What Are a Dog’s Dewclaws

What Are a Dog’s Dewclaws
November 23, 2018

As dog owners, we’ve all seen those smaller ‘nails’ dangling from our dog’s limbs, almost like a fifth finger a little higher up from the others. That is, unless they’ve been removed by breeders when the dog was a pup. Most dog owners think nothing of it, never actually asking themselves what they are or what purpose they once served. Many pet owners didn’t even know they were called ‘dewclaws’ before this article. The dewclaws are just there.


What Are a Dog’s Dewclaws Made From?

Believe it or not, these are more than just useless nails sticking out. Essentially the ‘thumbs’ of the dog world, these oddly placed things are more than just dead appendages. A dog’s dewclaws do attach to tendons, which in turn often (not in every case) lead to muscles. 


You can think of dew claws as extra, boneless ‘toes’, the nail resting slightly up on the leg, higher above the paw. Most dog breeds have front dewclaws where as some have rear but no front, others have two rear dewclaws and then others yet have none! What in the world could cause this diversity? After all, most people have ten fingers and ten toes and that is it.


Many owners have no idea what they are for, simply assuming these extra appendages are lifeless remnants of a past era. Dog owners often forget to trim them altogether, not realizing the potential for harm they’ve allowed to exist. 


Some argue dogs can use these ‘extra fingers’, for which they are far more than simple lifeless nails, to help grip objects. Others argue that these claws touch the ground, assisting with traction, when a dog runs- for which they often do. When most dogs run, their limbs do bend at the second joint (almost like the elbow in humans), causing this entire structure to come in contact with the ground.


PetMD will claim these dewclaws do in fact provide extra traction and help to stabilize the carpal (wrist) joint (Jennifer Coates, DVM), on top of providing other useful advantages, contradicting a claim made by the American Kennel Club, stating they serve very little purpose to most pets. 


Most would consider the AKC a far more credible source. However, one article was written by a doctor of veterinary medicine, whereas the other author is simply named as ‘AKC staff’, and could be anyone.

How did Dogs Evolve Dewclaws?

At first glance, you might think dew claws are the remnants of Reptile claws long ago. That makes a lot of sense, right? After all, wolves evolved from reptiles hundreds of thousands of years ago, and dogs began evolving from wolves about fourteen thousand years ago. Didn’t they?


Evolution Through the Ages

According to Montgomery college, wolf evolution first began some untold millions of years ago, somewhere in India. About 20,000 years ago, they traveled to North America from Eurasia via the Bering Land Bridge. Around this time, they had to compete with a larger wolf species, what we think of today as ‘Dire wolves’, although said larger, stronger species went extinct about 8,000 years ago. 


In any case, biologists believe wolves of old evolved from smaller, canine like primitive carnivores known as miacids about 52 million years ago. Miacids, in turn, probably evolved from Cretaceous insectivores (mammals, not specifically insects). In the end, this doesn’t really tell us much about the original purpose of the dew claw, other than the fact that it was likely just another appendage.


Some have said these cat like animal miacis needed all five ‘fingers’ to climb trees, which is a good base for these dewclaws. Perhaps, as dogs evolved and no longer needed to climb, they lost use for this extra digit; maybe the ‘dewclaw’ is evidence of ongoing evolution in itself. Perhaps, one day, these will be gone altogether and every dog will only have four toes!


Selective Breeding

But wait! Not all dog breeds today are born with any dew claws at all, and some have double dew claws. Wolves do have five toes on the front legs, one being a dewclaw (like most dogs), but don’t have any on the rear. 


In the end, the presence of one, two or no dew claws at all on any specific dog breed likely has more to due with human selective breeding today. Evolution may play a role, depending on their initial purpose (each individual breed) hundreds to thousands of years ago, but that is probably lost with time.


Removing Dew Claws

The American Kennel Club will claim a dog’s dewclaws usually serve little to no purpose (AKC). Many dogs professionally bred will have these removed during the first few days of life, before their nervous systems have fully developed; the procedure is relatively painless if done by a professional at this early stage.


If done by a veterinarian later in life, a dog will receive anesthesia so the dew claw can be surgically removed. The process is more involved, costing you about $300. There is also the added risk of anesthesia, especially for older dogs.


However, if corners are cut and this is not done professionally, it can be both extraordinarily painful and very inhumane. Understand, dewclaws aren’t simply attached to loose skin; they connect to tendons which in turn lead to muscles. Imagine if someone dug into your forearm and simply ripped out one of the tendons attaching to your fingers (metacarpals, phalanges); the pain would be more than most people have ever experienced in their lives. 


  • Because they never touch the ground (outside of running), dewclaws won’t wear/grind down on cement or gravel like other nails, so extra attention should be applied to their care!


Author’s Note: This has been done by both uneducated breeders and dog owners wishing to circumvent the cost of a veterinarian. I personally worked with a unusually large Labrador (110 pounds or so) that needed to be anesthetized every time his nails were cut, an extremely simple procedure for almost any other dog owner. 


The breeder who sold him had simply ripped one of his dewclaws out. It lead to lifelong trauma. Though this dog was well behaved and had fantastic social skills, no one could get near his nails.


Why are Dewclaws Removed?

Though they do serve a purpose, that purpose is insignificant when compared to possible injuries. Dewclaws are often removed because they have a tendency to catch and tear. If they do tear, the nails themselves often need to be cut close (beyond the vascular ‘quick’) by a veterinarian. The nail will bleed before it is bandaged (the limb). The dog will then need to wear a cone for about a week, or he will likely try to remove the bandage and instinctively ‘lick’ his wounds.


If the tendon, or underlying tissue, has been damaged, the dog will probably require surgery to have the dew claw removed entirely. Though this is a very simple thing for 3-4 day old pups, it can be quite expensive for adult dogs.


If nothing is done, the dog will continue to lick at the wound; it will likely never close, and there is a high risk for infection.


Veterinarians have pointed out dewclaws, when they do make contact with the ground when a dog is running, prevent torque to the leg. For those animals that do have them removed, a lifetime of added torque to the leg/s can result in carpal arthritis or other joint related injuries.

Is it as Bad as Tail Docking or Ear Cropping?

In the case of ‘Ear Cropping’, the ‘dog’s pinna (portion of outer ear made of cartilage) is shaved, causing the ears to stand. This is a popular procedure among show breeds. The AKC currently recognizes 20 breeds with cropped ears.


Unfortunately, the pinna is meant to help funnel sound; the dog’s hearing ability is now diminished. Though the AKC will claim it helps balance hearing (in the case of the boxer, bred to perform tasks no longer needed) most dog enthusiasts consider the procedure inhumane. Many claim it to have painful post surgery effects as well. Remember, though the AKC is very credible, it is still a kennel club earning a large income from show dogs.


In the end, dogs lacking erect ears didn’t naturally evolve to have erect ears, and weren’t biologically intended to. That being said, there is almost certainly more of an evolutionary disadvantage than any kind of advantage. On top of this, the surgery is believed to carry painful after effects for the dog. 


Most dog enthusiasts will tell you there is almost no reason to have this done, other than the selfish desires of the owner.


Tail Docking

A dog’s tail is composed of vertebrae; docking involves removing bone. This is most often done during puppy hood, and is relatively painless (if done correctly). This can prevent injury to the tail in some breeds or rare cases where anxiety is a problem, causing the dog to actually injure his tail by hitting it repeatedly on hard objects (though the owner has no idea this will happen at such a young age). Some hunting/working breeds have thick, bushy tails removed to prevent injury in thick brush.


However, a dog’s tail is used heavily in communication, a big part of body language they no longer have. Many breeds will also use their tails to help brush scent particles toward their noses; their scenting abilities are now slightly diminished. Breeds like Siberian Huskies or Alaskan Malamutes will cover their heads with their tails for warmth, though these dogs aren’t commonly docked.


Under the Animal Welfare Act of 2006, docking was banned in England and Wales (TKC), though exceptions were made for specific working breeds, as long as the procedure was done during the first five days of life. During this time, the nervous system hasn’t fully developed; the procedure is relatively pain free. 


In the vast majority of cases, both of these procedures are purely cosmetic for the owner who wants a pet to look a certain way, don’t benefit the dog, and both are considered inhumane.


Clipping the Dew Claws

Dew claws are removed during puppy hood to prevent injury later in life; there isn’t another good reason. Especially for hunting breeds, or sporting dogs who must run through/under thick foil edge and brush, removing this potential hazard is important. If a dew claw were to catch and tear, or if (even worse) the underlying connective tissue were to become damaged, the result could be extremely painful on the dog. 


Because dogs would tend to lick at this wound, it would probably never fully heal and could become infected.for this reason, a dog’s dew claws should be trimmed to the quick (without cutting the quick) every two weeks if possible. 


Avoid the Quick!

Can you see the thicker, ‘pink’ (or darker) portion of your dog’s nails? This is the part closer toward their fingers and toes/paws. If you’ve ever cut your pet’s nails, you know not to cut into the ‘quick’.


This part is darker because it is vascular, containing many small blood vessels. If you cut it, it will bleed. The quick is also nervous, meaning your pet is going to feel it, and probably won’t want you to ever cut his nails again. 


If you do happen to cut into it, quicks will heal and won’t cause lasting damage, other than the discomfort. You can purchase a product called ‘Quick Stop’ that can be applied to the damaged nail in order to stop the bleeding.


Pro Tip: The quick will lengthen if you allow your dog’s nails to go uncut for long periods of time. In the same manner, it will recede if you constantly make sure the nails are cut just to the point where blood vessels begin. However, that will require care by an experienced handler/groomer, and often frequent trimmings.

Pets Vs. Working Dogs

The vast majority of dogs on the planet today are kept as domesticated pets, unlike the working/ hunting animals of past generations. Of course, in countries such as India, and many Asian areas, we have an enormous population of stray dogs due to poor control, but they neither work nor are kept as pets so don’t serve a purpose here. 


The point is, unlike 100 years ago and beyond, far fewer dogs (compared to the entire population) are kept for working purpose. So, other than the breed standard established by organizations such as the American Kennel Club, dew claws no longer serve much of a purpose.


Torque

Was your dog bred to run, or does he run on a daily basis? As stated above, studies have shown the dewclaw to help prevent added torque to the leg when the dog is running,helping prevent injuries later in life. One point for the keepers; if your pup is a runner, these fleshy fingers may prove beneficial. 


Conclusion: Useful Tools, or Dead Appendages? 

So, in conclusion, the dewclaws are certainly not dead, lifeless tissue. These add extra traction, contacting the ground as your dog runs, and can help in gripping objects like bones.


However, the potential for injury usually outweighs benefits here. Unless you plan on constantly ensuring your pet’s dewclaws are neatly trimmed and short, it’s best to have them removed during the first few days of life. Since most owners don’t get to make that choice, trimming them is as simple as any other nail!


After all is said and done, the vast majority of dogs go through life just fine with these extra appendages, and dogs did evolve with them as a natural part of their bodies. Still, they are not integral for a dog’s life and daily health, but carry the potential for injury. Whether you decide to keep them neatly trimmed or simply have them removed as a young pup, very few dog enthusiasts will ever question your motives!