You may have noticed that dog paws come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some dogs have wide paws, and others are narrow. Some dogs have rear dew claws, and others do not. Some have hair between their toes, and others have webbed feet. Although there are many kinds of dogs, one thing that is remarkably consistent, regardless of breed or mix, is basic dog paw anatomy.
Unlike humans, who walk on the balls and soles of their feet, dogs are digitigrade animals, meaning that they walk on their toes. Regardless of the form or outward appearance of dog paws, a dog’s fore and hind paws are formed for durability and functionality. Let’s explore the wonderful world of dog paws together!
Taking both fore and hind legs and feet together, dog paws all have the same five basic components.
1. Digital pads: Also known as paw pads or toe pads, each dog foot, hind and rear, has a paw pad for each of their four toes.
2. Claws: Whether you call them toes, digits, or phalanges, each toe ends in a claw, and each claw grows out of the bone and shares its blood supply.
3. Dewclaws: Also spelled “dew claws,” the smallest claw on a dog’s foreleg are similar, but not equivalent to, the human thumb. All dogs have dewclaws on their front paws. Some, but not all, have dewclaws on their hind legs, and a few breeds are born with double dewclaws on their hind legs.
4. Carpal pad: The carpal pad is the small, conical pad just above the dewclaw on a dog’s front leg.
5. Metacarpal and metatarsal pads: The largest paw pad, the metacarpal pad is a heart-shaped pad in the center of a dog’s front paws. The metatarsal pad is the largest paw pad on the rear paws. They are named for the bones that they protect and cover.
Dog paws come in three basic shapes — cat, hare, and webbed — each suited and specialized to particular tasks and terrain. Because there are many mixed-breed dogs, these types are not mutually exclusive. Dogs may have both webbed and hare feet, for instance.
1. Cat feet: The cat foot is compact, small, and round in shape. It is formed for stability, endurance, and bearing great weight. With that functionality in mind, it’s easy to infer that the cat foot is commonly found in most large working dog breeds, such as the Akita, Doberman Pinscher, and Newfoundland.
2. Hare feet: Where the cat foot is compact, a hare-footed dog has two elongated central toes. It is formed for speed and quick movement out of a resting position, like the feet of hares or rabbits. Dog breeds with hare feet include the Borzoi, Greyhound, and Whippet.
3. Webbed feet: Dogs with webbed feet tend to be all-terrain dogs, those who are proficient at swimming, and many hunting dog breeds. Among the list of dogs with webbed feet, we find the Labrador Retriever, Portuguese Water Dog, and Weimaraner.
A dog’s paw pads might be the most fascinating features of a dog’s feet. Composed of keratin, collagen, and adipose, paw pads serve a number of useful functions. The digital, metacarpal, and metatarsal paw pads act as shock absorbers for the bones and joints that make up the dog’s feet and legs, while the cone-shaped carpal pad aids a dog with balance, slowing down, and stopping. Paw pads provide insulation for a dog’s feet, and are particularly effective when it is extremely cold outside. The fibrous and fatty tissues that make up paw pads do not freeze as quickly or easily as normal skin.
For working dogs and those who spend a lot of time outdoor or in rough terrain, the paw pads become calloused and rough to the touch. Frequent usage gives a dog’s paws added traction and stability, both of which contribute to the fact that you rarely see dogs slip or lose their footing. As they mature, dog paw pads also become highly sensitive and adaptable to the ground beneath their feet. This helps to explain why dogs seem so uncomfortable or tentative when they are made to wear dog boots.
Finally, essential to the complete dog paw experience are a dog’s claws, which are both similar to and different than human fingernails. Though they are tougher, thicker, and more durable than your fingernails, a dog’s claws grow just as quickly. Dogs who are highly active outdoors — whether walking, running, or digging — tend to keep their claw length under control through constant use. In either event, domestic dogs need some manicuring help from their owners or their veterinarians.
Unlike your fingernails, a dog’s claws grow out of her bones and share their blood supply. If your dog has white claws or nails, this blood supply should be at least partly visible through the nail, making it easier to trim them without bleeding or pain. Claw maintenance is a bit more difficult for dogs with black or opaque nails. To be on the safe side, dog owners can either clip only the pointed end, or leave it to the professional care of a professional groomer or veterinarian.
A dog’s paws serve a multitude of basic and specialized functions. In addition to walking, digging, self-grooming, and play, they also contain scent and sweat glands, which are useful for territorial marking and temperature control. Proper care of a dog’s paws and claws is essential to her long-term health and well-being. Regular washing and massaging from an early age can prevent issues such as frito feet, a condition caused by an accumulation of sweat, bacteria, and yeast that gets trapped in foot hair or between a dog’s toes over time.
Do you have a paw-care routine with your dog? Let us know in the comments!
Read more about dog paws on Dogster:
About the author: Melvin Peña trained as a scholar and teacher of 18th-century British literature before turning his research and writing skills to puppies and kittens. He enjoys making art, hiking, and concert-going, as well as dazzling crowds with operatic karaoke performances. He has a female Bluetick Coonhound mix named Idris, and his online life is conveniently encapsulated here.