Paw Problems (Part 1 of 4): Paw Pad Injuries, Cracked Pads, Paw Licking

If you have a dog, then download, print, file this article. Why? Because chances are high that your dog will injure their paw at some point and when that happens, here's what you need to know.

Why are paws so important? Because dogs use them for almost everything:

  • to get around - Walk, run, jump. Paw pads provide traction on slippery surfaces and steer pups away from trouble when sensing sharp objects on the ground. Dog nails are not only vital for scratching that bothersome itch but also for gripping the ground when dogs make sharp turns.

  • as tools - For digging through dirt, holding a toy or bone, and of course to perform high-5s and shakes.

  • paw pads help to cool dogs down - Dogs don't sweat through their body; they cool off by panting and also by sweating through their paw pads. Since paws keep dogs cool, they're able to play and work longer.

We provided boots for bomb squad dogs in Iraq. The boots were dunked in water and stored in the fridge until dogs needed them. The boots kept these military dogs cool, protected their paws from 120 degree sand, and helped them work 4 times longer in unbearably hot conditions.

Healthy paws are integral to a dog's wellbeing - simply put, if a dog's feet hurt, they can't get around easily. They'll spend more time lying down, which can lead to muscle loss, weight gain, and depressed mood.

There are many conditions that affect dog paws. This is part 1 of a 4-part series on common paw-related issues.

  • Part 1 - Paw Problems - paw pad injuries, cracked pads, paw licking (and comments on dog socks and boots)

  • Part 2 - Nail Issues - torn nails, misshapen nails, nail filing techniques

  • Part 3 - Toe Injuries - torn or stretched digital tendons/ligaments

  • Part 4 - Toe Amputations - what to consider


Paw Pads - What's Their Function

1) Protect digits and paws - Paw pads are made of tough and specialized skin that protect inner structures. Pad skin gets tougher and more calloused as dogs walk on harder surfaces. The opposite is also true; pad skin gets softer and more prone to injury if paw pads are covered or not allowed to be exposed to regular outdoor environments.

2) Help dogs cool down - Paw pads help regulate body temperature - specifically, pads help dogs cool down. One of the most important things to remember about paw pads is that dogs sweat through their pads, not through their bodies (like humans). Covering paws with a boot or bandage for long periods causes the pads to sweat - if too much moisture builds up in a boot or bandage, it will lead to sores or fungal infections (e.g., yeast). The same holds true if a dog licks their paw a lot - the wetness can lead to sores and infection.

paw irritation and hair loss after chronic licking

3) Absorb shock and impact - Under pad skin is a fatty layer that acts as a cushion to help absorb impact, add "spring" to a dog's step (like wearing sneakers), and protect bones and ligaments. Some dog breeds (e.g., Greyhounds) have a thinner fatty layer and are more prone to injury, calluses, or corns because the toe bones are closer to the surface of the skin and not as well protected or insulated.

painful corn on the pad of a Greyhound's paw

4) Feel the ground and provide traction - Dogs "feel" the ground through their paws, which help them sense where they're stepping and avoid sharp objects or hot surfaces. The sandpaper-like texture of the paw pad provides good traction on slick surfaces like rocks, snow, or indoor tile. In hot summer months, sidewalks and sand can get very hot. Paw pads can withstand some heat but if it's a really hot day, keep your dog off the road or sand, or protect their feet from burns using light booties. Dog paws are much better able to handle cold conditions because of their fatty layer and good blood flow. But if your dog is in snow for long periods, again boots are recommended. Even sled dogs that are used to the snow sometimes wear protective boots.

sled dogs with protective boots

Paw Pads - Pink vs. Black

Puppies typically have pink paw pads, and pads tend to get darker as puppies grow and pads get tougher. Some adult dogs retain pinkish or lighter colored pad; these pads are more delicate and usually the first to injure. If your dog has light-colored pads, it may be a good idea to protect their paws with light booties if they're going on a hike or running on sand.

Signs of Paw Pad Trouble

Dogs are pretty good at letting you know that something's wrong with their feet. The most common signs are:

  • Limping - though there are many reasons why dogs limp (problems can stem from the paw or spine or anywhere in between), it's just good practice to check paws daily.

  • Excessive licking or chewing on toes or pad skin - even a splinter or scrape can cause your dog to "attack" their paw in an attempt to reduce discomfort. Chronic licking quickly turns a small injury into a big one as dogs can easily self-mutilate. We've heard people say countless times "I just turned away for 1 minute and he chewed his whole foot!"

  • Redness, hair loss, and/or swelling of toes or paw.

  • Dry or cracked pads or pads that are feathery in appearance (also known as hyperkeratosis).

hyperkeratosis - dry "feathery" pad skin

Paw Pad Issues and Treatments

Cuts, Scrapes, Burns

Once injured, paw pads heal slower than other areas of the body. Even a small cut can take weeks or months to fully heal because dogs continually bear weight on their paws, which causes healing skin to tear, reopening wounds.

Cleaning / Soaking the Paw

For small cuts: If your dog has a small scrape or irritation (e.g., around a nail bed or webspace), dabbing the area with a witch-hazel-soaked cotton pad should be enough to disinfect and help it heal. Don't cover the paw unless your dog is prone to licking or is going outside. Exposing the wound to air will help it heal faster.

If the cut is larger or bleeding, first flush and clean it with antimicrobial liquid. A diluted betadine solution (few drops of betadine in warm water) works well. The best way to flush a wound is to soak the foot for 3-5 minutes. If you have a small dog, this is easy to do; just fill a sink or a basin with a few inches of warm water and add a little betadine. With larger dogs, foot soaks can be challenging. Try using a small, plastic tub or plastic mason jar (do not use glass jars) filled 1/2-way with diluted betadine, then gently place the foot inside to soak. Drape a towel around the rim of the jar so your dog's leg rests comfortably on the rim while the paw soaks. Mason jars come in many sizes and can even accommodate very large paws - check size before ordering.

In a pinch, a clear plastic bag can be used to soak a paw. For smaller dogs, use the quart-size ZipLoc plastic bag; for larger dogs, use the gallon size. First, slip a hair scrunchy over the dog's leg. Then, fill the ZipLoc bag about 1/2-way with diluted betadine and insert the paw in the bag making sure there's enough liquid to fully cover the wound. Then pull the hair scrunchy over the top of the bag to secure the bag onto the dog's leg. Let the paw soak for 3-5 minutes. Note: when making a diluted betadine soak, the water color should look like weak iced tea (see below).

this is what diluted betadine should look like

After soaking, dry the paw thoroughly making sure to dry between the toes. Cotton balls or pads work well to clean and dry the web spaces and in between toes. If your dog's fur covers the paw pads, carefully clip hair away with a small