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Should I Remove My Dog’s Dewclaws? (Vet Answers)

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By Dr. Joanna Woodnutt

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Dr. Joanna Woodnutt

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There is much debate surrounding dewclaw removal in dogs. Dewclaws used to be removed fairly routinely, but current thinking tends towards leaving them alone. The legislation around removal of dewclaws even differs between countries. This leaves many pet parents wondering what to do in the best interests of their dog. So, if you’re wondering whether you should remove your dog’s dewclaws, read on!

If your dog comes to you with dewclaws, you don’t necessarily need to remove them. Talk to your veterinarian about your dog’s specific needs.

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What is a dewclaw?

To help you picture it, the dog’s dewclaws are like our big toes or thumbs. They are the first digit on each paw. In most cases, the dewclaw on a front leg is a fully formed digit with a bony attachment. Dogs use their front dewclaw for gripping, traction and turning at speed, such as during agility exercises.

Dewclaws on the hind legs are more variable. Some are fully formed digits with a bony attachment. However, most are made up of nail, skin, and connective tissue with no bony attachment. These are only attached by skin, and are known as ‘vestigial’ dewclaws. You can tell the difference by how much your dog’s dewclaw moves. Fully formed digits can only move a little, whereas vestigial dewclaws are the ‘flappy’ ones that you can easily move around.

dog paws close up
Image Credit: Jumpstory

Should dog dewclaws be removed? 2 Considerations

Front dewclaws are a functional digit with a bony attachment. Hind dewclaws can be functional with a bony attachment too. This means their removal is essentially an amputation, which shouldn’t be performed without good reason. Examples of when a front dewclaw or functional back dewclaw may need to be removed include severe injury, or tumors affecting the digit. This would be a surgical procedure, under general anesthetic, recommended by your veterinarian.

1. Aesthetics

Many veterinarians are now in agreement that dewclaws should not be removed purely for aesthetic purposes (i.e., to look good), such as for showing. In fact, in some breeds having their dewclaws removed can disqualify them from showing. Many breeders still choose to have their puppies’ dewclaws removed. This means your puppy may not have any back dewclaws by the time they join your family.

2. Injury Prevention

The debate comes as some people believe that dewclaws should be removed in the first few days of life, in order to prevent injury later in life. In fact, the American Kennel Club (AKC) supports dewclaw removal, describing it as one of the “long-accepted animal husbandry practices that protect the health and safety of dogs”. Some dogs are more prone than others to torn or injured dewclaws. These injuries are painful when they happen, and often need sedation or general anesthetic to treat them.

However, most people now believe that the number of serious dewclaw injuries is relatively low. Low enough that routinely removing them is not justified or necessary. The procedure itself can be painful; dogs are prone to chewing at their bandages and stitches, and the removal site can become infected. These are known risks to most surgery, and- when making a decision- you need to weigh these against a healthy dewclaw that may only potentially become a problem.

dog paw in the snow
Image Credit: Jumpstory

When are a dog’s dewclaws removed?

The three most common times for dewclaws to be removed are: the first few days of life; as an emergency due to injury or repeated injuries; or at the same time as neutering.

The historic reasoning behind dewclaw removal in the first few days of life was that the puppy’s nervous system is not fully developed, leading people to think they do not feel pain. However, we now know that neonates can and do feel pain. Where it is allowed, some breeders remove dewclaws themselves in the first few days of life. When a veterinarian does it, they will use local anesthetic; although this in itself can be painful when injected!

If your dog has a serious dewclaw injury, repeated injuries, or a disease of the digit (such as cancer) then your veterinarian may advise removal. In this case, the removal is justified and in the best interests of your pet. The procedure would be performed under a general anesthetic.

You may notice that your dog’s dewclaws are particularly floppy and keep getting caught on things. Or you may find yourself needing multiple visits to the vet clinic for torn dewclaws in the first few months of life. If this is the case, then you may wish to discuss removal at the same time as neutering. Your veterinarian will be able to advise you on whether this is necessary.

How can I look after my dog’s dewclaws?

Dewclaws need trimming regularly, just like the rest of your dog’s nails. In fact, dewclaws may need trimming more often, since they usually don’t touch the ground when your dog walks. This means that they don’t get worn down like the other nails. Trimming your dog’s dewclaws can be done at home, especially if you start early in life. Ask your veterinarian to show you how to clip your dog’s dewclaws.

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The debate around dewclaw removal goes on. If your canine friend came to you without their dewclaws, there is no need to worry. If your doggy still has their dewclaws and you aren’t sure what to do for the best, then discuss this with your veterinarian—they will have your dog’s best interests at heart. They will also have all the information they need to make a decision, based on your dog’s individual needs. Generally, it is no longer thought to be necessary or advisable to remove dewclaws without good reason.

Featured Image Credit: Jumpstory

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