What is the Purpose of a Dog’s Dew Claw?

July 24, 2010

By Linda Cole

Dogs have a toenail located on the inside part of their front leg that’s called a dew claw. Most dog owners know where it’s located and remember to clip it at the same time the rest of the dog’s toenails are trimmed. If this nail is left untrimmed, it can cause pain and damage to the dog’s leg. Some dog breeds have dew claws on their back legs as well. What is the purpose of a dog’s dew claw, and why do some breeds have them on their back feet?

Because a dog’s dew claw is located up on his leg, when he walks through the grass in the morning before the dew has vanished, the claw skims along the top of the grass. And that’s how the dew claw got its name.

Not all dogs are born with dew claws, some only have the toenail on the front leg and other breeds have them on all four legs. Some breeds can have two dew claws on one or more legs. When a dog has a double claw on a leg, it’s called polydactyl. Some dog breeds are required to have back dew claws if they are being shown in the ring because it’s part of the standard for that breed.

Although not all dogs use their dew claw, they do have a purpose. It’s sort of like our thumb, and some dogs use it to hold onto bones, toys, balls or other things they play with or chew on. Two of my dogs can control the toenail well enough to dig food out from between their teeth. They will scratch their nose or corner of their eye with it and one uses her dew claw to scratch inside her ear like we would use a finger.

Some rare dog breeds like the Basenji (pictured above), the New Guinea Singing Dog and the Catahoula Leopard Dog are able to climb trees almost as well as a cat, and they use their dew claws to grasp the tree bark as they climb. Other dogs bred to hunt have also been known to climb trees after their quarry has been treed.

The dew claw is classified as another toe and does need to be trimmed just like the other toenails. Because of the position of the claw, left untrimmed, it can curve down so much it becomes ingrown and puts the dog at risk for infection. Most dew claws are not down far enough on the dog’s leg to make contact with the ground which gives the nail no way to be worn down naturally. It’s important to keep these claws trimmed regularly, especially back ones. Left untrimmed, the quick will also grow longer which will make it harder to keep the toenails properly trimmed. Dew claws that are too long can make it easier for the dog to catch one in the brush when he’s running around outside while working or playing. This can result in a torn toe.

Back dew claws are more common in breeds like the Great Pyrenees, Saint Bernard and Briard. It’s believed the toenail on the back legs of the Great Pyrenees and other dogs that were bred to work in snow or rough terrain aids them as they do their job by giving them better stability as they run over the rough ground or make sharp turns.

The dew claw is attached to the leg with muscle and bone, although not all dew claws have bone in them. Sometimes the toe is attached loosely to the leg and when the dog runs, the toenail can become caught and easily torn. The back dew claw may need to be removed if it’s loose or has been torn to avoid more injury to the dog’s back feet.

For most dogs, the dew claw serves no particular purpose, but it still needs to be attended to just like the other toenails. It’s easy to forget them, especially on long haired dogs where the hair covers the toe. Even though most dogs don’t use the toe, sometimes they do and it may be more useful to the dog than we realize.

Trimming your dog’s toenails regularly can help keep them at the proper length. A good time to do that is when you groom your pet. Ruthie Bently’s article on basic grooming supplies and procedures has excellent information on how to groom your dog.

Read more articles by Linda Cole

The personal opinions and/or use of trade, corporate or brand names, is for information and convenience only. Such use does not constitute an endorsement by CANIDAE® Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® Pet Foods.

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  1. Bruce H says:

    So my dog doesn’t have dew claws, she is a rescue dog (backyard breeder for 6 years), she is toy poodle, shi tziu chihuahua (and I strongly suspect miniature dachshund) and possibly other small breeds. Based on this and as she was not desexed or wormed, I doubt they would have removed her dew claws so my question is do any small breeds not have any dew claws?

  2. Tina says:

    Have a question clipped end of our dogs few claw now it’s razor sharp any suggestions as he won’t let me file to make less sharp

  3. Jennifer Ornduff says:

    My girl is half American pit/half be able. She has three firmly attached dew claws and one very loose one. She has one on each leg. Her rear ones get caught on stuff sometimes but she just patiently waits while I free them.

  4. Pam says:

    My Dobermans and my Rottweilers had their dew claws removed before I had them home with me. It caused no problems with their legs, no arthritis, & no muscle injuries. It was removed for safety to avoid them ripping them off during play or running outside. They all did fine without them!

  5. Darren says:

    Your reason for the dew claw being named such is wrong.

  6. harvy nesson says:

    Dew claws are definitely necessary for a dog. Dew claws are used when they run, for gripping when cornering, traction on frozen ice, climbing and going down hills. Removal of dew claws affects leg muscles, causes stress on leg and shoulder muscles leading to arthritis and overall painful for the dog. Please review additional information that is available, all dogs are born with the parts they were intended to have, weather we understand their purpose or not. I agree proper care of dog’s feet is important.

    1. paul says:

      I would agree that that dew claws would have a purpose if they are attached to muscle and bone, but on our doberman he has a couple of claws that we worry about them getting caught and the skin ripped on the back, as the only thing holding them to the rear legs is skin. Why would such dogs have a non functional left over from back when they were properly attached?

  7. gteresa says:

    My dog is part basset hound and I have recently gone threw cancer and I have RA. My skin is
    very thin. And his Few claws on front are cutting and poking holes in my arms. I am at risk of infections. So my question is can I have them removed and it not harm him. He is my pet and love him a lot. But He s is 6 months old and I ha e 3chuichua’s and don’t want them hurt either. He wants to paw when playing. And that claw always gets me. It the way there feet stick out I thank. But it still hurts and ripped my skin. Please help

    1. Mitch Keohan says:

      Have you considered removing your arms instead?

      1. Madelene Langelier says:

        Very mean comment ,NOT FUNNY, MITCH ! !

      2. Robin Romero says:

        wow, how stupid can you get? all I can say is WOW

  8. Sharon Eddleston says:

    my puppy’s just had his removed the vets phoned while he was being castrated and said he had double dew claws and they needed to be removed

  9. Paige says:

    I learned a lot from that because I was wondering what the heck that thing on my beagle’s front legs!

  10. David says:

    Dew claws are used for mating when the male dog amplexes the female.
    The male is able to hold on to the female while mounted on her. It is very important.

  11. lINDA LEBLANC says:


    1. Marsha says:

      Why would you not be willing to let the vet do it, so your dog could be sedated
      if necessary? I doubt there’s much difference in the cost.
      My chihuahuas have them, but you don’t hear chihuahua breeders mention this.
      I would think if the dog is going to do hiking with you or any other outdoor activities you would leave them alone.
      I’m just commenting on things I absolutely was unaware of and find fascinating. I’m not meaning to be critical, just honest curiosity.