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Paw and Claw Problems

There are a wide variety of conditions that can affect paws and claws beyond acute trauma and soft tissue injuries. Dry, cracked pads are common, and older dogs seem to be more susceptible. Causes of dry, cracked pads can include repeated exposure to chemicals (such as rug / floor cleaners, lawn fertilizer and pesticides, road salt), zinc deficiency, distemper, and chronic licking. If you suspect that environmental exposure is the cause of the problem, using all-natural, non-toxic floor cleaners, avoiding chemically-treated areas, cleaning the paws with warm water, or protecting them with waterproof boots will help to minimize the damage to the paw pads and web space. 

Zinc deficiency (Syndromes I and II) (Zinc deficiency can be caused by dietary problems, but also from an inability to utilize and store zinc properly. Seen as a lethal problem called acrodermatitis in Bull Terriers) can also cause dry, cracked pads as well as hyperkeratosis (corns). Zinc levels are not routinely tested in blood work, and you will have to ask your veterinarian to specifically test zinc levels if you suspect cracked pads or corns related to zinc deficiency. Fortunately, both syndromes are easily treated with zinc supplements and diet modification. Corns may be helped by zinc supplementation but further treatments may be needed depending on the severity of the condition. For more information on causes and treatments for corns and warts, please see articles on or in Celebrating Greyhounds (fall, 2003). 

Overgrown, crusty, and crumbly paw pads are a common sign of canine distemper. These crusty pads can occur even years after distemper has been treated. The paw pad condition is not “cured” but more managed with gentle filing of the overgrowth using a pumice stone and by applying an ointment-based topical (e.g., petroleum jelly) directly on the paw pads to lock in moisture. Ointments are most effective if applied after soaking the paw pads in warm water. Once the ointment is applied, cover the paws with clean, light, breathable cotton socks to prevent the dog from licking. It is easiest to do this at night when the dog is resting. 

Corns and warts can also appear at the bottom of the paw pad, and cause pain and lameness. Please see the articles mentioned above for more information on corns and warts. Not mentioned in the articles are some recent findings on possible causes for corns. As discussed above, zinc deficiency can cause corns or exacerbate the condition. Also, it is now believed that corns can develop in dogs with excessively long nails. Long nails displace the digits and place excess pressure on the paw pads, causing the formation of calluses (or corns). Excessively long nails will also cause the dog to shift weight toward the back of the paw pads, which adds stress to the wrists and ankles. Long-term, this can lead to joint and soft tissue problems such as arthritis, degenerative joint disease, and overstretched tendons. 

Dremel grinding tool - battery or electric and the drum sander for the Dremel In comparison to other dog breeds, Greyhounds tend to have longer nails. But they can be made short by systematic filing. Personally, I use a hand-held, battery-operated Dremel tool with a drum sander attachment (purchased at Home Depot). My protocol is as follows: I file each nail for just 3-5 seconds. Then, repeat this procedure every 7-10 days. This will give the nail quick a chance to recede, and filing can continue until the nails are short with blunted (rounded) tips. I continue this procedure until the dog’s nails can no longer be heard when the dog walks across a hard floor. I find this approach causes the least amount of stress to the animal as it is quick and painless. 

For those dogs with a “nail-filing phobia”, I would recommend a de-sensitization program. Perhaps, associating the sound of the Dremel tool with a positive experience (like treats or massage) may be a first step. Carry the Dremel tool with you and turn it on periodically near the dog without touching the dog, until the dog becomes used to the sound. Then, slowly approach the dog’s paws with the Dremel tool and continue to pet or praise the dog. Also, filing the nails while the dog is standing (instead of lying down) may be more successful. Do not pull the dog’s leg/paw toward you but instead flex the leg so that the paw is close to the dog’s body. This will prevent the dog from pulling the leg away since the leg will already be in a tucked position. 

Chronic licking can also cause paw, paw pad, and claw erosion. Licking can be behavioural; licking decreases anxiety and stress, and helps to reduce boredom. Licking can also be allergy-related or caused by an organism (such as yeast overgrowth/infection). Licking can easily become habitual (canine compulsive disorder) and should be taken very seriously since dermatitis, granulomas, and infection can result. Often, Bitter Apple and other unappetizing sprays are not successful, and an Elizabethan collar is only a temporary fix. The most important step toward successful treatment of chronic licking is to determine the underlying cause. A holistic veterinarian may be best suited to help treat this chronic problem. Acupuncture has also been successful. Keep in mind that regardless of the paw problem, licking the area will generally worsen it. To reduce licking, consider using a breathable, protective boot. Also, sprinkling the inside of the boot with Dr. Scholl’s Original Foot Powder or a product called Monkey Butt (a calamine powder available at horse tack shops), or even corn starch will help to absorb moisture, lubricate the paw, and reduce itching. 

Claw diseases can also lead to paw pain and lameness. Immune-related disorders such as pemphigus and symmetric lupoid onychodystrophy (SLO) lead to a sloughing off of the nails and regrowth of soft, brittle, irregularly-shaped nails. Treatment usually includes a course of oral steroids and supplementation with Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids and immune regulators. If possible, a biopsy of the sloughed-off nail should be taken since bacteria, fungus, or yeast may also be the culprit. 

If you remember wearing uncomfortable shoes, you know that more than your feet hurt by the end of the day. Your whole body aches. Likewise, when a dog has painful paws it can affect the entire body. Just like humans with painful feet, dogs with painful paws tend to shift their weight to reduce the pressure and pain. As a result, there is added stress on the neck and spine, as well as on the legs bearing the extra weight. When a dog has a chronic issue affecting the paws, it is recommended that the whole dog be treated, not just the affected paw. Holistic treatment includes not only specific veterinary care for the affected paw (such as prescriptions, surgery, and/or paw protection), but also a careful review and possible change in diet (supportive) and supplements (for immune system and joint health), as well as the addition of complementary therapies such as acupuncture (for pain) and chiropractic (for spinal realignment), and manual therapies such as stretching, joint mobilization, and massage (for maintaining or re-establishing optimal soft tissue and joint balance). Please discuss all treatments with your veterinarian to determine the best protocol to use with your dog.

by Ilaria F. Borghese, MS, MA, OTR/L
President, Thera-Paw, Inc.
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