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Dog Paw Anatomy: Everything You Need To Know

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.

The more you understand your dog's feet, the better you'll be able to take care of them. Your pup's paws allow them to run around and play carefree while also keeping them warm, giving them a stable grip and protecting them from injury.

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

Table of Contents

  1. The Role of Your Dog's Paws
  2. Types of Dog Paws
  3. Other Types of Dog Paws
  4. The 5 Parts of a Dog's Paw

The Role of Your Dog's Paws

Dog paws are comparable to a human's feet, providing the solid footing and support they require. This stability is possible due to the paws' makeup of keratin, collagen, tendons, muscles, ligaments and bone. Dog paw pads feature a thick, heavily pigmented outer layer to protect them from the rough outdoor terrain where they regularly run, walk, play and dig.

Different parts of a dog's paw have specific functions, but two of their primary roles are absorbing shock and insulating a dog's feet when in extremely cold conditions. Durable fatty tissue and the ability to warm and recirculate cold blood throughout the body act as a pup's first line of defense from the cold. Paws can also cool your furry friend down in hot weather thanks to their sweat glands, protecting them from blisters and burns.

Have you ever wondered why your dog kicks their hind legs after going to the bathroom? One interesting part of dog paw pad anatomy is that their paws have scent glands. When they scuff up an area using their back legs, they're letting other animals know who was there first!

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.

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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. These paws are quite small and compact and are known to provide improved balance and stability, which can help prevent injuries over rough terrains.

Cat-like paws are most often found in working dogs. Their short digital bone decreases the energy they need to lift off the ground, which drastically improves their endurance across long distances. 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 at explosive speeds across short distances. 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 small bursts. They are more like 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

Webbed feet are a popular dog foot type and are helpful in many applications, including hunting, digging and retrieving. All dogs have some degree of webbing between their toes, but dogs specifically bred for this feature have a skin membrane extending further up between their toes. It provides beneficial mobility through water and improved traction through mud, snow and dirt.

Of course, dogs selectively bred to work with water have webbed paws, resembling the feet of many aquatic animals like ducks, geese and frogs. Breeds like the Portuguese Water Dog and Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever use their strong webbing, thick pads and well-arched toes to dive into the water to bring fishing nets and dead ducks back to their owners. However, Dachshunds use their webbed feet to dig through dirt to find the rodents they hunt.

Other Types of Dog Paws

Some dogs don't fall into one of the above categories, having their own unique foot shaping or even additional toes to help them deal with their job or environment. ​​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 it hunts. Others have a combination of two or all three of the popular types of dog feet.

Newfoundlands have webbed feet with a cat paw shape, allowing them to swim while maintaining a good grip on slippery surfaces like wet rocks. This makes it much easier for these pups to help anglers retrieve their nets in Canada's icy, cold waters.

Splayed Feet

While cat, hare and webbed feet are desirable, some dogs have splayed feet that can cause gait abnormalities and health problems. Genetics or environmental circumstances like long nails or poor nutrition can cause a foot to splay out, creating a flat-footed pup with spread toes. This anatomy doesn't effectively support weight or provide adequate traction and can lead to additional issues down the line.

Flat Feet

Just as it sounds, flat feet characterize a condition where a dog's feet lie flat on the ground without an arch, commonly caused by carpal hyperextension and carpel flexion. This is a largely controversial foot type, deemed as a problem needing to be fixed in some breeds while regarded as the standard in others. The Tibetan terrier is one of these pup breeds benefiting from flat feet, using them as snow-shoes to traverse slippery, mountainous regions.

The 5 Parts of a Dog's Paw

dog paw anatomy

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 and Metatarsal pads

Your dog has two large pads in the center of their paw, right below the digital pads. These areas are known as the metacarpal and metatarsal pads. The metacarpal is present on the front paw, while the metatarsal pad is located on the rear pad. Both act as shock absorbers, protecting the bones and joints and helping a dog understand the type of terrain they are on. They also assist with load-bearing and weight distribution.

3. Nails

Also referred to as claws, dog nails are made from keratin and serve multiple purposes. Healthy nails work with the carpal pads to provide suitable traction across all terrains, allow for proper posture and assist canines in digging and tearing at their prey.

It's essential to trim your four-legged friend's nails regularly. Their paws can develop the splayed look if they get too long, which reduces traction. If they're left untreated, 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.

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 doesn't touch the ground when a dog walks since it's located far back on the paw. It serves as a rear brake, assisting with stopping and turning when a dog is running. So, when it touches the ground, it provides traction on slopes and slippery surfaces, prevents skidding and increases stability.

5. Dewclaw

The dewclaw is a dog's equivalent to a human 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.

Your Guide to Dogs' Front and Back Paw Anatomy

Learning the basics of dog foot anatomy will help you understand the vital purpose of your dog's paws and ensure you keep them 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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Last Updated on July 31, 2023 at 9:00 AM

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