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What Is the Purpose of a Dog’s Dew Claw?

Picture of dogs paws and woman's feet

Dew claws have recently found themselves at the center of some controversy. Dogs are born with a set of dew claws on the inside portion of their front legs, and some breeds also have them on their rear legs as well. Dew claws are in a precarious spot and can be prone to painful injuries. Still, the dog is a marvel of intelligent design, and it’s highly unlikely that for centuries dogs have been born with body parts that aren’t intended to be useful to them in some way. With this in mind, what is a dew claw, and what is it used for? 

What is a dew claw?

If you were to examine the structure of your dog’s foot, you would easily see that the dew claw assumes the position of the “thumb.” Dew claws appearing on hind legs take a reverse approach with the dew claw functioning instead as a big toe.

Dew claws found on the front legs are often very firmly attached, making their removal more challenging and potentially quite painful. Since front dew claws are actually secured to the leg by bone, their removal is a different matter than that of rear dew claws. By comparison, rear dew claws tend to only be connected to the leg via a small portion of skin. Since back dew claws rarely serve any great purpose, these are often removed simply to reduce the risk of potential injury and infection.

What is the function of the dew claw?

If you’ve ever had to care for a dew claw injury, you’ve likely asked yourself if the dew claw serves any functional purpose at all. The truth is, it does indeed. Though many breeders do opt to remove dew claws for esthetic and practical purposes, the dew claw is a digit that was designed for a specific function in the dog’s life.What is that function?

The location of the dew claw on the foot allows it to provide additional balance and traction for dogs in motion. Front dew claws also support the wrist, thus preventing injury.

But front dew claws don’t just fulfill one job in the average dog’s life. They DO indeed function as a sort of thumb, enabling our dogs to scale trees, hold objects, and even to gain footholds on slippery objects.

To remove or not to remove?

Whether or not to remove a dog’s dew claws is a sticky issue. There are proponents on both sides of the equation, making it challenging to come to a conclusion.

Most dog professionals agree that removing dew claws from the hind legs is the right thing to do. Their purpose is rather unclear, and they are far more prone to snagging on fabrics, leading to painful tears. Since dew claw injuries are difficult to treat, removing the back ones that seem to serve no tangible purpose is actually kinder to your canine friend in the long run.

Whether or not to remove the front dew claws is a much more controversial issue. There is no question that the front dew claws do enhance a dog’s life and serve a very distinct purpose. Can a dog function without them? Absolutely. But the greater question then becomes, “Should he have to?”

While injuries of front dew claws certainly do occur, does it justify the removal of a digit attached to the dog’s leg by bone? Though some dogs will experience injuries to front dew claws during their lifetime, incidents seem to be few and far between.

Most typically, if your breed of dog tends to be a hunting or working dog who may be more likely to experience injuries in the line of duty, dew claws are removed for the safety of the dog. Often, this surgery is done by a veterinarian at the time of a spay or neuter to reduce an additional surgery as well as the necessary recovery time for the dog.

Many breeders opt to remove dew claws at the time they would dock tails; the period between 3-5 days old. Done during this time, it is believed that it is the least invasive, and the healing time is much more abbreviated. Often this is done to comply with a written standard for conformation where the appearance of a dew claw would be undesirable. However, it is important to note that in some breeds, dew claws are actually required within their standard.

In the end; if it is legal to remove dew claws in the region where you live, the choice really is up to you. The best course of action is to seek wise counsel from your vet and your breeder and to consider your future plans for your dog. Most dogs live their entire lives without a single injury to a dew claw, an important consideration to bear in mind. 

How do you treat a dew claw injury?

The best course of action with potential dew claw injuries is prevention. By keeping the nails trimmed quite short, you will greatly reduce the risk of injury. However, should the nail split, break off, tear, or become infected, there is little you can do at home to treat the problem. You will need to bring your pooch to the vet for appropriate treatment which many include a topical ointment, antibiotics, and some pain medication.

Though dew claws can be a nuisance to trim, they do serve an important purpose in the life of your dog. By keeping them short, you will greatly reduce the risk of injury. If you’re on the fence as to whether to keep or remove them, your veterinarian can provide excellent insights to help you make your decision.

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