Sophie Jackson is a dog lover and trainer living in the UK. She competes in
agility and obedience with her four dogs.
A greyhound’s front paw, clearly showing the large dewclaw. These claws would
benefit from a trim.
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What are Dewclaws? 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 the 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 dogs
descended from wolves, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Topics This Article Covers
- Why do dogs have dewclaws?
- Why are dewclaws removed?
- How a dog uses its dewclaw.
- Problems with dewclaws.
- Problems without dewclaws.
- What are rear dewclaws?
Why Do Dogs Have Dewclaws?
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
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
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.
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
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 from 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
Arguments For and Against Removal
Some argue that the removal of dewclaws should be done to prevent the claws
from 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.
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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.
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, 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
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
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
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
As this dog runs down an a-frame her dewclaws are engaged. Without them she
would place great strain on her wrist joints.
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
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 five 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.
This dog has a rear dewclaw that, unusually, is a bone digit.
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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
© 2019 Sophie Jackson
Sophie Jackson (author) from England on November 27, 2019:
Yes, so for instance if a dog rips a claw (whether it is a dew claw or one of
the toe claws) it hurts as there are nerves running through it.
Larry Overbeek on November 26, 2019:
Is there feelings in a claw the same as I dew claw