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Dog Paw Anatomy: Everything You Need To Know

dog paw

Paws are one of the most iconic parts of a dog. Although they might not be as cute as your pup’s dark eyes, floppy ears, or waggy tail, they serve an essential purpose nonetheless. Once you learn about dog paw anatomy, you’ll realize just how fascinating this unique body part is. 

 

What’s more, the more you understand your dog’s feet, the better you will be able to take care of them. Not only do your pup’s paws allow them to run around and play carefree. They also keep your four-legged friend warm, give them a stable grip, and protect them from injury. 

 

So, if you want to impress your vet with your canine paw anatomy knowledge, read on.

The role of your dog’s paws

Dog paws are made up of muscles, keratin, collagen, tendons, ligaments, and bone and act like the soles of a human’s feet by giving a solid footing. However, dog paw pads feature a thick, heavily pigmented outer layer to protect them from the rough outdoor terrain where they regularly run and walk.

 

Different parts of a dog’s paw have specific functions, but two of their primary roles are absorbing shock and insulating. In addition, they assist them in a range of activities, like digging, playing, and self-grooming.

 

One interesting part of dog paw pad anatomy is that the paw design protects your dog from cold temperatures and extreme weather. This is because the paws pad features a thick layer of fatty tissue that keeps your pup warm when they are out in the cold. 

 

As soon as the paw pads experience a cold sensation, the arteries in the foot move the cold blood into the body, where it is warmed up and then redistributed. This is why your pup can run around in the snow, seemingly unaffected by the freezing temperature of the ground.  

 

While the anatomy of dog paws means canines can deal well with cold weather, their feet are sensitive to heat and can blister or burn from hot surfaces. What’s more, this body part plays a vital role in cooling your furry friend down in hot weather as they have sweat glands in their paws.

Types of dog paws

While basic canine dog paw anatomy is the same among all dog breeds, dogs have different feet styles. Three common types of dog paws are considered desirable, and each one has its specific advantages. As a result, many canines are selectively bred to have a particular dog paw type.

1. Cat feet

As the name suggests, dogs with “cat feet” have paws similar to those of felines. This paw type consists of a neat, round paw with all pads held closely together, giving the toes a high arch and a stance similar to a cat. 

 

In this type of dog paw, the third digital bone is shorter than usual, which increases the dog’s endurance as it requires less energy to lift its feet. Therefore, you’ll see this style in dogs bred to have good endurance in the field. Bull Terriers, Old English Sheepdogs, Newfoundlands, Doberman Pinschers, and Akitas are some breeds that commonly have this type of dog paw.

2. Hare feet

A dog with hare feet has paw pads that are not as close together as those with cat feet. The second and third digital pads are more extended, creating less arch. Therefore, this paw looks bigger and longer than the cat feet style.

 

Because the bones in the digital pads are long, dogs with this paw type use more energy to run. As a result, they cannot run as long as canines with cat feet and tire quickly. However, what they lack in endurance, they make up for in speed. 

 

Dogs with hare feet are skilled at running fast in short bursts. They are more sprinters than marathon runners, making them excellent hunters, hounds, and racing dogs. Therefore, it’s no surprise that breeds like Greyhounds, Whippets, Borzois, and Samoyeds have hare feet.

3. Webbed feet

As you might guess, dogs selectively bred to work in the water have webbed feet. Although dogs are land animals, those with webbed feet have paws that look similar to the feet of aquatic animals like ducks, geese, and frogs.

 

Portuguese Water Dogs have soft webbing between their toes which helps them retrieve fishing nets. And the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever has strong webbing, thick pads, and well-arched toes to help them bring back dead ducks. 

 

Interestingly, Newfoundlands have webbed feet with a cat paw shape. Historically, these large dogs helped fishers retrieve their nets in Canada’s icy, cold waters. Their webbed feet allow them to swim, and the catlike shape gives them good gripping on slippery surfaces like wet rocks.

Other types of dog paws

While cat, hare, and webbed feet are desirable, some dogs can have splayed feet that can cause gait abnormalities and health problems. Moreover, some breeds have unique foot shaping. 

 

For example, the ​​Alaskan malamute has snow-shoe-type feet for its native snowy environment. And the American foxhound has feet that look similar to the animals they hunt.

The five parts of a dog’s paw

Regardless of the type of paw your dog has, there are five dog paw parts, all of which serve a specific purpose. So let’s dive into each one.

1. Digital pads

The digital pads are what most dog owners know as their pup’s toes. They are four rounded pads at the top of the foot, just below the nails. The primary purpose of the digital pads is to bear weight and absorb shock. 

 

While we walk with most of our weight on our heels, dogs walk on their toes, making the digital pads an essential part of dog paw anatomy. The cushioned padding offers protection to your dog’s bones and joints when they are running around.

2. Metacarpal/ Metatarsal

The metacarpal (on the front paw) and the metatarsal (on the rear) are the large pads in the paw center below the digital pads. Along with the toe pads, the metacarpal pads act as shock absorbers, protecting the bones and joints. This part of their paw helps a dog understand the type of terrain they are on. It also helps with load-bearing and weight distribution.

3. Nails

The dog’s nails/claws serve multiple purposes. They work with the carpal pads to create traction and reduce slipping, and they also help canines dig in the earth and tear at prey. To learn more about dog nails and their structure, check out our article dog toenail anatomy.

 

It’s essential to trim your four-legged friend’s nails regularly. If they get too long, the paw can develop a splayed look, which reduces traction. What’s more, if nails continue to grow, they can put pressure on the nail bed and cause injuries to the tendons. 


Although every dog is different, we advise trimming your pup’s nails every six to eight weeks. Check out our nail care guide to learn how to trim dog nails safely and effectively.

4. Carpal pad

The carpal pad is one of the most distinct parts of a dog’s leg, as it appears to be more on their leg than their foot. The cone-shaped padding is located far back on the paw, serving as a rear brake. The carpal pad doesn’t touch the ground when a dog walks, but it assists with stopping and turning when they are running. So, when it touches the ground, it provides traction on slopes and slippery surfaces, preventing skidding and increasing stability.

5. Dewclaw

The dewclaw is a dog’s equivalent to our thumb. You’ll find it on the back inner side of your pup’s paws, but not all canines have them. If present, they will usually be on the front feet, but they can also be on the rear paws, although this is less common. 

 

The purpose of the dewclaw in a domestic canine is mainly unknown. Still, it’s believed that this part of the paw anatomy was helpful in some dog breeds before domestication. However, the dewclaw does give modern dogs an additional grip when chewing on something like a bone or toy.

Final Thoughts

Learning the basics of dog foot anatomy will help you understand the vital purpose of your dog’s paws. Furthermore, this knowledge will help you keep your four-legged friend healthy and happy. Paw care is an essential aspect of caring for your pet dog. Not only does it keep them in top condition, but it will prevent injuries or ailments, too.

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