Dog Nail Anatomy
The nail or claw of the dog is an extension of the epidermis and dermis that covers phalanx 3 (P3). In dogs, the phalanges are the bones that make up the toes. So, if your vet talks about a P3 amputation to treat a nail disorder, they are referring to amputating the most distal bone of the toe.
Your dog’s claws consist of a blood vessel, a nerve, and thick, hard keratin. The part inside the nail that contains the blood vessel and the nerve is known as the “quick.” The quick ends just before the keratin shell, leaving the rest of the nail hollow. The area where the nail exits the digit is the nail bed, from which it grows an average of 1-2 mm per week. Once the nails start to become overgrown, the quick grows further too. This makes regular trimming very important. Without trimming, the nails will grow into the footpad. This causes extreme discomfort and requires veterinary intervention to fix.
Common Symptoms of Nail Disorders
As a doting dog owner, you know your pup best and you know when something is wrong. But are you aware of the signs of nail problems in your pooch? When checking your dog’s paws, do you know what to look for?
If your dog has a nail problem, they may show early signs such as licking the paws and lameness when walking. Later on, you may notice swelling, redness, and discharge around the nail. It might also become discolored. soft, or even split. The nail might become deformed or sloughed. In severe cases, your dog might lose one or more of their nails. As a responsible owner, you already trim your pup’s nails regularly, but if they are suffering from broken nails, they might not allow you to trim them. If your dog is in pain, they may even become defensive of their paws when you touch them.
The symptoms of your dog’s disorder may be asymmetrical or symmetrical. While symmetrical nail problems suggest a metabolic, immune, or nutritional problem, nail problems in just one paw suggest trauma or neoplasia. If your dog’s symptoms apply to both paws, or more than one nail, check in with your vet right away. Broken dog nails as a result of underlying disease will need early treatment if they are to get better.
Onychomadesis is the idiopathic shedding of the nails beginning at the proximal end. When the nail undergoes onychomadesis, the nail plate separates from the nail bed. This can ultimately result in the loss of the entire nail plate. In dogs, this nail problem can occur if the nail suffers damage or suffers a loss of blood supply, such as when a bruise forms. This condition is typically painless and the dog makes a full recovery when one nail is involved. Where several nails break, the cause may be systemic – fever, erythroderma, anemia, diabetes mellitus, and certain veterinary drugs like tetracyclines may predispose a dog to onychomadesis. Neoplasia of the nail fold is another common cause of onychomadesis, especially in senior dogs.
Symmetrical lupoid onychodystrophy, or symmetric lupoid onychitis, is an immune condition that is most common in Gordon Setters, English Setters, German Shepherds, and Rottweilers, especially in Norway. As well as this, most affected dogs are between three and eight years of age. In the early stages, you might notice a nail becoming brown due to subungual hemorrhaging. In the acute phase of the disease, the claw plates begin to slough and the nails must be removed by a vet under general anesthesia. A vet will also treat any secondary bacterial infections that set into the nail. The nails that grow back are often dystrophic and can be painful. Traditionally, treatment involves immune-modulating drugs and Omega-3 and Omega-6 supplementation. Other treatment plans include the use of tetracycline, prednisolone, and azathioprine. In severe cases, P3 amputation may be done to control the disease.
Macronychia is the term used to describe a nail that is abnormally large or overgrown, unlike the other nails. Some cases of macronychia are caused by a solitary, local tumor that develops behind the nail, as one such case was described in a study. Due to the size of the nail, many dogs with macronychia experience discomfort when walking and must have their nails trimmed more often. The flipside to macronychia is micronychia, the growth of abnormally small nails.
Paronychia is inflammation of the soft tissue surrounding the claw. If your dog is suffering from paronychia, they might lick at their paws, exhibit lameness, and the nail can become discolored or deformed. Over time this can lead to broken dog nails. But what causes paronychia? Many diseases are associated with paronychia in dogs. These include bacterial infections, immune-mediated conditions, neoplasia, trauma, nutritional deficiencies, and diabetes mellitus. As such, diagnosing the cause can be difficult and may take several tests. Your vet will carry out a physical and dermatological examination, which may involve skin scrapings and fungal cultures. Depending on the cause of your dog’s paronychia, your vet may recommend surgical removal of the nail, antimicrobial soaks, and treating the underlying condition.
Onychoschizia is characterized by horizontal splits in a nail and is one of the most common causes of broken dog nails. The affected nail may be brittle, soft, and thin as well as horizontally split. To date, onychoschizia is not well-described in dogs, but its causes may include injury, trauma, vitamin deficiencies, and certain veterinary medications. In some cases, there is no obvious cause of onychoschizia. If your dog has a split nail, be sure to ask your vet for advice. Your vet will investigate your dog’s paws for any signs of trauma or infection that might be to blame. In some cases, poor trimming of the nail can cause onychoschizia. If you have any worries about cutting your pet’s nails, you can ask your groomer or your vet for assistance.
Onychomalacia is the softening of the nail. If your dog has onychomalacia, their nail may become soft, deformed, crumbly, and frail. This can lead to broken dog nails. In dogs, onychomalacia is a primary clinical sign of fungal nail infections. In particular, Trichophyton metagrophytes is often to blame for onychomalacia. Your vet will take samples from the nail and will send these to a microbiology laboratory for culture. The treatment for onychomalacia may include itraconazole, fluconazole, ketoconazole, or terbinafine for one to three months beyond the healthy regrowth of the nail. Other therapies include topical miconazole or enilconazole solution. As well as fungal infections, onychomalacia is a symptom of symmetric lupoid onychitis.
Onychogryphosis causes one side of your dog’s nail to grow faster than the other. In dogs, this disease manifests with redness around the nail and redness of the hair on the toe. If the nail is normally white, it can become reddish due to bleeding or secondary infection. The nail may also appear longer than usual and have a distorted appearance. Unfortunately, onychogryphosis is a symptom of canine leishmaniasis. If you live in an area where this disease is enzootic, your dog will need a parasitological exam. Plus, comprehensive therapy involving Lomidine® or Glucantime® and a follow-up is mandatory.
Dog Nail Disorders: FAQs
Have any more questions about broken dog nails? Feel free to refer to our Frequently Asked Questions section for more details. If in doubt about your dog’s health or broken dog nails, always ask your vet for advice.
Nail disorders can be difficult to diagnose because they are not common in dogs. First, your vet will conduct a thorough physical examination of your pet. A full exam of your dog is important to identify any signs of systemic disease that might be to blame. The lymph nodes are usually palpated, and special attention is given to the mucous membranes, footpads, and nasal planum. Abnormalities of these body parts can suggest an immune-mediated disease.
During the exam, all of the claws are thoroughly examined. Your vet will note how many claws are affected by the disease and whether the problem is symmetrical or asymmetrical. While symmetrical disease suggests a metabolic, immune, or nutritional problem, asymmetric disease suggests trauma or neoplasia.
Lastly, a biopsy of the claw can confirm a specific diagnosis. Microscopic examination of a sample can reveal bacterial and parasitic infections of the nail. Your vet may also submit claw fragments or shed claws for use in a fungal culture. However, submission of a shed claw is not always helpful as it does not contain the affected claw bed. The claw bed is seen best when the third phalanx is removed for histopathology.
Nail disorders in dogs are caused by a wide range of problems. Among the most common causes are trauma to the nail and congenital abnormalities. However, a range of diseases may also cause a predisposition to nail disorders.
For example, metabolic diseases such as diabetes mellitus, hyperadrenocorticism, and hypothyroidism can cause problems with the nails. There are also several immune-mediated causes of nail problems in dogs. These include hypersensitivities such as atopic dermatitis and adverse cutaneous food reactions. Other autoimmune conditions include pemphigus foliaceous, systemic lupus erythematosus, vasculitis, and bullous pemphigoid.
Many infections lead to nail disorders. Viral infections like distemper, fungal infections caused by Dermatophytes and Geotrychosis, protozoal infections from Leishmania, helminth infections from Ancylostoma, and certain arthropod infections from Demodex lead to problems with the nails. Lastly, and perhaps most commonly, some environmental conditions contribute to nail disorders in dogs. These include trauma from racing, hunting, or play, burns, caustic agents, and drying.
The best way to maintain good nail health in dogs is through regular trimming. Your dog probably needs to have its nails cut once or twice every month. However, some dogs, such as those who are more active, may not need trimming as frequently. A good indicator that your dog’s nails need trimming is if you can hear their nails clicking against the floor when they walk.
A healthy diet is essential for good nail health. Your dog should get meals that are rich in Omega-3, Omega-6, and biotin for their overall health as well as nail health. If your dog’s diet is lacking one of these things, consider asking your vet for recommendations. Your vet can recommend a quality diet that will meet your dog’s needs to prevent broken dog nails.
Foods that are rich in Omega-3, Omega-6, and biotin are great for maintaining good nail health. Luckily for your pup, these three nutrients are easy to supply in their food. Biotin, for example, is found in a range of animal products, including meat, fish, and eggs. Biotin is also found in leafy green vegetables, which can be added to your dog’s meal – consider including chopped Swiss chard, lettuce, spinach, kale, or cabbage to your dog’s dinner every so often. Just be sure to monitor your pup for diarrhea and gas, and only give these greens in moderation to prevent digestive upsets.
Similarly, Omega-6 fatty acids are found in both animal and plant products. Vegetable oils like rapeseed, sunflower, and corn oils are rich in Omega-6 fatty acids. Also, meat, poultry, fish, and eggs are rich in Omega-6. Lastly, Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines. Fish oil supplements are readily available online and in pet stores.
Some dog breeds are indeed more prone to certain nail diseases than others. For example, symmetric lupoid onychitis is most common in Gordon Setters and English Setters. The condition is also seen in German Shepherds and Rottweilers to a lesser degree. Another breed with a predisposition to nail problems is the Bull Terrier. Lethal acrodermatitis is a severe skin disorder with a fatal outcome. In Bull Terriers, this disease causes hyperkeratosis of the footpads and deforms the nails. The dog also suffers from diarrhea, skin lesions, immunodeficiencies, and color dilution of the coat. Some dog breeds are more prone to auto-immune diseases in general, which are leading causes of nail problems in dogs. These breeds include Boxers, Golden Retrievers, and Labrador Retrievers.
Breeds that are less active than others may also be more prone to problems with overgrowth and nail splitting, as their lack of activity means that their nails are not naturally worn down as much. Lastly, Greyhounds are among those that are most prone to foot problems. Not only are they more prone to nail problems, but they also commonly suffer from corns of the footpads and toe dislocations. Many Greyhound owners report that their dog’s symptoms worsen when walking on hard surfaces like concrete or gravel.
The most common causes of broken dog nails are onychomadesis, onychodystrophy, macronychia, paronychia, onychoschizia, and onychomalacia. These disorders can occur due to trauma or may signal an underlying disease. In any case, be sure to check in with your vet to rule out a serious problem. And, as always, regularly trimming your dog’s nails at least once or twice a month is best practice.