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What Causes Unhealthy Dog Nails And How To Prevent Them

resting dog paw with short nails

As nails are such a small part of a dog’s body, they are often neglected during grooming. However, your pup’s claws serve many essential purposes; giving traction and balance when running, helping them carry out their digging instinct, and offering protection. 


However, if your four-legged friend’s nails are not in good condition, they will not function the way they are supposed to and may create discomfort and pain for your pooch. Unhealthy dog nails can result from various things, such as infections, injuries, poor diet, and more.

Luckily though, you don’t need to be an expert in dog nail anatomy to know how to keep your pup’s claws in top condition. Read on to learn the most common dog nail problems and how to prevent them.


Healthy Dog Nails 101

In order to know whether your dog has a nail problem, you’ll need to understand the difference between healthy dog nails vs. unhealthy. A healthy canine’s nails are oval-shaped but broader at the toe and narrower towards the tips. Like human nails, dog claws are made of the protein keratin. 


Dog nails are typically a similar color to the skin of their paw pads. So if the paw pads are pink, the nails will be transparent with a visible light pink quick. Alternatively, if the feet are black, the nails will be too. In addition, they should look and feel smooth, without any splits or cracks. 


Your pup’s nails should not extend past the paw. If you notice they curve inwards towards the pads, this is a sign they are too long. Additionally, they should not touch the ground when your pup is walking. You can determine whether they are too long if you hear a clicking/tapping sound when they walk on hard surfaces like wooden floorboards.


Unhealthy Dog Nails Symptoms

There are various dog nail problems that canines can suffer from. Each disorder may have a unique telltale sign, yet most will share some of the following common symptoms.


  • Inflammation and redness around the nail beds
  • Excessive licking or chewing of the paws
  • Limping or reduced mobility
  • Deformation
  • Discoloration
  • Discharge from the nail bed
  • Bleeding from the nail bed or quick

Common Dog Nail Disorders

The causes of unhealthy dog nails range from non-serious and easily treatable to severe. Here are seven of the most common dog nail problems.


1. Ingrown nails

If dogs spend a lot of time outside on rough terrains, they will likely file their nails naturally. However, the rate that dog nails grow differs from canine to canine, and most will require nail clipping from time to time. 

Overgrown nails are a common problem when nails are not regularly trimmed and taken care of. If they grow too long, they can cut into the paw pads and lead to infection. As you can imagine, an ingrown dog toenail can become extremely uncomfortable and painful.


2. Trimming accidents

While trimming keeps nails healthy, if you are unsure how to trim dog nails, you may accidentally cut too deep, causing bleeding and pain. Each nail’s base is a bundle of nerves and blood vessels known as the “quick.” 

If you accidentally trim down to this sensitive area, there may be temporary bleeding and pain. We recommend using a dog nail grinder to prevent trimming accidents, as it’s the safest tool available for inexperienced groomers.


3. Nail fractures

As dogs spend much of the day on their feet, the nails may break or split from time to time. Depending on how severe the breakage is, a broken dog nail from injury can cause your pup pain and discomfort. 


Inflammation and bleeding are common visible signs of nail fractures. Moreover, injuries can happen when dogs get their feet trapped or squashed under something heavy. In this case, dog nail discoloration may also be present. Nail fractures are often susceptible to infection, so they should be kept cleaned and bandaged up when outside.


4. Dog nail infection

There are two types of infections that can affect the feet and cause unhealthy dog nails. Typically, it will be either a dog nail fungus or bacterial infection. You can usually tell which one the culprit is by the visible symptoms. 

For example, inflammation may not be present in a fungus infection, such as ringworm. Instead, this dog nail infection will typically create a crusting appearance on the nail’s surface and the surrounding skin tissue. On the other hand, bacterial infections will have more swelling and redness and result in discharge from the nail bed.


5. Brittle nails

Suppose your dog seems to be cracking or splitting their nails regularly. In that case, this could signify that they are missing essential nutrients in their diet. For example, keratin, which dog claws are made from, contains over 90 percent protein. So, if a dog does not get enough protein through their diet, you will see the adverse effects on their nails. 

Weak, dry, and brittle dog nails reduce the functioning of this part of the paw and can cause pain, too. However, you can make brittle nails healthy again with some simple changes in your dog’s diet.


6. Nail Tumors

Dogs can develop tumors anywhere on their body, including the toes close to the nail beds. Subungual melanoma and squamous cell carcinomas are two types of tumors that can occur here. Melanoma is most common in Poodles, Dachshunds, Scottish terriers, Golden retrievers, Schnauzers, and Rottweilers. Squamous cell carcinoma tumors affect large breed dogs and black-colored dogs the most.


Tumors appear as solid, raised skin masses on the toe, such as nodules or papules. They are usually accompanied by swelling and can cause ulcers that may erupt and even broken nails on the affected toe.


7. Lupoid Onychodystrophy

Lupoid Onychodystrophy is a skin disease that affects the cells around the nails, making them brittle, thick, and deformed. The condition can cause the nails to grow out at weird angles, affecting the dog’s mobility. In severe cases, the toenails can fall off, resulting in pain and susceptibility to secondary infection.


Lupoid Onychodystrophy is an immune-mediated condition, meaning it is triggered by an overactive immune system. Some breeds are more prone to it than others, such as Gordan setters and German shepherds.


How to Treat Unhealthy Dog Nails

The type of treatment will depend on the specific cause. Therefore, it’s essential to book an appointment with a veterinarian to receive a diagnosis before attempting to treat it.

Your veterinarian will prescribe the necessary medication, for example, antibiotics for a bacterial infection or itraconazole for fungal infections. Surgical removal may be required if the cause is due to a tumor.

Because dogs need to use their feet throughout the day, many dog nail problems take a while to heal. Therefore, your veterinarian may suggest restricting movement as much as possible and bandaging the foot before taking your pup outside.

Some causes of unhealthy dog nails are preventable. Therefore, there are several lifestyle changes and additions you can make to help keep your pup’s nails in top condition.

  • Healthy diet – Ensure you are feeding your dog a balanced and complete dog food that contains the proper nutrients for their age, breed, and lifestyle. You should look for dog food with protein, such as chicken, as one of the top three ingredients. If this is not the case, the food will be high in carbohydrates and low in protein, which can cause brittle nails and lead to obesity. 
  • Omega 3 supplements – An easy way to boost your dog’s hair, skin, and nail condition is to give them an Omega 3 supplement every day. This fatty acid from fish oil will moisturize your dog’s nails, prevent splitting and promote growth.
  • Biotin supplements – Biotin is a B-vitamin used to treat several dog nail problems such as Lupoid Onychodystrophy. However, it is a safe supplement to give your dog every day because it is water-soluble, so any excess will excrete in the urine. 
  • Regular grooming – As your dog’s guardian, you should schedule time regularly to care for their feet. This involves tasks like cutting their nails to prevent ingrown claws, trimming hair tufts between the toes, and wiping their feet with antibacterial wipes to keep infection at bay. Grooming also allows you to notice any fractures or issues before they get serious.
  • Take care of the paw pads – If your dog’s paw pads become dry or chapped, this increases the chance of secondary infections that can affect the nails. Therefore, avoid taking your dog out for walks when the pavements are hot, use dog paw balm, and consider getting them some booties!

Final Thoughts

By understanding the symptoms of unhealthy dog nails, you’ll be able to notice anything concerning, like excessive licking, and take action immediately. Moreover, by following the prevention tips above, you can keep your beloved furry friend happy, healthy, and pain-free.

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