to disease, your vet will need to remove it. For more helpful pet parenting tips, check out the rest of the Neater Pets blog. You’ll find useful information, suggestions, and ideas for making the most of your time with your faithful canine companion.