My six-year-old English Shepherd, Bones, is a hardcore athlete.
He plays hard, runs hard, and works hard. I don't make him do these things; it's just his nature. He's happiest when pushing himself.
Unfortunately, his temperament means that sometimes he hurts himself and his paws bear the brunt of the wear and tear. He has scuffed his pads, taking the outer layer of skin off. He's cut his pads, worn down his toenails, broken toenails, and ripped his dew claws on more than one occasion. As a result, I've gotten pretty good at evaluating paw injuries and learned when to rush to the veterinarian right away, when I can wait until the next day, and what can be treated at home.
Determining That He's Hurt
Dogs have individual pain responses when a paw is hurt. Whereas Bones one day walked around on the concrete patio leaving bloody paw prints, without a hint of a limp, my youngest dog, Hero, in the same situation would be flat on his back, paw in the air, completely broken. As much as possible, learn to recognize even the subtle signs your dog may give when he's hurt. Although the bloody paw prints was a dead give away Bones was hurt, of course, so was the pacing. He wouldn't settle down.
I also give my dogs a good examination every night, especially if they've had a busy day. I check over the entire dog, looking for cuts and scrapes, burrs, foxtails, fleas, and ticks—but I also pay particular attention to their paws. This way I can find even small wounds that may not be giving them any issues.
Evaluating the Wound
Once I've found the problem, no matter whether it's a cut pad or a broken toenail, my next step is to see exactly what has happened and how bad it is. This helps me determine whether I can handle it at home or if I need to call the veterinarian. Plus, when I need to call the vet, the more information I can give him, the better.
Here are some questions to keep in mind as you evaluate the injury:
With a toenail or dewclaw, is the toenail broken down into the quick? Is the toenail gone; ripped from the nail bed? Is a piece of the toenail ripped but hanging?
With his pads, is one pad scuffed but not bleeding? Is a layer of skin peeled up but is still hanging on? Is the pad cut down into the underlying tissues?
Is the injury between the pads? On the top of the paw? Or does it feel like he may have hurt a toe, breaking a bone or twisting something?
And last, is his paw bleeding? If so how much? Is it swollen?
Many toenail injuries can be treated at home. If the nail is torn without going into the quick, simply trim off the jagged piece. Sometimes you may need to trim it a couple of times to even the edge of the torn nail so it doesn't catch on everything. A nail file can help even the edges, too.
If the nail is torn into the quick but not too far into it, have someone hold your dog for you and then quickly, without hesitation because it's going to hurt, trim the broken piece of the nail off in one quick cut. Then put some styptic powder on the nail and hold it still until it stops bleeding. A gauze pad over the nail and a couple of wraps of elastic bandage will protect the nail until it begins to heal.
If the nail is broken deep into the quick or the nail was torn from the nail bed, wrap the paw gently with an elastic bandage to protect it and then get your dog to the veterinary clinic. It's not an emergency (you can wait until morning, keeping him from messing with it) but don't put it off any more than that as an infection could develop.
If the pad is simply scuffed with one layer of the pad scraped off, clean the pad with soap and water, dry it, and wrap it for a day or two. It will take time for that special thick skin to grow back but your dog will walk on it just fine in the meantime.
If the scuffed or scraped area is pink and oozing blood, then it's fairly deep. Put a gauze pad over the wound, wrap the paw, and call your veterinarian for an appointment. It's not an emergency, but you don't want an infection to get going.
Cut pads, with just a small slice that isn't bleeding, can be cleaned at home and wrapped to protect them for a few days. Keep the paw dry and keep your dog fairly quiet; no rough play right now.
A cut pad that's bleeding significantly, or one that has a piece of skin dangling, will need veterinary care. Place a gauze pad over it, wrap it with an elastic bandage, and call your veterinarian. He will let you know how quickly he needs to see the injury.
Objects between the Toes
It's not unusual for burrs, foxtails, tiny sticks or other debris, dirt, or even small pieces of gravel to get wedged between your dog's pads. Snow may form snowballs tangled in the coat. Mud might dry to the hair. Most dogs will immediately try to pull or chew the object out and then all will be fine. However, sometimes the object can get wedged tightly in the paw or it may puncture the skin—then your dog needs your help.
Snow and mud can be washed from the paws with warm water. Just get the paw wet and work on the snow or mud with your fingers until it dissolves.
Burrs and foxtails can be gently pulled out, although you may wish to use tweezers or forceps. These tools can get into small places better than your fingers, while at the same time protecting your fingers from spikes.
Gently work out other pieces of debris with your fingers. If your dog is particularly sensitive, check to see if the debris has caused an injury.
A swollen paw with no external sign of injury could be sprained or one of the small bones in the paw could be broken. This needs to be evaluated by the veterinarian who will probably want to x-ray the paw for a definitive diagnosis.
A cut in the skin of the paw, especially if it's bleeding or is rough and jagged, also needs to be seen by the veterinarian. These usually need stitches. To protect it until you get to the vet's clinic, put a gauze pad over the cut and wrap the paw in an elastic bandage.
Follow Your Instincts
If an injury looks small, but you're concerned (or if you understand what might be going on, especially if your dog is fairly stoic) call your veterinarian. It's much better to take your dog in and get a simple injury checked out instead of waiting for it to possibly get worse.