Reducing Paw Pad Injuries in Athletic Dogs
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For athletic and sporting dogs, it is important to be sure their paws are healthy and without injury, says Robert Gillette, D.V.M., M.S.E, director of the Sports Medicine Program at Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
“If injuries to the paw aren’t taken care of immediately, they may result in the need for prolonged therapy, which can be very detrimental,” Gillette explains. “First, the injuries could lead to extended downtime. As downtime goes up, a dog’s overall body condition goes down. Second, the dog will adapt its movements to compensate for pain. The altered movement could create secondary musculoskeletal issues that could impede performance.”
Dogs’ paws are designed to withstand a lot of wear and tear because of the keratin epithelium that covers the pads. This thick layer of skin provides protection for the foot’s tendons and ligaments, acts as a shock absorber and provides traction. As trainers and breeders of sporting dogs know, however, the pads aren’t impenetrable.
“Once the surface of a pad is opened, the protective barrier is broken,” Gillette says. “The impact of continued movement can push foreign bodies up into the tissue underneath the pad. If the pad closes over that material, a secondary infection may occur.”
Types of Paw Pad Injuries
Although paw pad injuries are relatively common, they aren’t as frequent as might be expected from the activity level of sporting dogs. “Most dogs trot at a stride frequency of about two to two-and-a-half strides per second,” Gillette says. “At two strides a second, that means a trotting dog’s foot has impacted a surface 120 times in a minute, and 1,200 times in 10 minutes. Taking that into consideration, the number of actual pad injuries is low compared to the potential for injury that exists.”
Four types of injuries to dogs’ pads are the most frequent: abrasions (an irritation caused by wear, grinding or rubbing), bruises, cuts and puncture wounds (a hole or perforation made by a pointed object). Of these, abrasions are probably the most common in sporting dogs.
“This is especially true for dogs that run in rocky country where there is rough lava rock or granite or where the soil is sandy,” says John Rabidou, breeder and trainer of German Shorthair Pointers. “It’s almost as if you’re running the dogs on sandpaper. The action of the foot on the rough surface keeps wearing away skin until that tough covering is gone.”
Rough terrain also can cause bruised pads, usually the least serious of the injuries but one that can be misdiagnosed. “Bruising can cause a dog to be lame on that foot, and the dog may show pain when you press on the pad,” says Arleigh Reynolds, D.V.M., Ph.D., DACVN, Purina Nutrition Scientist and avid sprint dog competitor. “But you have to be careful and make sure you’re not dealing with a puncture wound that’s covered over and infected. The two injuries are hard to tell apart, but feeling the paw for heat or taking the dog’s temperature to see if it’s above 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit are good ways to check for infection.”
Puncture wounds can become infected because the depth of the injury allows foreign substances to remain in the wound and cause infection. But Gillette says cuts can be the most severe type of injury since deep lacerations may cause damage to tendons or ligaments. These injuries often occur in areas close to water, hiking trails or other places where people leave behind broken glass.
Another area of the paw sensitive to injury is the webbed skin between the pads. “Hounds tend to have what I call open feet, meaning they have fairly long toes and a long slope to their foot,” Reynolds says. “This means when they take a step, their toes fan out, which can cause problems. For instance, when a hound runs on fresh snow, the snow can be abrasive and cause painful fissures in the skin. How much hair and the type of hair a dog has between its toes makes a big difference in how well protected the webbing is.”
Reynolds explains certain breeds like Huskies have a lot of hair that tends to be oily between their pads, thus preventing snow from balling up. On the other hand, retrievers and setters usually have fine paw hair that isn’t as oily, which results in snowballs between the dogs’ toes.
“A soft wax applied to the paws helps prevent snow from balling up in the foot and allows dogs to hunt without being booted,” Reynolds says. “Although boots protect the feet, they also decrease traction. If a dog is running and happens to run over slippery surfaces, they can slide out and injure a shoulder.”
Paw shape and color are two other factors that determine whether dogs are more prone to pad and webbing injuries. “If dogs have long toes and a long slope to their foot, it means the paw is going to flair out more when it trots,” Reynolds says. “By contrast, dogs like the German Shorthair Pointer have what we call ‘cat feet,’ where the paw is tight because there is little webbing in between the toes, which provides less chance for injury.”
Identifying and Treating Injuries
“Too often the physical examination of a lame dog will bypass palpating the pads of the paws,” Gillette says. “Initial treatment will address the major problems of the shoulder or carpus, and the pad problem will be overlooked. A dog might get better with treatment, but the problem will return because the primary injury was never addressed.”
A good examination of the pads includes digital pressure applied to the bottom and sides of each pad, inspection of the webbing, and close observation of the surface of the pads. A good look at the nails is also warranted, checking for discoloration (for example, a white nail with a brown center) and swelling or redness where the nail goes into the toe, both conditions that could indicate infection. Gillette and Reynolds agree that paws should be checked before a workout to ensure there are no lesions that could be exacerbated by activity, as well as following the workout to check for a new injury.