Do Dogs Need Dewclaws?

Updated on February 2, 2019
Sophie Jackson profile image

Sophie Jackson is a dog lover and trainer living in the UK. She competes in agility and obedience with her four dogs.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
A greyhound's front paw, clearly showing the large dewclaw. These claws would benefit from a trim.A Sheltie's dewclaw. It can be harder to see the claw on long-haired breeds
A greyhound's front paw, clearly showing the large dewclaw. These claws would benefit from a trim.
A greyhound's front paw, clearly showing the large dewclaw. These claws would benefit from a trim. | Source
A Sheltie's dewclaw. It can be harder to see the claw on long-haired breeds
A Sheltie's dewclaw. It can be harder to see the claw on long-haired breeds | Source

The Humble Dewclaw: A 'Thumb' for Dogs

Have you ever run your hand down your dog's front legs and noticed that there is an extra digit on the side? This is his dewclaw, an additional digit sitting a short way up from his paw. At first glance it appears strange to have a claw so far up the leg—surely it cannot be functional?

In fact, it is not just a claw—beneath the surface is an entire toe with fully articulated bones, muscles and nerves. If you look at a drawing of a dog's foot, it is plain to see how the dewclaw really is a fifth toe.

Many people have, unfortunately, looked at a dog's dewclaws and assumed they serve no purpose because when a dog is standing or walking, the claw does not touch the ground. They have been called a useless leftover from when dog's descended from wolves, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Your dog's dewclaw is remarkably flexible and nimble. They will use it to brace a meaty bone or toy as they chew it, or even use it to delicately rub away annoying eye gunk. But, most importantly, your dog will use his dewclaw when running at full speed and making a turn or jump. When your dog is running fast, they land lower on their forelimbs, meaning more of the leg comes into contact with the ground, including that dewclaw. Most people will never notice this because it is hard to see with the naked eye, but numerous photographs of dogs running have shown just how much more of the leg the dog uses when galloping or jumping. It can actually look very peculiar!

When your dog is rushing about that dewclaw acts as a stabiliser. When he makes a sharp turn, the claw will splay out and help him to spin. It also takes the pressure off the turn for the other toes; without that claw, dogs running at speed can dislocate or damage their toes, or cause injuries to the wrist joint.

This is also the reason dewclaws sometimes get ripped and people have them removed. They think they are helping their dog to avoid further injury, but many vets are now stating that it actually does the opposite and could lead to long-term problems.

As this dog runs fast, his front legs flex deeply, the dewclaw now comes into contact with the ground and helps the dog to dig in.
As this dog runs fast, his front legs flex deeply, the dewclaw now comes into contact with the ground and helps the dog to dig in. | Source

Why Are Dewclaws Removed?

There are a number of reasons why people opt to have the dewclaws on their dogs removed. Many genuinely believe it is in the dog's best interest to live their life without them. Breeders will have puppies' dewclaws removed when they are just a few days old. Depending on the breed and the country the dog is bred in, this may be more or less common. For instance, in the US it is a very common practice, while in the UK it tends to only be performed on certain breeds.

Some breeders remove dewclaws because they feel it improves the appearance of the dog for the show ring. In the UK, the Kennel Club states that it does not support the removal of dewclaws for cosmetic purposes and no UK breed standard requires this. However, it is not illegal.

Removing dewclaws for cosmetic reasons is certainly not justifiable, especially as it is likely to cause complications in the future.

Other breeders will remove dewclaws because they believe it will prevent the dog suffering injuries in later life. This is understandable, but not accurate. Dogs do suffer dewclaw injuries, but that is because they use them and therefore need them. Occasionally an adult dog will irreparably damage a dewclaw and have to have it removed, but the majority of dogs with dewclaws will go all their life without any problem. The amount of dewclaws that require removal by vets, does not justify removing a useful and important part of your dog's anatomy.

When a dog lands after jumping the dewclaw comes into contact with the ground
When a dog lands after jumping the dewclaw comes into contact with the ground | Source

Some argue that the removal of dewclaws should be done to prevent the claws becoming overgrown. They state that they see too many owners who fail to clip their dog's claws and allow them to grow into the leg. It seems cruel on a dog to remove something because a human being is neglectful! In any case, most properly exercised dogs will naturally wear down their dewclaws, some will even chew their claws to keep them short. If a dog does not have the opportunity to wear down the claw, either due to age, lifestyle or conformation, then the claw should be regularly clipped.

All these reasons for removing dewclaws rely on one argument - that the dewclaw is unnecessary. Once you realise this is not the case, then removing them no longer makes sense. All the arguments for taking off the dewclaw (aside from cosmetic appearance) could apply to any of a dog's toes, but most people would not remove a toe from a puppy to prevent injury or to avoid the claw growing long, because they know how important they are.

One last thing to bear in mind, when puppies have their dewclaws removed, if the puppy has not yet opened its eyes, then this can be done without anaesthetic. There is a false belief that puppies at this age do not feel pain as their nerve endings are not all formed. This is inaccurate. The procedure is painful, especially as it is necessary to cut through bone.

When looking at the bones of a dog's paw, it can actually appear more like a hand, and it becomes obvious that the dewclaw is an integral part.
When looking at the bones of a dog's paw, it can actually appear more like a hand, and it becomes obvious that the dewclaw is an integral part. | Source

How a Dog Uses Its Dewclaw

Let's take a closer look at the function of a dewclaw. While dogs vary in how much they use them, they certainly play a part in their lives. The dewclaw has been described as a dog's thumb and can be amazingly flexible.

Probably the most obvious way you will see your dog use his dewclaw is when he is trying to control a bone or toy, or other object, that he wants to chomp on. Paws alone aren't great for holding items, especially if they are round or uneven. That dewclaw, however, can be spread out from the foot and latch on to the object, dig in and hold it.

Some dogs can use their dewclaws with remarkable dexterity. They will employ them to rub sleep from their eyes, or scratch the inside of an ear. They might even use them to clean their teeth. You may even find your dog will hold onto your arm with their dewclaw when trying to get your attention.

Climbing is another thing that the dewclaw is vital for. Certain breeds are renowned for their cat-like ability to climb, but all dogs have the capability and can employ their dewclaws in the process. This might be climbing up a tree stump after a squirrel, or scaling a fence. I once watched my Labrador use his dewclaws as he climbed an A-frame.

When your dog runs fast he uses his dewclaws to reduce the torque, or twisting action, that will occur with speed. The dewclaw acts as a stabiliser and stops the other ligaments in the dog's wrist from being overworked. Dogs that do agility or flyball will use their dewclaws heavily as they make turns and dig in for more speed. Racing greyhounds also use their dewclaws as they corner and their dewclaws can be extremely big and sturdy.

As this dog climbs a rough slope, she splays her toes, including the dewclaw, to help her grip
As this dog climbs a rough slope, she splays her toes, including the dewclaw, to help her grip | Source

Problems With Dewclaws

Dewclaw injuries are the main reason people give for having them removed as puppies. As mentioned above, with the amount of use dewclaws get it is not surprising they occasionally get damaged - just like our fingernails get ripped off or torn when we use our hands for manual work.

One of the main reasons dewclaws become prone to damage is when they are allowed to get too long and then snag on something, such as a fluffy carpet. The same applies to all the claws on your dog's feet and you should regularly inspect them and trim them as necessary. If you don't like using doggy toenail clippers, you could try using a toenail grinder, a number of which are available on the market. You can also try teaching your dog to scratch at a piece of sandpaper around a wooden block. This trick will have to be played often to be effective!

However, most active dogs will wear their claws down by themselves, simply from running about and using them.

From time-to-time a dog will prove prone to ripping their dewclaws even though they are trimmed. As with everything in life, accidents happen, and some dogs do have issues with their dewclaws. This could be due to weak nails or the dewclaw being malformed. Equally, when a dewclaw has been damaged, it will sometimes grow back wrong and be more likely to snag again. The key is to keep an eye on the claw, keep it trimmed and watch for any early signs of damage. If it does rip or break, you'll need to take care as it regrows to make sure it comes back straight.

Dewclaw injuries can appear dramatic, as the ripped claw does bleed well, but they are easy to treat. Make sure to clean the wound and keep the area bandaged. The biggest problem for these injuries is an infection in the nail bed. This can occur to any of your dog's nails, for that matter your dog can split any of its toenails and potentially have to have that claw removed. If the nail bed does become infected, you need to see a vet and get antibiotics.

In a few rare cases, a dog may so badly damaged its dewclaw that it becomes necessary to remove it completely. This is far from common. In fact, I only know one dog that had to have its dewclaws removed as an adult, but I know of two dogs that had to have toes removed due to chronic injury and infection. The dewclaw is not unusual for injury, any toe can be injured!

This dog ripped off his dewclaw while running, it has now grown back perfectly normal and does not cause an issue
This dog ripped off his dewclaw while running, it has now grown back perfectly normal and does not cause an issue | Source

Problems Without Dewclaws

Dewclaw injuries are annoying, maybe even frustrating, but they will usually heal in time and leave your dog able to live a normal life. There is growing evidence, however, that the lack of dewclaws could lead to problems that could impair your dog's long-term well-being.

Veterinarian Chris Zink noted nearly fifteen years ago that there appeared to be a causal link between arthritis in the wrist of the dog and the lack of a dewclaw. Chris had found that arthritis was more common in dogs without dewclaws. The Australian Shepherd Health and Genetics Institute concurs with this opinion and specifically state that the removal of dewclaws leads to an increased risk of arthritis in later life.

Chris Zink works exclusively with canine athletes and her insights into the problems caused by dewclaw removal are insightful:

"I have seen many dogs now, especially field trial/hunt test and agility dogs, that have had chronic carpal arthritis, frequently so severe that they have to be retired or at least carefully managed for the rest of their careers. Of the over 30 dogs I have seen with carpal arthritis, only one has had dewclaws.

If you look at an anatomy book, you will see that there are 5 tendons attached to the dewclaw. Of course, at the other end of a tendon is a muscle, and that means that if you cut off the dew claws, there are 5 muscle bundles that will become atrophied from disuse.

Those muscles indicate that the dewclaws have a function. That function is to prevent torque on the leg. If the dog then needs to turn, the dewclaw digs into the ground to support the lower leg and prevent torque. If the dog doesn't have a dewclaw, the leg twists. A lifetime of that and the result can be carpal arthritis, or perhaps injuries to other joints, such as the elbow, shoulder and toes."

Simply put, in an effort to prevent a short-term injury, the risk of a dog developing a long-term, debilitating problem is significantly increased. This is especially true if your dog is a canine athlete competing in a high energy sport.

As this dog runs down an a-frame her dewclaws are engaged. Without them she would place great strain on her wrist joints.
As this dog runs down an a-frame her dewclaws are engaged. Without them she would place great strain on her wrist joints. | Source

What About Rear Dewclaws?

This article is mainly about front dewclaws, which most dogs are born with. Some dogs are also born with rear dewclaws.

Rear dewclaws appear to be exclusive to the domestic dog, while wolves and many wild dog breeds have front dewclaws, they do not have rear dewclaws. Rear dewclaws are called 'vestigial' meaning they are something that once had a function, but no longer do and are gradually disappearing. That is why most rear dewclaws have no bone and are just fleshy protrusions with a claw attached.

These dewclaws are often loose, as they have no bone, and can easily become caught. They do not serve a purpose and are usually removed to avoid injury. However, I would suggest this is always done under an anaesthetic as cutting through flesh is still painful.

Some dogs have bone in their rear dewclaws, in fact, my spaniel does. In this case the claws are likely to be tight to the leg and are unlikely to cause a problem. I have opted not to have my spaniel's rear dewclaws removed as they are so clearly attached and contain bone. At nearly 5 years old, she has never damaged them. However, rear dewclaws are not used like front dewclaws and must be regularly trimmed to keep them from growing into the pad of the toe or leg.

In certain breeds, double rear dewclaws are considered desirable. They are not functional, but are seen as a characteristic of the breed.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
This dog has a rear dewclaw that, unusually, is a bone digit.Rear dewclaws will require regularly trimming, as they do not wear down naturally
This dog has a rear dewclaw that, unusually, is a bone digit.
This dog has a rear dewclaw that, unusually, is a bone digit. | Source
Rear dewclaws will require regularly trimming, as they do not wear down naturally
Rear dewclaws will require regularly trimming, as they do not wear down naturally | Source

I hope this article has clarified the purpose of your dog's dewclaws and why they are an important part of their anatomy. They are very misunderstood, but can do such amazing things, along with being a vital support for the leg in general. The next time your dog has a bone or runs around, try to see that claw in action. It truly is a fantastic element of canine design!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Questions & Answers

    Comments

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      No comments yet.

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, pethelpful.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://pethelpful.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
      ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)