Do dogs have thumbs? In the ongoing, slow-burning processes of evolution, parts of bodies adapt, change, or get left behind. Some of these bits and bobs get caught in limbo as vestigial structures — they’re still there, but they no longer serve a purpose.
Think of your coccyx, or tailbone, or perhaps your appendix. The former illustrates that in an older configuration, people used to have tails, and the latter once served a digestive function. As it turns out, dogs do have thumbs, but they, too, have been relegated to the bargain bin of utility. Dog dewclaws, historically spelled “dew claws” or “dew-claws,” are largely atavistic appendages, which dogs retain to this day.
Dog facts: What are dog dewclaws?
Every domestic dog paw has four primary toes. Every domestic dog also has a fifth digit on the front paws, occupying the same general position as the thumb on the human hand. This is why they’re often referred to as a dog’s thumbs. This fifth digit is the dog dewclaw. You may notice when walking or playing with your dog that the front paw’s dewclaws don’t actually touch the earth when he walks, so what purpose does the dewclaw serve?
What do dog dewclaws do?
A dog’s front dewclaw has several functions, minor though they may be, including balance and stability when dogs are in movement over uneven terrain or making landfall after swimming. The front dewclaw gives a dog some assistance and control in the normal course of grooming, particularly when dogs are cleaning their heads and faces. You may even notice your dog making good use of it when she’s gnawing with satisfaction upon her favorite chew toy.
What about hind dewclaws?
When we talk about dog dewclaws, though, most people are probably thinking about the floppy, useless thing with a little claw on a dog’s back leg. You can see the intermediate work of evolution in motion with the hind dewclaws. All dogs have dewclaws in the front, but most hind dewclaws are merely genetic anomalies.
Where the front declaws are connected by bone and ligament to a dog’s forepaws and have limited, but distinct functionality, the hind leg dewclaws do nothing at all. Hind dewclaws, when they are present, tend to appear at a distance from the rear paw. These dewclaws are attached by nothing more than a small flap of skin, with no other attachment to the leg, either by ligament or bone.
Dogs with double dewclaws
Rare as they are, there are dog breeds that are commonly born with functional double dewclaws on both hind legs! In fact, there are a few dog breeds for whom the double dewclaw is not only present, but a breed standard requirement. For American Kennel Club conformation shows, members of the Beauceron, Briard and Great Pyrenees breeds are required to present with double dewclaws intact.
There are other dog breeds that are occasional hosts to double dewclaws. These include Anatolian Shepherds, Australian Shepherds, Estrela Mountain Dogs, Icelandic Sheepdogs and Spanish Mastiffs. What is the common ground? You’ll notice that these are all large or giant dog breeds, and all working dogs who utilize the functional double dewclaw for stability in rough terrain.
Hind dewclaw removal
Like the tailbone and appendix in humans, we tend to notice dog dewclaws, fore or hind, only when they’re injured. Hind dewclaws, having no real substantive connection to the body in most dogs, have a disturbing propensity to get caught on things. This leads to torn or ripped dewclaws and no small amount of bloodshed when accidents happen. Some dog owners choose a surgical option. Having the hind dewclaws removed early in a puppy’s life eliminates the risk of freak injury later on.
Hind dewclaw removal is typical, though neither universal nor medically necessary, for those those with newborn baby puppies. During a puppy’s first visit to the veterinarian, dewclaw removal surgery may be performed. At that very early stage, pain is minimized and recovery times are faster, making early-life surgery for hind dewclaws preferable to higher-cost, more painful surgeries due to injury as adult dogs.
Just as the breed standards for some dogs mandate the presence of the rear dewclaws, others insist upon their removal. One example is the Bouvier des Flandres, also known as the Cowherd of Flanders or Flemish Cattle Dog. The AKC breed standard clearly states that in cases where a Bouvier des Flandres is “born with dewclaws, they are to be removed.” These regulations, of course, apply only to those dogs that will be entered in conformation shows.
Dog dewclaws: Atavistic but wonderful
Surgical removal of dewclaws within a few days of birth, then, is largely either an aesthetic choice or a preventative one. Two of the dogs I’ve owned in my lifetime have had hind dewclaws, and both lived long, full, incident-free lives with those adorably floppy little digits. Dogs who do sustain dewclaw injuries, even to the forepaw, and have the surgery out of necessity recover perfectly well. Take this Yorkshire Terrier, for instance.
Calling a dewclaw a dog’s thumb is not entirely accurate, because it is not as mobile or functional as our opposable thumbs, with a few notable instances among larger dog breeds. I found a delightful video online showing just how useful the front dewclaws can be when you take dogs ice fishing.
Does your dog have hind dewclaws? Are there any double dewclaw readers out there? We’d love to see your photos and hear your dewclaw stories in the comments!
Thumbnail: Photography by Shutterstock.
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25 thoughts on “What Are Dog Dewclaws For, Anyway?”
I have 2 dogs with double dew claws… A Great Pyranes/ Border Collie(just back feet) and a Shih Tzu(all 4 feet)… Both are rescues. The Great Pyranes is understandable, but not sure where the Shih Tzu's came from, though her feet are also deformed, so probably a freak of nature… Good thing I'm a groomer with all those extra toenails to trim…lol
"Hind dewclaw removal is typical, though neither universal nor medically necessary, for those those with newborn baby puppies. "
Dewclaw removal is illegal in many countries, so how can it be typical?
Just got a Boxweiller who has double dew claws on both his front and hind legs. Not sure what to do.. As long as they don't bother him I'd consider leaving him as is.
Hi, I breed Griffon Bruxelois & Petite Brabanson Griffon. Sometimes pups are born with rear double dew claws. They are toy breed dogs. I never get them removed. Its up to new owners. I have one adult with them. Never been bred from. Never had an issue. Maybe thats why they are known for tree climbing.
I just adopted a 6 month old female Anatolian Shepherd mix from a shelter who has double dew claws on rear legs. I’ve been debating having them removed when she is spayed. I think they make her unique.
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My beagle/black and tan coonhound mix is a double dew claw boiiiiii! Whispers at the dog park abound
So I’ve been working with a German Shepard mix that has been severely emaciated and is missing most his fur. I noticed that he has double dew claws on both back feet but it doesn’t look like he’s mixed with any of the breeds you mentioned on here. I say that but once his fur grows back he may look completely different
Yes I have a 6 month old Yorkshire Terrier with double due claw on both back legs. So so much for it being a larger breed thing because it clearly is not lol
We have a new Great Pyrenees/Anatolian Shepherd mix and he has rear double dew claws. He’s 11 weeks now so not sure if we’ll have them removed or not when he’s neutered, but they are awfully floppy.
Your article has incorrect ideas listed as fact. The rear dew claws do in fact connect to the bone and tendons/ligaments in a dogs rear leg. I have raised a Great Pyrenees mix as livestock guardian dogs for a while now. The dew claws are attached. I tell my buyers they can have the dew claws removed at the time of spay/neutering as it is a surgery.
My experience is the same as yours. Some dew claws are fully attached to solid bone and tendoins/ligament. Other dew claws can be attached by skin only. I have Leonbergers, and one of my males had double dew claws on his hind legs, fully attached to bone. He was bred to a female born without dew claws. Out of four puppies, one was born without, one was born with single dew claws attached to skin only, and two were born with double dew claws attached to bone. One boy from this litter (the one with single, skin only attached dew claws) was bred to a female born without. In that litter one of the puppies was born with double dew claws, attached to bone. Makes me wonder how it iherites, when I look at these thre generations! 😀
Norwegian Lundehunds are not a large breed. That detail should be modified.
Thanks for pointing that out! This is an older piece that we recently updated. We have taken that mention out.
I’ve adopted a female mix from a shelter who has double dew claws on both back feet! I’ve been reading trying to find any clues to her breed so can watch for future health problems, but all five of the siblings look different with varying color patterns, ear types, and fur textures. She’s got fur like a bunny rather than a smooth coat and semi pricked ears similar to a collies but she’s only ten weeks old and the ears could fully prick. Any advice would be greatly appreciated!
We suggest contacting the shelter to try and find out more information on your mix. Best of luck!
I had a Staffordshire Terrier come to me very pregnant, she was saved from a kill shelter in Texas. She had a litter of 7 puppies, 6 fat healthy pups, and 1 runt who was also the only brindle and born breech.
The first 6 all had rear dew claws on both legs, a few doubles, 1 had doubles on both legs, the runt was the only pup that didn’t have them.
Does the colouring, or anything other than luck play a part in it when dealing with random mix breeds?
(Btw, all 7 have grown up happy healthy dogs, with an average weight of 100lbs, they were bigger than mom by 4 months old)
I recently got an Anatolian Shepherd puppy and she has double dew claws on her right hind, but a single one on her left hind. She’s the first dog I’ve ever had with hind dew claws and I find them kind of cute!
We just got a Pyrenese puppy and she has the double dew-claws on her hind legs. I didn’t realize that was a charastic of this breed!
My Siberian Husky has rear dew claws. At his first vet visit I questioned removing them. The vet told me since they were attached with bones and not floppy that we should leave them. Removal would of been an amputation. Can’t post a pic because it doesn’t give me the option.
Just picked up my foster at a shelter last night and noticed she has 2 dew claws on the back of only 1 foot. Is that consistent with any specific breed. She’s a pit MIX we think.
I recently adopted a 10 month old black Labrador Anatolian shepherd cross who weighs 85 lbs. This dog has a dew claw thumb on only one hind leg and none on the other. This thumb has no claw. Should I be concerned?
Hi there Karen,
Thanks for reaching out! We suggest contacting your vet with this question.
Our 2 year old LabPit and my husband play in the backyard with the water and she loves it, but accidents happen and during one of their play times, she broke the dew claw. Very painful. The Vet amputated it the next day for $500. Three weeks recovery and she was good to go for more backyard water fun. Dogs are very resilient. I think the dew claw should be removed as babies.