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Ask the Vet: Swollen and Red Paws in Dogs

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Swollen and Red Paws in Dogs

Swollen and red paws in dogs can certainly be concerning. Affected dogs may be excessively licking their paws and they may find it painful to walk around. It goes without saying that affected dogs are often quite miserable. Deprive from the ability to talk, it is up to us dog owners deciphering whether something is wrong. Veterinarian Dr. Ivana Crnec discusses the topic of swollen and red paws in dogs along with possible diagnosis and treatment. 

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A picture of swollen, red paw in dog.

Swollen and Red Paws in Dogs

We all love our dogs. In fact, we love everything about them. Their kind and warm eyes, their constantly wagging tails and their affectionate one-of-a-kind personalities. Although the eyes and tails get most of our attention, we should never underestimate the power of paws. Have you ever thought about your dog’s paws? Unless something wrong is going on with them, chances are they did not get too much attention from you.

Sweet and often clumsy, the dog’s paws are truly remarkable and come in all shapes and sizes - from slender and elegant to bold and athletic. They are wonderfully designed appendages, fascinating in both their anatomy and adaptation. Paws are ideally designed to cope with different terrains, a range of temperatures and a good deal of running, jumping, climbing, swimming and licking.

Different dog breeds have different types of paws, depending on what they would need. For example, St. Bernards and Newfoundland have wide and sprawling paws with bigger surface, so they could have a better grip on snow and ice. Out of all breeds, the Newfoundland has the longest toes.

On the other hand, Akitas, Dobermans and Greyhounds have smaller, light paws with higher aches which enables them to excel in endurance. Dogs that are renowned for their swimming abilities, like Labrador Retrievers and Chesapeake Bay Retrievers have webs between their toes. Webbed feet in dogs are also a great tool for dogs who love digging.

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The exact etymology of the word paw is not very well known. It appears to originate from the Gallo-Roman root form "pauta’’ which is closely related to the late 14th century Old French "patin’’ which means clog, as in the type of shoe.

Dog paws have 5 different parts – claws, digital pads, metacarpal or metatarsal pads, carpal or tarsal pads and dewclaws. The digital and metacarpal or metatarsal pads work as shock absorbers and help protect the bones and joints in the foot. The carpal and tarsal pads provide traction and braking and help the dog successfully navigate through slippery terrains.

Although the dog’s paws seem resistant, they are actually quite sensitive and prone to medical issues. The most common clinical signs paw issues manifest are swelling and redness.

Pododermatitis in Dogs

Paw licking can be a sign of inflamed paws.

Paw licking can be a sign of inflamed paws.

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The term pododermatitis indicates inflammation of the dog's paws or the skin of the feet. Pododermatitis can be a problem on its own or it can occur in addition of other skin issues. It can also be localized on only one paw or generalized on all four paws.

Certain dog breeds are at higher risk of developing pododermatitis. Those breeds include:

  • Boxers
  • English Bulldogs
  • Mastiffs
  • German Shepherds
  • Dachshunds

There are several common causes of pododermatitis in dogs. Pododermatitis can be caused by many reasons including:

  • Parasites – the parasitic mite Demodex is normally present on the dog’s skin. However, in certain circumstances if its population increases significantly, this tiny parasite may cause serious skin problems – paw inflammation is one of those problems.
  • Foreign bodies – grass seeds and foxtails are particularly common causes of pododermatitis in dogs. They tend to penetrate the skin and once inside, because of their unusual shape they cannot get out through the entering wound. Instead they can only progress forward thus causing further damage. Their travelling damages the local tissues and triggers inflammation.
  • Allergies – food allergies as well as contact allergies manifest with skin issues. Usually the feet and paws are most severely affected. The condition manifests with excessive paw licking which ultimately may lead to secondary bacterial infections.
  • Hormonal diseases – many hormonal imbalances lead to pododermatitis. This is because hormonal imbalances disable proper immune answer to potential threats. When the skin’s defending mechanism is disabled, infections are likely to occur.
  • Deep infections – bacteria and some types of fungi can cause deep inflammation of the paws which manifests with formation of swollen, discharging and extremely painful lumps. Usually there are more than one lump present.
  • Conformation – conformational pododermatitis is a specific type of paw inflammation that develops solely in heavy set dogs with splayed feet. Such dogs tend to bear weight on the hairy part of the feet thus causing inflammation of the hair follicles. Over time, the inflammation expands on the surrounding tissues eventually terminating in pododermatitis.

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At the Vet's Office 

As in any other case, the diagnosis can be achieved through complete physical examination and evaluation of the patient’s history and clinical signs. In some cases, additional tests are required to set the proper diagnosis. For example, in cases of Demodex mite infections, skin scrapings and hair plucks are likely to be performed. If the clinical manifestation suggests foreign body, the vet will recommend performing an x-ray of the affected foot. In cases of conformational pododermatitis evaluating the shape of the footpads is enough to reach a diagnosis.

Treating pododermatitis in dogs requires different approaches as the treatment strategy depends on the underlying cause:

  • Demodex mite – the treatment includes antiparasitic tablets and special dips or rinses for the affected foot.
  • Foreign body – in most cases the foreign body has to be removed surgically. Depending on the patient’s nature, the procedure can be performed with local or total anesthesia.
  • Allergies – the key is addressing the allergy itself. However, to alleviate the pain and discomfort, topical creams can be applied.
  • Hormonal diseases – as in the previous case, the treatment must address the hormonal issue. Topical creams can be used to manage the pododermatitis until the hormonal issue is fully resolved.
  • Deep infections – the treatment of choice are antibiotics or antifungals depending on the type of infection. The treatment should be administered both orally and topically.
  • Conformational pododermatitis – this type is hardest to treat. The only option is surgical correction.

In all of the above listed situations, during the treatment period it is advisable to have your dog wear protective boots and to avoid rough terrains.

About the Author

ivana crnec

Dr. Ivana Crnec is a graduate of the University Sv. Kliment Ohridski’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia.

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