Your dog’s paws are the critical link to successful adventures. Minor scrapes and cuts elsewhere tend to heal quickly, but paw injuries can be truly debilitating as they are difficult to keep clean, protected, and dry.
While dogs that are regularly active tend to develop tough, hardy paws, factors such as terrain, breed, and age can make a difference. And of course, even with the most attentive owners, accidents can happen to any dog. One thing is for sure: no one wants their #1 adventure partner to be benched due to a paw injury!
We’ve detailed some of our experiences below with paw care across many different activities, climates, and terrain. The following is meant to be informational in nature, and is no substitute for professional veterinarian advice! If anything more than a superficial paw injury does happen, get your dog in to see a vet right away.
It’s really important to keep your dog’s nails at a proper length, as long nails can split or tear and cause bleeding and pain. Long nails can also prevent a dog’s foot from striking the ground the correct angle. Finally, if you are using boots with your dog, long nails can cause them to fit improperly.
If your dog runs barefoot on trail on a regular basis, then she likely keeps her nails worn down to a good length naturally. Sometimes, Bella’s dew claws occasionally need a little trim since they don’t hit the ground, and we sometimes take a little off of her nails in the winter when she runs mostly on snow. Keep clippers sharp, as dull nail clippers can cause the nail to splinter as it crushes rather than cuts (we are due for a new pair). As your vet for help if your dog doesn’t tolerate nail trimming well. Watch the quick, and know that if your dog’s nails get longer than they should, you will have to take a little off at a time to let the quick recede. A little cornstarch can act as a styptic powder if you go too far by accident!
Salts, Pesticides, and other Toxins
Humans like to spray salts and chemicals to prevent snow and ice buildup in the winter, but this can wreak havoc on dog’s paw pads. Any toxins on the ground can come in contact with your dog’s feet on a regular basis, such as motor oil, pesticides and plenty of other irritating substances.
For long trips out on salted sidewalks, boots can help. A quick rinse of paws in the shower can be beneficial as well. Bella only gets a bath once a month or so in the winter, and when she does we make sure to lather and rinse the bottoms of each paw pad to rinse off any accumulated toxins that we can’t see. Between baths, we do a diluted iodine soak in a Tupperware container (two paws at a time) every few weeks. An iodine soak can also help with dogs that are plagued by yeast and fungal irritations in their paws.
Determined to get out with your dog after an extended illness, injury, or perhaps a period of winter hibernation? Or maybe you are even dipping your toes into an active lifestyle for the first time? Good for you! We give you serious credit. Make sure to start with shorter treks on any abrasive rocks or sand and slowly build distances to help your dog toughen her paw pads.
Some rocks are sharper than others, and even rocks on mountain ranges within the same relative geographic area can have very different abrasive qualities. Always bring dog boots if you aren’t sure what type of rock or terrain you will encounter, particularly when exploring new territory. Check your dog’s paws often if you suspect harsher conditions than she is used to. Catching irritation early on before it becomes a problem is key! Bella’s paws are so tough from mountain running, that she has never required boots on rocky terrain…but we carry them on long treks anyway.
Snow can especially bother dogs with long hair, curly hair, and hairy feet. Different types of snow are stickier than others, so even dogs with short hair can get irritating ice balls between their toes at times. Some dogs will bite and chew the ice accumulated in their feet so intensely that they cause their feet to bleed. A topical salve and snow repellent will help, and boots may be necessary as well (see more on boots for snow below). We’ve even heard of snowsport athletes who lightly spray their long haired dogs with vegetable-based cooking oils. Metal edges and sharp cleats from snow gear as well as shards of ice are other potential hazards you may encounter when the mercury drops. Extreme cold can be a concern, particularly when the temp goes below zero.
In the summer, check the temperature of hot pavement or sand…place your hand or foot on the surface and leave it there for ten seconds. Too hot? Then it’s too hot for your dog. Stay on grass and other unpaved surfaces, and avoid the hottest parts of the day. Some varieties boots will help as well.
Dry climates can cause cracks. We use Musher’s secret to moisturize Bella’s feet at night if we notice any cracks here in dry Colorado. This allows her feet to stay hydrated overnight while she rests. Applying salve on a fairly regular basis (maybe twice a week) has also helped us find little thorns and stickers between her toes or in her ankles that we otherwise wouldn’t have noticed.
Cactus, grass seeds, and thorns
We don’t protect with boots for these but bring boots in areas with cactus just in case. It might sound strange, but Bella “smells” for cactus and is amazing at maneuvering over them. If your dog is typically stoic when faced with pain or discomfort, check for spines throughout your adventure. Bella lets us know right away if something is stuck to her paw pads (she stops suddenly, refuses to move, looks at us, and lifts her paw), but little thorns and seed pods elsewhere we usually find when checking for ticks, giving her a bath, or moisturizing her paws. Grass seeds, when they go unnoticed, can migrate and cause a lot of problems. Keep a pair of tweezers in your first aid kit to help free your dog from any annoying plant matter.
The Lowdown on Dog Boots
We get asked all the time what types of dog boots are the best. What we’ve discovered is that there is no perfect dog boot! Dogs evolved barefoot, and honestly, their feet just don’t fit boots that well. Being barefoot allows dogs to balance more naturally, keep their paw pads tough, wear down their nails, and gives them the best traction on a multitude of surfaces, including ice. However, the reality is that many dogs will require dog boots for at least one of the conditions we mentioned above from time to time.
The following are our top picks for dog boots, but all dogs and conditions are different, so be prepared to test a few before you find your perfect fit. Measure your dog’s feet carefully and know that it is common for back feet to be smaller than front feet in dogs. You may need to order different sizes for front and back paws. Finally, if your dog is new to wearing boots, he may need some time to adjust to the new sensation. Here are some tips for making the process as easy as possible!
- Packed snow and light hiking: Dogbooties.com — Cheap, simple, and thin and flexible enough for your dog to still get feedback from the ground. Wear them out? Lose one? No problem..at $3 a pop, these won’t break the bank. One drawback is that these have very little traction on slippery surfaces, and will wear out faster than other options.
- Abrasive rocks/multipurpose: Ruffwear Grip Trex — Great traction and thicker soles for rocks and other irritants. Watch out if your dog has dew claws, these may not work for you. If you use boots a lot, these will last you a long time. Ruffwear boots fit like a glove and don’t get floppy in the toes. These are a good investment at $74.95 for four or $37.50 for a set of two.
- Deep snow/ice: Ruffwear Polar Trex — These are designed for snow, and have a gator to keep out deep powder and ice. A specially designed tread offers traction in snow and ice. Again, be careful with these if your dog has dew claws! You also want to be especially careful not to lose these. At $99 for a set of four, or $50 for two, losing one could be heartbreaking, but they are great for snowy adventures.
- Multi-purpose: UltraPaws Durable Dog Boots — Affordable, offer all-around protection from many hazards, and don’t irritate dew claws. These are a tried and true favorite of ours. $31.95-$34.95 per set of four. Downside? They don’t come in pairs of twos or singles as other boots tend to. Consider buying a couple of sets, mix-and-match and you will have a backup pair.
No matter what paw challenges your dog may face, a product like Musher’s Secret or Joshua Tree Pet Salve is great to have on hand for all kinds of issues, from snow and salt to dry climates. If you are feeling crafty, you can even make your own paw wax. We regularly use this recipe with great success.
Awareness of potential paw hazards mixed with an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure when it comes to keeping your dog on her feet!