Dewclaws on dogs are sort of like thumbs on people, only without the purpose. If your dog has not had his dewclaws removed, you'll see them on the insides of his front legs, above the "wrist." Some breeds have dewclaws on the rear legs; some dogs are born with extras.
The dewcaw served a purpose in ancient dogs, but it's not relevant for modern canines. In the wild and today, the extra digit helped canines climbing or holding objects such as the dead animals they were snacking on, according to the VetInfo website. These days, they might aid dogs snacking on bones or chew toys. Today the dewclaw is not just essentially without a purpose; it's a hazard. It's attached to your dog's leg by some loose skin. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons describes it as "a nail, skin and connective tissue with no skeletal articulation." If the dewclaw catches on something, it can rip open. The painful, probably bloody mess will likely require a veterinary visit. Not all dewclaws are firmly attached, so these loose digits can pose problems.
Although many breed groups traditionally remove a puppy's dewclaws when he's just a few days old, the procedure has become as controversial as declawing cats or docking canine ears and tails. Talk to your vet about whether she thinks it's worthwhile to remove your dog's dewclaws. If they weren't removed when your puppy was a newborn, you can have it done at the same time as spaying or neutering. While babies just have the area numbed for removal, older dogs need to be under general anesthesia. You might want to have your grown dog's dewclaws removed if they're deformed or constantly catching on things. You should know if that's an issue by the time your dog reaches the age of 6 months. In older puppies or dogs, the paws might be bandaged for a few days after the surgery and your vet might prescribe antibiotics to prevent possible infection.
What Dogs Should Have Dewclaws Removed
Working dogs, such as hunting dogs, search-and-rescue dogs and police dogs, usually have dewclaws removed to keep them from snagging on vines, fence wires and similar objects. Retrievers and hounds moving quickly through brush could cause trauma to their feet if a dewclaw snags. On the other hand, if you participate in sports like agility with your dog, the dewclaws give Fido an advantage. Since they can grip when hitting the ground, they can aid in the tight turns that make the difference in scoring. If you own an older dog that hasn't had his dewclaws removed, there's probably no reason to schedule an appointment to do so unless they're giving him a problem. If you have a puppy with dewclaws who hasn't been spayed or neutered, ask your vet about whether the procedure is necessary. If you and your dog live an active lifestyle outdoors, consider dewclaw removal. If you and your dog are more indoor types, there's little point in removing them unless they are very loosely attached.
If your dog retains his dewclaws, you'll have to keep an eye on them and perform occasional trimming. Because they don't touch the ground, except on some breeds when the dog runs, dewclaws don't wear down naturally like the other nails. If you don't keep them trimmed, they can grow into a circle and can cut into your dog's leg or cause discomfort otherwise.
Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.