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Dog Toenail Anatomy: Understanding The Basics

long dog nails

Dogs spend most of their waking hours standing on their paws and nails. As such, any issues with their nails can be extremely painful and limit their ability to move around. Therefore, it is extremely important to take care of dog nails. Regular nail trimming prevents the nails from becoming overgrown and gives you time to spot any signs of unhealthy nails before the problem worsens.


Yet to look after your dog’s nails properly, you need to understand dog toenail anatomy. Without this knowledge, you can end up hurting your dog or damaging its nails. Here we look at dog nail anatomy in depth so you can help keep your furry friend’s nails in check.


Dog Toenails 101

Pick up any of your dog’s paws and you will see four dog nails extending from each. All dogs have these dog paw nails, often referred to as dog claws. Some dogs also have a fifth nail known as a dewclaw. Instead of extending from the paw, dewclaws are slightly higher up the leg on the wrist.


Both dog paw nails and dewclaws are surprisingly similar to human nails. They are all made of a strong protein called keratin. Dog nails also have nerves and blood vessels running through them just like human nails do. These nerves and vessels are located in the inner part of the nail known as the quick and are very sensitive. In contrast, the claw part of the nail is not sensitive at all.


Despite these similarities, dog nails tend to be thicker and stronger than humans. They’re also positioned on the end of the toe bone and have a hooked shape. This is because they serve a different function than human nails. We solely use our toenails to protect the tips of our toes. Comparatively, dog nails are used for running, digging, and stability.


Dog Toenail Anatomy

Dog toenail anatomy is straightforward to understand. Every nail is made up of two distinct parts: an outer part known as the claw and an inner part known as the quick. Here we look at how these two parts are distinct from one another and the function of each.


The Claw

The claw is the visible part of the nail. It is this section that is made from keratin and it is what helps with running, digging, and stability. Because of how hard this part of a dog nail is, it also protects the feet and paws from injury. There are no nerves or blood vessels here, so you can safely trim or grind away this outer layer without causing pain.


The Quick

Although many people don’t realize it, there are nerves in your dog’s nails. They are concentrated in the underside of dog nails, a part known as the quick, along with blood vessels supplying the nail. They need the nerves and vessels to provide nourishment to the claw and facilitate healthy growth.


This part of the nail is extremely sensitive. If you cut the quick accidentally when trimming, you cut straight through these nerves and blood vessels! So you must ensure you’re always careful when trimming your dog’s nails. You can see the dog nail quick through the claw if your dog has white toenails and easily avoid trimming too low. But where is the quick on a dog with black nails? It’s still in the same place, you just cannot see it! Pay extra caution to avoid a painful experience for your dog.


The Dewclaw

How many nails do dogs have? Well, this all depends on the breed. All dogs have at least four dog nails on each paw, but some also have a fifth dewclaw. The dewclaw is considered the thumb of a dog’s paw and sits further up the wrist. They can be found on the back legs, front legs, or both.


Stability is the overarching role of the dewclaw. It helps to stabilize the wrist joint when dogs are running and increase their agility. They can also get better traction on slippery services. However, they are less functional than regular dog toenails and can be removed within the first five days of life. Nevertheless, vets only recommend removing the dewclaw unless it is injured or diseased. It still serves some purpose and is best left intact.


Healthy Dog Nails vs Unhealthy

Keeping dogs’ nails healthy is extremely important for overall well-being. As dogs are on their paws for most of the day, issues in this area can have a large impact on their quality of life. But what do healthy dog nails look like? Here are a few things to watch for.


Healthy Length Nails

When dogs’ nails grow, it is the claw part that gets bigger and bigger. As we have already mentioned, this part of the nail has no nerves or blood vessels and so can easily and painless be trimmed. This is a must for healthy nails, as there are many problems associated with overgrown nails which regular trimming can avoid.


Healthy dog nails should be long enough to be visible to the eyes. However, they shouldn’t extend far past the paw or touch the ground when your dog is standing on a flat surface. This is the optimal length for providing traction when running and digging without the risk of problems arising. For more information on how to trim dog nails, you can check out our step-by-step guide.


Correct Color

Many dogs have clear toenails, which is usually the case if your dog has white paws. The claw should be transparent and you should be able to see the pink quick growing in the center. On the other hand, some dogs have black nails and the quick will not be visible. The nails of many dogs are white in puppyhood and gradually darken with age.


While this gradually change is normal, sudden or unexplained discoloration on the underside of dog nails is a sign of illness. It can point to fungal infections, bacterial infections, or yeast infections. Most of these infections turn the nails brown or red instead of healthy white or black. Take your canine to the vet to get its nails looked at and to treat the infection.


Tips for Healthy Dog Nails

Understanding dog toenail anatomy is a must for good nail health. The better you understand how the nail functions, the easier it is to look after them and spot issues. Below are some additional tips on how to make dogs’ nails even stronger and healthier:


  • Regularly trim your dog’s nails to a healthy length as detailed above. When clipping nails, it can be easy to accidentally cut too low and damage the quick. A safer option is to use a dog nail grinder. This gives you better control over the length of the nail and lets you gradually file away the claw.


  • Add fish oil and other omega fatty acids to your dog’s diet. These oils are known to help promote the production of keratin, strengthening the claws. The stronger the nails, the less prone they are to breakages.


  • Feed your dog high-quality dog food. Consuming a nutrient-rich diet helps to promote healthy growth all over the body, including the nails. You want food that is high in protein and should avoid large boxes of cheap commercial dog food.

Final Thoughts

Dog toenail anatomy is pretty straightforward to wrap your head around. There is a hard, strong outer part known as the claw. Inside this is a nerve and vessel-dense area known as the quick which provides nutrients to the nail. Understanding this nail anatomy is essential when trimming dogs’ nails. Always cut above the quick and keep your dog’s nails a healthy length. Your pup will thank you for it!

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