The paws are not usually the first thing we notice when looking at a dog. Some canines have wide paws while others have more slender feet, and some have webbing between their toes. Over the centuries, the anatomy of dog paws adapted to the environment the dogs lived and worked in, to make it possible for them to do the jobs they were bred to do. Here are some amazing facts about dog paws you may not know.
A dog’s paw consists of five parts:
1. The claws, which give dogs a good grip on a surface
2. Digital pads, directly under the toes
3. The metacarpal pad, directly under the digital pads
4. The dewclaw
5. The carpal pad located on the front paws at the back of the foot
The carpal pad helps dogs keep their balance on steep or slippery slopes and prevents sliding. The other pads act like shock absorbers and bear most of the dog’s weight when he’s walking or running, as well as protecting the bones and joints in the paw.
The true purpose of the dewclaw is unknown, although scientists believe they are vestiges of thumbs that became nonfunctional through centuries of evolution. Dogs use these claws to get a better grip on bones or toys while they chew them. The front dewclaws contain muscle and bone, but the back ones don’t have much of either one. However, breeds like the Border Collie and Great Pyrenees use their dewclaws for better stability when making sharp turns at high speed and running over rough and uneven ground. Some breeds, like the Pyrenean Shepherd, Spanish Mastiff and Briard, have double dewclaws on their back feet.
Along with bones, the feet are made up of tendons, ligaments, skin, connective tissue and a blood supply. Like cats, dogs are digitigrade, which means their weight is on their toes when they walk or run. This is a foot position common in predators, which gives them more speed and the ability to move quietly.
Each pad is made up of fatty tissue that provides insulation to the inner tissues of the foot, protects the paw when walking on rough surfaces, and helps dogs recognize different types of terrain. The pads don’t cool down quickly and help to protect canine feet from extreme temperatures. When it’s cold, arteries in the pad circulate chilled blood back to the body where it’s warmed up. This ability to transfer blood is one reason why scientists believe dogs were first domesticated in colder regions before they began spreading out to other environments. Working dogs and canines that spend a lot of time outside on rough surfaces have pads that are rougher and thicker than those that spend more time on smoother surfaces.
During hot spells, dogs can get sweaty paws much like the way our hands sweat. Located in the inner layer of skin are sweat glands that move perspiration to the outer part of the pads. This process helps to cool a dog down and prevent his pads from becoming too dry. However, a nervous or stressed out dog will also perspire on the pads and you will be able to see his wet footprints.
Breeds that were developed in cold environments have large paws with hair between the pads. The hair helps keep their feet warm and their large paws give them better traction on ice and snow.
Dog paws come in different shapes – cat feet, webbed feet and hare feet. Cat feet are round and compact with a short third digital bone. The toes are arched, provide a firm base with maximum support, and give the dog a stronger grip when walking, especially on wet, slippery surfaces. These paws are designed to increase the dog’s endurance and require less energy to lift off the ground. Breeds that have cat feet include the Akita, Standard Schnauzer, Tibetan Mastiff and Doberman Pinscher.
Webbed feet help with swimming and are found in breeds bred to work in water, like the Labrador Retriever and Newfoundland. Hare feet are elongated with the two center toes longer than the ones on each side of the paw. More energy is needed to move hare feet, but this foot design increases a dog’s speed and is perfect for sprinting. Breeds with hare feet include the Greyhound, Whippet and Pharaoh Hound.
Many dogs enjoy getting foot massages. It’s a good way to calm and relax them, and rubbing between the pads and toes helps promote circulation.
Read more articles by Linda Cole