It’s true that dogs don’t need to wear shoes. They build up a tolerance for heat and cold on their paw pads and even rough terrain to some degree. But even though your pet’s paw pads are tough — they are, after all, composed of specialized thick, tough skin — they are not made of armor, as the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation points out. They still require some special handling.
That’s especially true in cold-weather climates during winter. Dogs’ pads are prone to chapping and cracking, and rock salt along with chemical ice melters can cause sores, infections, and blistering. To make matters worse, toxic chemicals can be ingested when a dog licks her paws in search of comfort. That’s why, after you walk outdoors with your pet in snowy, icy weather, it’s a good idea to wash her paws in warm water, advises the ASPCA. That will rinse away all the salt and chemicals. Booties in extreme weather aren’t a bad idea, either. The ASPCA also says you may wish to apply Vaseline to your dog’s foot pads before each walk during the winter. That organization calls it “a great salt barrier.”
Extra precautions hold for super-hot weather as well as cold. Hot pavement — or sand — can cause burns and blisters. In fact, if you see blisters, loose flaps of skin, or red, ulcerated patches on your dog’s paws during the dog days of summer, you’ll want to apply first aid: antibacterial wash and a light bandage wrap. Of course, if the affected area is more than about a half-inch in diameter, or is causing obvious lameness, you should take your dog to the veterinarian for treatment.
But it’s not just extremes in temperature that should have you considering your dog’s paws. They have a certain vulnerability no matter what the weather, especially since for the most part they remain unprotected as your dog runs around outside. Taking the following steps will help insure their protection.
1. Regularly trim the hair in between your dog’s paw pads. Excess hair can be prone to painful matting and can also attract thorns and pointy weeds and grasses. That includes foxtails — a pointed, arrow-shaped weed that can penetrate the skin and cause abscesses. To trim the hair most efficiently, comb the hair out, especially from between the toes, and cut it even with the pads.
2. Check between your dog’s toes regularly, as foreign objects can become lodged in the pads — pebbles, bits of broken glass, and other debris. If you clean these areas regularly — perhaps with tweezers — you will help your dog avoid not only pain but also infections.
3. Keep your yard free of sharp pointy objects. Tiny bits of glass or other kinds of shard-like splinters can cause discomfort and more. If you wouldn’t feel comfortable going in your back yard barefoot, then you shouldn’t let your dog do it, either.
4. Trim your dog’s nails — every few weeks, on average. In some cases, people let their dog’s nails grow so long that they curve around in almost a 360-degree loop and grow back into the paw pads, causing pain and infections. Then, too, explains James Barr, DVM, of the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, “the longer the nails are, the harder it is for your pet to walk on hard surfaces. Also, they are more likely to be caught on something and be torn off.” Finally, the quick of the nail grows as the rest of it does, increasing the possibility that they will be cut accidentally and cause painful damage if you wait too long between trimming sessions.
If you are uncomfortable trimming your dog’s nails yourself, perhaps because she doesn’t like you handling her feet, take her for trims to the groomer’s. Groomers sometimes use nail grinders, which take down nail tips smoothly with a little rotary sander — although not all dogs like the feel, or sound, of a grinder. If that’s the case with your pet, ask the groomer to trim her nails with a clipper. (If you use nail clippers on your dog at home, throw them out when they become dull. Dull clippers prolong the session and squeeze the nail instead of slicing cleanly, causing pain.)
5. Go the extra mile and give your dog a paw massage. It will relax her in addition to promoting better circulation. Start by gently rubbing the pads on the bottom of the paws in a circular motion, then go between each toe.
6. Moisturize your pet’s pads to help keep them from cracking, chapping, and drying — or to heal them if they have already cracked. Talk to your veterinarian about which kind of moisturizer to use. Human hand moisturizer might soften the pads too much, predisposing the dog to injury. Whichever moisturizer you use, rub it in thoroughly, advises the AKC Canine Health Foundation. That way the dog won’t lick it off and ingest something that isn’t meant to be swallowed.
7. If you decide to engage your dog in a new physical activity program or even to ramp up her current level of physical activity, start slowly. Her paw pads need time to acclimate to the extra use, or they can chaff and crack.