Canine Front Limb Dewclaw Removal and the Resulting Carpal Injury and Arthritis Risks
Jennifer L. Manning-Paro
PetMassage Training and Research Institute
PetMassage for Dogs Foundation Level Program
The canine dewclaw is the first digit of the paw, located on the inside (or medial side) of the front, and in some dogs, the rear legs. For the purpose of this paper only the front dewclaws will be discussed. It has long been a practice of most breeders to remove the rear (if present) and often the front dewclaws of puppies at about two to three days of age. This is thought to reduce the risk of injury to the digit and for aesthetic purposes. Resent findings have found that this practice is actually unnecessary and often detrimental to the dog’s physical wellbeing.
The function of front dewclaws have historically been misunderstood, as many believe they serve no purpose. This however is not the case. The dewclaws function to stabilize the carpal joint when the dog is at a canter and/or making sharp turns. The dewclaw can actually be seen touching and digging into the ground as the dog makes a turn. This action provides extra traction and serves to reduce the torque on the front leg (2). The dewclaws are also used to grip objects, whether it be a toy, the ground, or the ice if they have fallen into the water. During these instances, if a dog does not have its front dewclaws, the leg will actually twist on its axis to overcompensate. This increases the pressure on the carpus and in turn, the rest of the forelimb all the way up to the shoulder (7).
Those that advocate for the removal of the dewclaws believe that by doing so it will reduce the risk of them being torn off (6). However, this does not seem that great of a factor considering the benefits to the dog allowed to keeps its dewclaws. Thankfully, due to some resent research and studies, more and more breeders are opting to leave the dewclaws on their puppies.
The front dewclaws contain two bones, the proximal phalanx and the distal phalanx. Attached to these bones are four tendons and two muscles, the extensor pollicis logus et indicis proprius and flexor digitorum profundus. Once the dewclaw is removed, these muscles are then left to atrophy, weakening the entire structure of the carpus (7). With this weakening of the carpus, combined with the increased torque placed on the limb at high speeds, the athletic dog without its front dewclaws is placed at a higher risk of injury.
A recent study published by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association surveyed the risk factors for digit injuries in dogs involved with agility type events. The injuries they saw were “classified as sprain or strain, fracture, arthritis, tendon or ligament injury, dislocation or subluxation, broken or ripped nail, or other injury”. They concluded that the absence of the front dewclaws was one of the greatest factors “associated with significantly increased odds of injury”. They went as far as to advise against the removal of the front dewclaws from dogs being used in agility type activities (3).
While it is predominantly the canine athlete that is affected by injuries due to absence of the dewclaws, the non-athlete can also feel the effects. Without the dewclaw during some activities the leg will still twist on its axis. Over a lifetime of this kind of torque and pressure on the carpus, and the rest of the limb, the middle-aged and senior dogs will start to show signs of painful arthritis in all joints of the leg.
Canine athletes that present with injury to the front limb, especially the carpus, can experience some relief through the application of PetMassage. These dogs will present with various symptoms including; inflammation and swelling, pain upon palpation, general limb weakness, muscle atrophy, and a noticeable limp. Some of these dogs will also present with symptoms of arthritis if the injures are chronic in nature. Massage techniques should be applied to all four limbs, since oftentimes the other limbs will be overcompensating for the injured one. Some helpful PetMassage techniques to utilize would be compression on the shoulder area, joint mobilization over all joints of the limbs, frictioning over the entire limb, and positional release applied to all four limbs (5). For those dogs presenting with arthritis, including the non-athletic ones, the use of PetMassage as part of their health routine will greatly increase their quality of life.