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Dog Toenail Anatomy: Understanding The Basics

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. So, it is extremely important to take care of dog nails.

Regular nail trimming prevents the nails from overgrowing and gives you time to spot any signs of unhealthy nails before the problem worsens. To look after your dog’s nails properly, you need to understand the anatomy of your dog's toenails. Without this knowledge, you can end up hurting your dog or damaging their nails.

Here's an in-depth look at dog claw anatomy so you can help keep your furry friend’s nails in check.

Table of Contents

  1. Purpose of Dog Nails
  2. Role of the Dewclaw
  3. Anatomy of a Dog's Nail
  4. Healthy Dog Nails Are Important
  5. Characteristics of Healthy Dog Nails
  6. Tips for Healthy Dog Nails

The Purpose of Dog Nails

All dogs typically have four toenails connected to four individual paw pads. Each nail should point forward with a slight curve toward its respective pad. Some dogs also have a fifth nail called the dewclaw, which is usually located higher up on the leg. These nails are made of a strong protein called keratin, which is also found in human nails. The keratin in dog nails creates a nerveless outer shell that protects the inner bundle of nerves within.

Unlike human nails, dog nails tend to be thicker and stronger to sustain activities like running and digging. While our nails lay on the tops of our toes and fingers and grow from our cuticles, dogs' nails connect directly to their skeletal system. They attach to the tip of the last phalanx bone, and any trauma or infection can affect this bone and others nearby.

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The Role of the Dewclaw

How many nails do dogs have? The answer to this question varies from breed to breed. Some dogs have 18, some have 20 and some have even more! Most dog breeds have at least four nails on each paw, but some also have a fifth dewclaw.

These claws are typically only found on the back of a dog's front legs, connected by a ligament and bone. You may also see them on their hind legs in some breeds. Breeds like the Great Pyrenees and Icelandic Sheepdogs are known to have double rear dewclaws, regarded as the standard anatomy.

These claws are considered the thumb of a dog's paw, providing stability to the rest of the body. Dewclaws help stabilize the wrist joint when dogs are running and increase their agility, maintaining 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 when it is injured or diseased since they still serve some purpose and are best left intact.

The Anatomy of a Dog's Nail

Dog toenail anatomy is straightforward to understand. Every nail is made up of two distinct parts: the claw and the quick. Here, we look at how these two parts are distinct from one another and what function each serves.

The Claw

The claw is the visible part of the nail. This section is made from keratin and 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 in this part of the nail, 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 and blood vessels in your dog’s nails, concentrated within a highly sensitive part known as the quick. Dog nails need nerves and vessels to provide nourishment and facilitate healthy growth.

It's crucial to always be careful when trimming your dog's nails. Accidentally trimming the quick will cut right through these nerves and blood vessels, causing pain and bleeding. You can see the quick through the claw if your dog has white toenails. While it’s still in the same place on a dog with black nails, you just can't see it. So, pay extra caution to avoid a painful experience for your dog.

Healthy Dog Nails Are Important

Dogs walk, run and play constantly, and their nails are one of the first parts of their body that allow them to do so. Keeping dogs' nails healthy is extremely important for their overall well-being, affecting their balance, posture and safety. These functional body parts are integral to maintaining stability and traction during daily activities like standing, running, walking and digging.

Long, misshapen or ingrown nails that touch the floor push back into your pup's paws and can create painful pressure in their toe joints. Plus, your dog will be very uncomfortable walking, maintaining good posture and engaging in their favorite activities if their nails bother them. Healthy, trimmed dog nails will also keep you, your pup and their friends safe during playtime, preventing accidental cuts and scratches for everyone involved.

Characteristics of Healthy Dog Nails

Since 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.


When dogs’ nails grow, the claw part gets bigger. Claws are easy to trim with minimal risk, and this is a must for healthy nails since regular trimming can prevent many problems associated with overgrown nails.

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.

healthy dog nails


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 — unless your dog has black nails. The nails of many dogs are white in puppyhood and gradually darken with age.

While this gradual change is normal, sudden or unexplained discoloration on the underside of your dog's 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. If you see this sign, take your canine to the vet to get its nails looked at and treat the possible infection.


Healthy dog nails are shaped like an oval, resembling a horn. They start wider at the base and become increasingly narrow as they grow. Certain conditions, traumas and infections can misshapen your dog's nails, leading to significant pain and damage. Lupoid Onychodystrophy and Dermatophytosis are unique conditions that can cause dog nails to deform, grow larger and break.

Tips for Healthy Dog Nails

Understanding dog toenail anatomy is a must for good nail health. The better you understand how nails function, 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:

  • Use a grinder: 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.
  • Use fish oil and other fatty acids: These oils are known to help promote the production of keratin, strengthening the claws. The stronger the nails, the less prone they are to breaking.
  • Improve their diet: 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.

Care for Your Dog's Nails

Dog toenail anatomy is pretty easy to wrap your head around. Understanding this nail anatomy is essential when trimming dogs’ nails for a safe and effective experience. Always cut above the quick, and keep your dog’s nails a healthy length. Your pup will thank you for it!

Last Updated on July 31, 2023 at 8:30 AM

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