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canine health problems
Black dog nails

📷 by Nature_Blossom

A dog’s nails are one of their first points of contact with the world around them. Think of doggie nails like an athlete’s cleats — their biggest and most important job is to help with traction, agility, balance, and protection. But just because a dog’s nails are one of the most resilient parts of their body doesn’t mean they aren’t prone to health concerns.

What’s in a dog’s nail? 

The first step to maintaining your pup’s nail health is understanding their paw anatomy . Most dogs have four nails per paw that attach to the bones at the end of their toes. Each nail has a hard, keratinized outer shell that surrounds the quick.

Quicks are like human cuticles and are the most sensitive part of a dog’s nail. They’re made up of living tissues that house the nerve endings and blood vessels necessary to keep your pup’s nails healthy and their paws strong.

Dog nail anatomy

Anatomy of a dog nail

🚨 Improper nail care can cause pain and bleeding, and in extreme cases, can affect a dog’s musculoskeletal system.

Nail and claw color varies from pup to pup too, depending on the color of their skin and coat. Some paw nails are all one color while others can have a mixture, which is why it’s so hard to see where the quick begins. To get a better view, gently lift your pup’s paw and look at their nails head-on. The beginning of the quick usually starts as a small, dark circle at the center.

Why do nail infections commonly occur in dogs’ paw areas?

Nail and nail bed infections are defined as any abnormality or disease that affects a dog’s claw or the areas around it. Infections are common in paws because paws are in constant contact with everyday surfaces and germs. Canine nails are situated above the paw pads. They only touch the ground when your pup is on the move, but because your pup is probably walking around a lot, it leaves plenty of room for exposure.

Although nail infections in dogs have a variety of causes, they usually have an excellent treatment prognosis and take a short amount of time to heal. That said, any suspected nail infection should always be seen by a vet before it worsens or spreads.

How to spot a nail infection in your dog

A swollen nail bed on one or more of your dog’s nails or inflammation across a paw is usually the first warning sign. Other symptoms include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Biting, chewing, or licking at nails
  • Pain or sensitivity
  • Limping or difficulty walking
  • A discolored, malformed, soft, or brittle nails or claws
  • Redness or itchiness
  • Pus
  • Bleeding
  • Hair loss on the paws
  • Onychorrhexis
  • Foul odor

🚨 If symptoms are seen on more than one nail or across multiple paws, a much larger issue could be at play and you should talk to your vet immediately.

Common causes of canine nail infections

1. Nail trauma and injury

This is by far the most common cause of nail infections. Trauma and injuries can result from a variety of situations that cause open wounds or legions. Among the most common are stepping on foreign objects (think: thorns, glass, or rocks); paw pad burns or frostbite; fights or self-inflicted injuries from allergies; or stubbed nails that split, crack, or break.

Some dogs may not like their paw being handled if a traumatized nail is causing pain and sensitivity. Instead, they may lick or chew the area, leading to a slower healing process and an even higher risk of infection.

2. Ingrown nails

Sometimes without regular nail trimming, a dog’s nails will grow long enough to curl back and dig into the footpad. If the nail gets deep enough to break a dog’s skin, an infection is very likely to occur. This can cause serious discomfort and may lead to lethargy or a refusal to walk. Ingrown nails usually happen with dogs that don’t like their nails trimmed or senior pups with an increased rate of nail growth.

👉 Because your pup’s nail bed and quick can be so difficult to see sometimes, never trim their nails on your own without veterinary consultation or proper training.

3. Bacterial exposure

Bacterial paronychia is an infection that happens when any paw trauma or injury, like a cut or scrape, is exposed to a contaminated surface. A lot of different kinds of common bacteria can cause infection and it usually results in inflammation around the claws. A dog’s claws can also become infected by transferring bacteria from their mouth by chewing or licking an injury. The first warning sign of infections to look for is dog nails that are red, swollen, and/or warm to the touch.

👉 Bacterial infections are usually a secondary symptom of an underlying issue. So, any previous trauma to the infected paw should be taken into consideration.

4. Fungal exposure

Onychomycosis is a condition caused by a fungal infection of the claws or nail beds. The most common culprit is a ringworm infection (dermatophytosis) . Other types of claw fungal infections are possible, though they’re seen much less frequently. Ringworm usually affects a pup’s skin and hair, but advanced cases can spread to the claws.

Since fungal organisms vary by geography, pups in different parts of the world are at higher risk of exposure than others. Dogs who live in warmer climates with higher humidity are at a bigger risk of infection.

🚨 Ringworm is highly contagious to other dogs, cats, and people, so talk to your vet as soon as possible for proper precautions to prevent spread!

5. Allergies

Food and environmental allergies are also very common causes of infection. Allergies can lead to yeast infections in a dog’s nail beds.

6. Lupoid onychodystrophy

This is an autoimmune disorder that causes misshapen, thickened, or brittle nails, and sometimes even nail loss. It’s not a very common nail disorder, but some breeds like young German shepherds and rottweilers could be predisposed.

Other potential causes

These causes are far less common, but could still lead to canine nail infections:

  • Tumors or cancers (melanoma)
  • Immune-mediated diseases
  • Weakened immune system
  • Excessive levels of growth hormone
  • Congenital disorders
  • Neoplasia

Treating your pup’s nail infection

A noticeable nail abnormality should be evaluated by a vet as early as possible to help with any discomfort your pet might be feeling. Your dog’s veterinarian can also prevent the condition from worsening. A veterinarian will be able to diagnose the root cause of infection, properly clean and soothe the infected area, and prescribe any necessary medication or antibiotics for treatment.

Because a dog’s nail is attached to the phalanx bone, sometimes a nail infection can spread into the surrounding muscles, nerves, and bones. In this case, treatment can become much more difficult, and sometimes the infection may become chronic.

👉 If you suspect your doggie is suffering from a nail infection, you shouldn’t try to treat it at home.

Quick and easy ways to prevent nail infections

Give your dog regular nail trims — It’s always a better idea to have a professional clip and file your pup’s nails, and your vet or groomer should be able to provide appointments! Never try to trim your dog’s nails unless you have proper training, experience, and the essential tools (dog-friendly nail clippers or grounders especially).

Go on outdoor walks — Pavement and other hard walking surfaces are some of the greatest natural nail filers out there. Regular activity is not only vital for a happy pup but crucial for optimal paw health.

Handle your dog’s paws a lot — This is the best way to check your pup’s nail health regularly and get them used to their paws being handled in future groomer and vet appointments.

Try to prevent too much licking and chewingThis can be hard, especially during those hours of the day and night when you’re not around to watch your pup. But the biggest key to preventing any type of infection, especially after trauma or injury, is making sure the area stays dry, healthy, and clean of bacteria.

Address any skin allergies as soon as you can — The earlier you catch allergy-related issues causing contact dermatitis, the better chances it won’t affect the nails.

Add an extra layer of protection!

There are some great remedies out there for paw health. But remember to always consult your vet before introducing a new product to your dog’s health regimen.

  • With cones. Elizabethan collars are a must-have for pups healing from infections. These cones can prevent your dog from licking their irritated paws and nails.
  • With Epsom salt baths. Use one cup of Epsom salt per gallon of warm water. Soak your dog’s paws in the mixture to soothe dry, irritated paws.
  • With balms. Paw balms like PawTection from Natural Dog Company can moisturize and protect your dog’s precious paws from natural elements.

Frequently asked questions

How do I know if my dog’s nail is infected?

Usually, the first warning signs of infection are swelling, redness, and sensitivity in the nail beds or surrounding areas. More symptoms like pus, bleeding, and crusting of the skin are likely to show up as the infection worsens.

Can I treat my dog’s infected paw at home?

It’s always recommended to consult your dog’s vet if an infection is suspected. Because infections are caused by a wide variety of factors, the symptoms can present in different ways. Home remedies should be avoided — better safe than sorry!

Can you put Vaseline on a dog’s paw?

Vaseline is a synthetic material that can cause an upset stomach, vomiting, and diarrhea if ingested in large amounts. Plus, Vaseline can decrease airflow to the skin and can potentially trap more germs and bacteria inside an open wound.

How do I treat my dog’s infected toe?

Talk to your vet as soon as possible to decide on the best course of treatment.

Are nail infections more common in certain dog breeds?

Studies have shown dog breeds such as the American cocker spaniel, West Highland white terrier, dachshund, German shepherd, Cavalier King Charles spaniel, and shih tzus are more susceptible to yeast infections. These types of infections can be seen on a dog’s nail bed.