Sophie Jackson is a dog lover and trainer living in the UK. She competes in agility and obedience with her four dogs.
You are watching your puppy or older walking towards you and it occurs to you that his front feet turn outwards, the toes pointing almost to the side. Is this something unusual that you should be worried about?
Turned out toes can be a product of the breed of your dog, its genetics, injuries it may have sustained or general health. It could indicate a problem that needs to be treated by your vet, or it could be just the way your dog is. Knowing why your dog points his toes out means you can manage the problem and keep him active, happy and pain-free.
What Should My Dog's Front Legs Look Like?
A dog's front legs have similar anatomy to human arms in that they have a shoulder, elbow and wrist joint. The front legs should form a straight line down from the dog's shoulder, the limbs appearing to be slightly tucked under the chest. The elbows should be straight and not stick out. The wrist joint should not twist either inwards or outwards.
When a dog's front legs are correctly aligned they provide the perfect support for an active life. They work as shock absorbers when a dog runs and jumps, allowing the force of a hard landing to be spread up evenly through the body to the shoulders and spine. They enable the dog to walk and run comfortably without undue strain on the joints that could lead to injury.
All dogs will occasionally turn their paw out at a slight angle, it may be when they change direction or are sitting and scratching. They will then correct the toe-out paw and stand normally again. It is when a dog cannot correct its paw and the wrist is permanently twisted that there is an issue.
Breeds Prone to Turned Out Paws
Certain breeds with long backs and short legs are predisposed to turned out paws. These include Basset Hounds, Dachshunds and certain small terriers. There are various theories as to why this occurs in these breeds. One suggestion is that long backs and short legs cause a dog to have bad posture which results in them splaying out their front feet.
Other breeds were purposely bred in the past to have turned out paws, these include the English bulldog, the Shih Tzu and the Lhasa Apso. With our greater understanding of how a dog's joints work, such breeding practices are being discouraged.
Another genetic cause for turned out toes in these breeds is caused by the leg growing unevenly. The dog's lower front leg consists of two bones, the ulna and the radius. When one of these bones grows faster than the other, the leg becomes twisted. According to the charity Dachshund Health UK, the dachshund is more likely to have leg deformities because they are a dwarf breed (bred to be small and elongated) and dwarfism can lead to a number of physical problems. They recommend that only dachshunds with straight legs are bred to try to eliminate the problem.
The amount a dog turns out its feet due to these problems is variable. Some dogs may have just a slight turn to the foot, while others have paws that appear to turn out at a right angle to their leg. Extreme foot turning may require surgical correction as it can cause severe pain for the dog when walking.
Deformities Caused by Injuries
Sometimes a turned out foot is not due to the breed of the dog or its genetics, instead, it is caused by a trauma occurring that results in either the leg growing malformed or, in an older dog, healing twisted.
Puppies and young dogs are most vulnerable to these sorts of injuries. They can occur if a pup jumps down onto a hard surface, falls when running, slips or twists its leg, or if the puppy is over-exercised. Puppies have growth plates, these are at the ends of the bones and enable the bone to lengthen as the puppy grows. These eventually close to stop growth when the puppy reaches a certain age.
While the growth plates are open, they are vulnerable to injury that can result in disruption to normal bone development. Trauma to a limb during this time can cause a growth plate to close prematurely. If this occurs in the front leg and only affects one of the two bones that form the lower limb, then the leg will begin to grow unevenly and will start to twist.
Such problems need surgical intervention to correct the deformity and enable the dog to live a pain-free life.
Monitoring a puppy's exercise, avoiding strenuous activities (such as ball chasing and running up and down stairs) can help avoid this problem occurring.
In an older dog, a severe injury to the front leg can cause a paw to turn out. This might be a car accident where the limb was broken. Again, surgery may be required to correct the affected limb.
Other Causes of Turned Out Feet
While breed or injury tends to be the commonest reasons for a dog turning out their toes, there are other causes.
The elbow is a complex joint and when it develops abnormally it causes instability in the leg and ultimately arthritis in the joint. Dog's with elbow dysplasia may turn out their toes in an effort to alleviate the discomfort in their elbows. If the elbow dysplasia is treated, the dog will stop turning out its toes.
This condition affects the dog's carpus, or wrist and is seen in puppies usually between the ages of 6 to 12 weeks, but can affect puppies up to seven months of age. Though it can occur in any breed, it is primarily seen in medium and large breeds.
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Though it is not certain what causes the condition, it is thought it may be due to an imbalance in the growth rate between the tendons and bones of the front legs. This may be due to genetics or diet.
Dogs can sometimes suffer from joint instability that results in weak joints. This may be due to malnutrition as a puppy or hypermobility (a condition where the ligaments are looser than they should be, also known as double-jointed in humans). If the wrist cannot properly support the leg, then the foot may turn out. This can be helped by physiotherapy to strengthen the wrist and supports to help the dog stand without twisting.
One of the easiest conditions to treat that might be causing your dog's foot to turn out is overly long claws. If the claws are too long they can make it difficult for the dog to walk on his toes properly and over time result in the feet being turned out. Trimming claws and keeping them short should solve the problem.
Deformities of the Paw
Though it is rare, sometimes a dog has a deformity to its front paws that means it cannot stand on them correctly. One example of this is when a toe does not grow and develop as it should, effectively leaving it stunted. This causes a dog to have only three functioning toes on the foot and they may compensate by twisting out their feet. This can also happen when a dog has to have a toe surgically removed. There is no treatment for this and dogs often cope well, but may need pain medication in later life.
In breeds predisposed to their toes turning out, being even slightly overweight can exacerbate the condition as it causes the dog to change its posture and how it carries its body. Keeping a dog slim will help the problem significantly.
Arthritis causes inflammation in a joint and over time extra bone forms where it is not needed. If there is arthritis in the wrist, the extra bone growth may cause it to twist and turn outwards. Joint supplements and veterinary anti-inflammatories can alleviate arthritis pain. Never use human anti-inflammatories unless your vet advises otherwise as they can cause fatal reactions.
Will My Puppy Stop Turning Out His Feet as He Grows?
Some puppies do go through a period when their toes turn out, but this disappears as they grow up. There are a couple of theories why this occurs, such as that it is to do with the overall growth of the dog and when their chest 'drops' this naturally corrects the toe-turning.
Puppies sometimes develop unevenly and this can cause them to appear awkward until the rest of their body catches up.
The important thing is, firstly, not to over-exercise a puppy and prevent them from doing a lot of activities that result in them landing on their front feet (jumping off furniture, climbing stairs). This can be easier said than done!
Secondly, if a puppy does not grow out of toe-turning within a couple of months, it is best to have a vet check them out as a problem caught sooner is likely to be less of an issue to correct.
The Consequences of Turned-Out Toes
When a dog stands with its toes out to the side, it is not carrying its body weight properly, the leg is twisted, the wrist is at an awkward angle and the dog cannot run or walk efficiently.
Long-term, this could result in your dog being in considerable pain and may result in arthritis in the affected joint. Dogs mask pain and will only show it when it has reached a severe stage. You may notice lameness or a reluctance to jump on and off furniture. The dog may dislike exercise as this leads to greater discomfort.
Correcting turned-out toes early can prevent this, but if left untreated the problem will become more severe over time and require more extension correction. Pain management, surgery and rehabilitation are all likely consequences for dogs with this issue.
Equally, dogs with turned-out toes will need their exercise managed to prevent them from injuring themselves or putting too much strain on their feet. Chasing balls and jumping for frisbees should all be avoided. Doing certain dog sports, such as agility or flyball, may also be out of the question depending on the severity of the turned out toes.
How Are They Corrected?
While mild toe turning may be corrected with physiotherapy and management, severe cases often require surgery by a specialist orthopaedic vet.
Initially, the vet will attempt to determine what has caused the problem and which part of the leg is affected. They will then determine a surgical plan. There are a variety of options;
- If one bone is growing longer than the other, the short bone is cut to allow the normal length bone to straighten and stop the leg from bowing.
- If the bone is twisted, cutting it and realigning it will resolve the problem.
- In dogs where growth of the limb has been prematurely stopped, an external frame is used to help the bone grow and adjust back to a normal length.
Any surgical options will require a dog's leg to be pinned and some alteration of the bone. The results of the surgery are normally dramatic and very encouraging. The leg straightens and the dog can return to normal activity after a period of rehabilitation. They are often more active due to the reduction in pain.
In dogs where surgery is not an option, pain management is going to be vital, as well as a suitable exercise regime to keep the dog fit and at a healthy weight. Your vet can advise on these and should be consulted whenever you notice an issue with your dog's feet.
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.
© 2021 Sophie Jackson