Reviewed by Dr. Irish on 28 April 2023
Hyperkeratosis is a condition that affects dogs and causes the skin on their paws and noses to become thick and hard. It develops if the keratinocytes (the skin cells that produce keratin) go into over-drive.
Excess keratin leads to thickened skin that can be described as rough, scaly, or crusty.
It actually makes your dogs paw pads look hairy. That’s why some people refer to it as “hairy dog feet” syndrome.
There’s no cure for the type of hyperkeratosis that comes with normal aging.
However, if hyperkeratosis is found to be caused by an underlying condition, treating that underlying condition could solve the problem.
In this article, we’ll explore the diagnosis, causes, and treatment options available.
Types of Hyperkeratosis in Dogs
The terms “nasal hyperkeratosis” and “paw pad hyperkeratosis” are often used to describe where the problem is located.
As mentioned above, it can occur on a dog’s nose, paw pads, or both areas at the same time.
Paw Pad Hyperkeratosis
Dog paw hyperkeratosis refers to the condition when it only appears on the dog’s paw pads.
Nasodigital hyperkeratosis refers to the condition when it appears on both the nose and the paw pads.
Hereditary Nasal Parakeratosis
This is an inherited disorder in Labrador retrievers. It causes the skin on the nose to dry out. This dryness leads to chronic irritation and inflammation of the skin on the nose.
Retrievers with this condition often show signs of the disorder around 6 to 12 months of age.
Is Hyperkeratosis Painful for Dogs?
Even though hyperkeratosis is considered a harmless condition, it can lead to pain and discomfort. If the problem worsens, it can lead to secondary bacterial infections.
We’ll explore those methods a little further into the post.
What Causes Hyperkeratosis in Dogs?
The following factors are thought to contribute to hyperkeratosis in dogs.
Hereditary footpad hyperkeratosis, also known as corny feet, is an autosomal-recessive condition.
In other words, a dog must inherit two copies of an abnormal gene (one from the mother and one from the father) to affect the dog’s health. In these dogs, it tends to appear in the first year of life.
Dog breeds that may be genetically predisposed include:
- Labrador retrievers
- Golden retrievers
- Dogues de Bordeaux
- Irish terriers
- Bedlington terriers
- Brachycephalic breeds (Boxers, English bulldogs, etc.)
- Cocker spaniels
Dogs without a genetic predisposition of hyperkeratosis can naturally develop the condition later in life. This tends to happen in middle-aged or senior dogs.
The reason for this is because a dog’s skin tends to thicken with age.
Systemic Lupus Erythematosus
This immune-mediated disease causes the body to attack its own body tissues and can lead to hyperkeratosis in dogs.
Read more on Lupus in Dogs Life Expectancy
Pemphigus is an autoimmune skin disease in dogs. In any autoimmune disease, the body’s natural defences (the immune system) attacks itself.
The disease causes a dog to produce too much keratin. Keratin is a protein that helps form hair, nails, and skin. If too much is produced, the dog’s immune system will attack the skin cells, causing them to dry out and crack.
Pemphigus Foliaceus in dogs can be considered internal, external, or unknown (idiopathic). The condition is most commonly seen in the following breeds:
- Chow Chows
- Cocker Spaniels
- Labrador Retrievers
- English Bulldogs
Other dog breeds can also contract this autoimmune disease.
Infectious diseases like canine distemper can lead to hyperkeratosis in dogs. The disease is easily preventable through vaccination. It’s highly contagious and can lead to death.
In addition to the usual signs of distemper in dogs, it can also lead to “hard pad disease”, otherwise known as hyperkeratosis.
Having your dog vaccinated against distemper protects him/her against this contagious disease. The disease attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and nervous system of dogs.
Canine distemper is a serious disease that can be avoided. Read more about Safe Vaccination for Canine Distemper Virus
Zinc plays an important role in the protein function within the body. A lack of zinc can cause the over-production of keratin in the body.
Dogs with a zinc deficiency may develop something called zinc-responsive dermatosis. Sometimes there is a hereditary component that causes zinc-responsive dermatosis in dogs.
The symptoms of zinc-responsive dermatosis in dogs include:
- Redness in the lower layers of the skin
- Hair loss
- Pyoderma (bacterial skin infection)
- Lichenification (thickened skin with exaggerated markings)
Leishmaniasis is caused by a parasite (the Leishmania parasite) found in tropical/subtropical regions of the world. Sandflies carry the disease and transmit it to dogs through their bite.
These parasites can be transmitted to humans and dogs by the bites of infected female sandflies.
Most people infected by the parasite do not develop any symptom at all in their life.
Therefore, the term leishmaniasis refers to the onset of an active Leishmania infection and not just physically being infected with the parasite.
In some cases, there is no clear underlying cause.
Diagnosis of Hyperkeratosis in Dogs
Hyperkeratosis is diagnosed visually. If the veterinarian suspects there may be an underlying cause, a combination of blood tests, skin samples (including impressions or skin scrapings), and skin biopsy may be orderd.
The veterinarian will want to rule out things like autoimmune diseases or zinc-responsive dermatosis as well.
Managing Hyperkeratosis in Dogs
Management may depend on the severity of the condition.
The veterinarian will want to check for signs of the conditions discussed above because treating those conditions should ultimately treat the hyperkeratosis.
Secondary Infections Must Be Treated
Secondary bacterial or yeast infections must be treated first.
Filing Away the Layers of Thick Skin
Getting rid of that layer of hard skin isn’t as easy as filing it away yourself.
It’s best to let a professional (with experience) perform this job. Sometimes, a veterinarian will perform the task in the office by clipping away the excess skin.
Balms and Ointments
Unfortunately, no number of balms or ointments will be able to sink through that thick layer of skin cells. In order for these products to work, they must be able to get into healthy skin cells.
The most likely cause of hyperkeratosis is genetically caused.
If that’s the case, your veterinarian should recommend a maintenance program to keep the excess skin filed away and treated with a prescription or over-the-counter salve.
Prevention of Hyperkeratosis in Dogs
Preventing hyperkeratosis may be difficult, especially if the cause is genetic. Zinc-responsive dermatosis can be prevented by ensuring your dog has a healthy, balanced diet.
Be sure to take your pet for annual checkups.
Regular wellness checks are a great way to ensure that any newly developing condition, like hyperkeratosis, is diagnosed early. Treatment may be more effective if the condition is caught and managed before it gets too bad.
Remember, cracked paws are vulnerable to the environment. Keep your yard clean and free of feces, debris, etc.
If your dog already has signs of the condition, you may need to shorten his/her walks, take breaks, or buy a stroller. Obviously, the last option works best for small dogs.
5 Signs of Hyperkeratosis in Dogs
The signs of this condition in dogs might be vague at first. However, the condition is progressive and eventually you may notice the following:
1. Overly Dry Nose
Look for very dry or cracked skin on the nose or the foot pads.
2. Loss of Skin Color (Pigmentation) on the Nose
The loss of skin color alone doesn’t necessarily signify hyperkeratosis in dogs. Look for the addition of thick and cracking skin.
3. Deep Fissures/Grooves
Gently lift your dog’s paw and look for skin this is cracked with deep grooves.
4. Hairy Foot Pads
The overproduction of keratin may make it look as if your dog’s paw pads are growing hair. The appearance looks spiny and sharp and may contribute to pain when walking.
5. Signs of Pain
Hyperkeratosis can be painful for dogs, especially when it’s on the paws. Signs of pain in dogs may include:
- Low appetite
- Not wanting to be touched
- Raising a paw in the air
Is Hyperkeratosis in Dogs Contagious to Humans?
Hyperkeratosis in dogs cannot be passed along to humans.
Dogs develop this condition due to genetic and hereditary factors. Other causes of the condition can be due to age, parasites, auto-immune disorders, infectious disease, and zinc deficiency.
If you’re worried about contracting this skin condition from handling your dog, don’t. This is not like a viral condition that can be passed along through touch.
If you notice your dog is walking oddly or is showing signs of discomfort, take a look at his/her foot pads.
Signs of thickening skin that looks cracked and raw could be the first sign of hyperkeratosis. It’s tempting to try and file away that extra skin but don’t do it.
Always bring your dog to a licensed veterinarian for a complete assessment and diagnosis.
Once the extra skin is removed, you might be able to improve your dog’s comfort by applying veterinarian approved balms or ointments. Keep your dog in top condition with healthy, veterinarian approved diets, appropriate exercise, and follow-up care.
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