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9 Common Reasons for Nailbed Infections in Dogs (in 2022) Vet Reviewed

9 Common Reasons for Nailbed Infections in Dogs (in 2022) Vet Reviewed

Reviewed by Dr. Danielle Morosco, DVM on December 7, 2022

Dogs have subtle ways of showing you they are in pain. For the most part, it’s hard to tell when your dog is in pain unless it’s severe.

Hot pavement, rough rocks, bug bites, chemicals, and broken glass are just a few things our furry friend’s paws are exposed to on any given day. Even though the paws are vulnerable, a dog’s nails really take the brunt of daily activity.

If a dog’s nails aren’t trimmed, they can easily get snagged in carpet fibers or stubbed on a rock.

Do you suspect your furry friend has an infected nail? If your dog is limping, licking the paw obsessively, or you see redness or inflammation, there’s a good chance you’re right. It could be a dog nail infection.

If you’re concerned about the health of your dog’s paws, keep reading.

By the time you’ve finished this post, you’ll have a better understanding of dog paw anatomy, common reasons for dog nail infections, signs and symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options, and prevention.

The Five Basic Parts of a Dog’s Paw

Your dog’s paws are remarkably resilient, considering what they go through on any given day. They are made up of 5 main parts, including:

Claws

A dog’s nails (claws) are designed to help them dig with their front paws while running. Healthy claws are strong and provide stability to the feet.

Dew Claw or Spur

A dog’s dew claw is the equivalent of a person’s thumb. It’s the extra “toe” found on the inside of a dog’s front leg. Some dogs actually have dew claws on their back legs as well.

In some cases, especially in the case of infection, the dew claws may be removed. Otherwise, it’s best to leave them where they are. Dew claws are connected to the bone and help dogs with balance and stability.

The Carpal Pad

The carpal pad is found on the forelimb above the dew claw. It comes in handy when your dog needs extra traction. If you’ve ever thrown a ball for your dog (and you likely have!), you’ve also seen him/her stop and pivot quickly. It’s the carpal pad that provides the braking action needed to make those sudden moves.

Metacarpal Pad

The metacarpal pad is the larger, squishy pad just below the toe (or digital) pads.

Digital Pad

Digital pads are located under your dog’s toes. They provide extra cushion and support for your dog’s joints while supporting some of his/her weight.

How to prevent dog nail infections

Signs of a Nail Infection in Dogs

If you suspect your dog has a nail infection, it probably means that you’ve noticed something unusual. Is your dog limping, favoring the paw, licking the paw obsessively, or suddenly doesn’t want to go for walks anymore?

Generally speaking, if only one toe is affected, it’s probably just an infected nail. If more than one toe is affected, it could be a more serious underlying condition.

That said, it’s always best to check with a veterinarian, especially if your dog is showing signs of pain.

Signs of a nail infection include:

  • Limping or favoring a paw
  • Difficulty walking comfortably
  • Broken nails
  • Ingrown nails
  • Nails that split
  • Excessive licking of a paw
  • Signs of blood or pus from the paw or nail
  • Inflammation
  • Redness or discoloration on or around the nail
  • Signs of pain (withdrawing from you, not wanting to play, hiding the paw under his/her body)

How to Prevent Nail Infections in Dogs

One of the best ways to prevent dog nail infections is through regular trimming. Keeping your dog’s nails short can prevent accidental breakage, cracks, splits, and tears.

A dog’s toenails are made of keratin, nerves, and blood vessels, just like ours.

The one thing that makes a dog’s claws different from human nails is the fact that they sit on the tip of the last bone of each digit.

If you’ve ever experienced the pain of cutting your fingernails to the quick, you know how much it hurts. Unfortunately, the same pain is felt by dogs when we cut into the quick.

All it takes is for your dog to experience that pain once and he/she will remember it forever. Keeping a dog’s nails trimmed isn’t always easy, but it’s important.

Watch for Signs of Separation

A dog’s nails should be hard and well-established in the nail bed. Any signs that the nails are peeling, appear brittle, or break easily could be a sign of a problem.

If you notice similar problems in all or other nails, your dog might be suffering from an underlying medical condition. Nail infections on their own typically only appear in the nail affected.

Look for Redness and Inflammation

Redness and inflamed skin may indicate the presence of a bacterial infection. Brown-red discoloration of the claw could indicate a condition known as Malassezia.

Malassezia dermatitis, common in dogs, presents with itchy, scaly and inflamed skin. It’s caused by an increase in yeast on the skin and is often associated with allergies.

Trim Regularly

There’s no hard and fast rule to how often you should trim your dog’s nails. Dogs who are regularly exercised on hard surfaces tend to wear their nails down naturally (although they still need to be clipped).

The important thing is not to let them get too long. Not clipping your dog’s nails can lead to pain and risk of infection through breaks and tears.

The Fear is Real: Trimming Tips for Terrified Dogs

Depending on your dog’s size and the severity of anxiety, it may take two people to do a proper nail trimming. Dogs who’ve had a bad experience with nail trims may need to be desensitized to having their paws touched.

Try getting your dog used to have his paws gently touched. The best time is when things are quiet and calm in the house.

Don’t force the issue; just casually take a few seconds to let your dog get used to the sensation. It’s always best to use positive reinforcement techniques during the desensitization process. That means lots of praise and treats to show your dog they are doing a great job learning!

Gradually Desensitize Your Dog

Desensitizing your dog may take a while. If you’re lucky enough to be able to trim one nail, leave it at that. Wait another day and do the next one, and so on. Hopefully, you’ll soon be able to trim all the nails in one sitting.

Mild Sedation

It’s not unusual for dogs to be afraid of nail trims. Your dog may require mild sedation, especially if you decide to let a groomer do the job.

Talk to your veterinarian about as-needed sedation options. Sometimes veterinarians will prescribe Trazodone or Gabapentin for situational anxiety in dogs. These medications (Gabapentin and/or Trazodone), when given correctly (2 hours before the anticipated event in the dose prescribed), might be a great option for your dog.

Double Up the Effort

Another option that works is to have two people do the job. Get your dog’s favorite treats and break them down into very small pieces. Have one person pop a piece of treat into your dog’s mouth while you clip the nails.

It’s the only thing that works in my house! My dogs are so distracted by the treats that they don’t even notice I’m trimming their nails. Once the nails are trimmed, I go back and further smooth them down using a pet nail grinder.

TIP: Don’t forget to clip the dewclaw.

professional dog groomer

How to Avoid Cutting the Quick

Nail trimming is a lot easier when your dog’s nails are white. You can gently flip the dog’s paws over and look at the tip of the nail. The closer you get to the quick, the easier you’ll spot a small, pink circle. That little circle is where the quick (and subsequent pain if you clip it) is.

If your dog has black nails, the best way to clip is a very small amount at a time. If you’re not sure where the quick is, it’s better to be conservative when cutting.

Regardless of your dog’s nail color, you can always opt for a nail grinder. Nail grinders are a great way to shorten and smooth out a dog’s nails while avoiding the quick. Your dog will let you know when it’s time to stop.

“Long nails can turn a sound paw into a splayed foot and reduce traction, and they can cause deformed feet and injure the tendons over an extended period. As the long nail hits the ground, the pressure puts force on the foot and leg structure.”

Staff, AKC. “Nail Neglect Can Lead to Health Problems for Your Dog – American Kennel Club.” American Kennel Club, www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/nail-neglect-can-lead-to-health-problems-for-your-dog. Accessed 4 Nov. 2022.

Diagnosing Dog Nail Infections

In some cases, the presence of a nail infection is obvious to a veterinarian, especially if there are visible signs like redness, inflammation, and pain.

If there’s something going on that is affecting more than one paw, the veterinarian may want to run further tests. This could be to rule out underlying conditions like auto-immune disease, etc. Examples of auto-immune disease that can affect a dog’s skin and nails include:

  • Symmetrical lupoid onchodystrophy (SLO)
  • Leishmaniasis (protozoan parasitic infection)
  • Pemphigus vulgaris
  • Pemphigus foliaceus
  • Idiopathic onychogryphosis

Tests to help detect underlying disease could include:

  • Blood work (including Chemistry panel to check organ function and Complete Blood Count)
  • Urinalysis
  • Skin scraping
  • Skin cytology
  • Skin culture

The Best Treatment Options for Dogs with Nail Infections

Treating a dog’s nail infection depends on the ultimate diagnosis.

Antibiotic

If an infection is restricted to one toe and not associated with an underlying medical condition, the veterinarian may prescribe an oral or topical antibiotic.

Anti-Fungal Treatment

If your dog has a fungal nail infection, the veterinarian might suggest soaking the affected paw in an anti-bacterial or anti-fungal solution.

You’ll need to keep the area clean and dry, prevent your dog from licking or chewing at the infected nail, and watch for signs of a recurrence once the treatment is complete. Follow-up with the veterinarian may be recommended.

Infections Secondary to Underlying Condition

Sometimes, nail and nail bed disorders are the result of an underlying condition. Further tests may be required to get an accurate diagnosis. At that point, the treatment option chosen will depend on the type and severity of the disease.

Common Causes of Dog Nail Infections

1. Trauma

Trauma (injury) is the most common cause of nail infections in dogs. Dogs love activity. In fact, they are so into it that they may not even notice they’ve hurt themselves until later.

My dog once stepped on a sharp object that left the metacarpal pad (the bigger pad just above the toe pads) split and bleeding. The veterinarian had to staple the cut for it to heal properly.

Later, as the day winds down, your dog might start licking the paw excessively. He or she might limp or even withdraw the paw if you try to look at it. Trauma can include anything from a cracked nail or injury to the paw pad.

If the nail is jagged, it may just require a trim to even and smooth it out.

If it’s bleeding or has torn from the quick, you’ll need to clean it, apply an over-the-counter antibiotic cream, and wrap it up snuggly (not too tight) with non-stick gauze and adhesive tape. Of course, the problem then becomes keeping your dog from removing the bandage.

An Elizabethan collar works but may not be necessary, as long as your dog is supervised so they don’t eat the bandage!

After dressing the area with a non-stick pad and gauze, pull a sock over your dog’s leg. Then, wrap the sock with more adhesive tape to help keep it in place. You’ll want it to be snug, but not too tight.

Yes, your dog will eventually get that off. The idea is to allow the ointment to sink in before your dog has a chance to lick it.

Try to keep the area clean and dry as best you can. If the area continues to redden, swell up, or cause obvious pain, take your dog to a veterinarian.

2. Bacterial Nail Infections

It’s easy to miss a small cut or injury to a dog’s nail. Unfortunately, it can leave your dog vulnerable to bacterial infection.

Bacterial infections are easily treated as long as they’re not left to fester.

3. Fungal Claw Disease (Onychomycosis)

Fungal nail infections can be caused by things like ringworm (dermatophyte fungus). This causes crusting of the nails and the surrounding skin.

Although this problem is more common in cats, dogs can sometimes be affected.

Another type of fungus known as a yeast paronychia is common in dogs with allergies.

4. Paronychia

Paronychia refers to inflammation or infection of the soft tissues surrounding the nail. When areas around the nail become infected, it’s usually because of secondary or underlying disease.

This condition can be caused by food-allergy dermatitis or atopic dermatitis which leaves the skin vulnerable to secondary bacterial and fungal (yeast) infections.

In some cases, auto-immune diseases like hypothyroidism, Cushing’s disease, diabetes mellitus, Addison’s disease, etc., can leave a dog vulnerable to secondary infections.

Skin scrapings for cytological analysis can help veterinarians determine this condition from other diseases with similar signs.

5. Symmetric Lupoid Onychodystrophy (Lupoid Onychitis)

The word “onychodystrophy” refers to various abnormalities in a nail (claw) that relate to changes in the attachment of the nail plate, changes in nail surface, or color.

Lupoid onychodystrophy, sometimes called lupoid onychitis, is a disease that affects multiple claws on all four paws. Signs of this disease include:

  • Splitting toenails
  • Cracking toenails
  • Brittle, thick, or deformed nails
  • Toenails may fall off leaving the nailbed (quick) exposed

This disease typically affects Gordan setters and German shepherd dogs. These dogs are usually diagnosed between 2 and 6 years of age.

Although it’s not clear what causes the disease, it’s thought to be triggered by an overactive immune system. This condition is also known as idiopathic

It’s also thought that it could be inherited from one or both of the dog’s parents.

6. Nail Bed Tumors

According to the Animal Surgical Center of Michigan, the most common type of tumors of the toe include squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. Other types of tumors include:

  • Mast cell tumors
  • Osteosarcoma
  • Hemangiopericytoma
  • Benign soft tissue tumors
  • Malignant soft tissue tumors

Squamous cell carcinoma is typically seen in large breed dogs with black coats. Susceptible breeds include Labrador Retrievers and Standard Poodles.

Unfortunately, nailed tumors can look like a typical infected nail. It’s only when treatment doesn’t work that a veterinarian may suspect something more.

Signs of nail bed tumors include:

  • Dark pigmentation may indicate melanoma. However, some melanomas lack pigmentation.
  • Lymph node enlargement.
  • Signs of spread which may include coughing, difficulty breathing, weight loss, poor appetite, and malaise.

Squamous cell carcinoma accounts for more than 50% of all digital tumors.

“Animal Surgical Center of Michigan – Veterinarian in Flint, MI.” Animal Surgical Center of Michigan – Veterinarian in Flint, MI, www.animalsurgicalcenter.com/digital-tumors. Accessed 4 Nov. 2022.

A diagnosis is obtained through a fine-needle biopsy. Sometimes a small piece of tissue is surgically collected for examination.

The best treatment option is surgery. In some cases, depending on the location of the tumor, the entire toe may need to be amputated. Adjunctive therapy including chemotherapy or radiation may be required if the tumor is malignant.

7. Parasites

Infected nails (known as onychomycosis) can be caused by parasites like mites. Although mites don’t directly affect the claws, their presence can cause inflammation and secondary infections.

8. Onychogryphosis

Onychogryphosis is also known as “ram’s horn” nails because of the appearance. The condition leaves claws elongated and distorted.

Idiopathic onychogryphosis usually only affects one toe. It’s diagnosed as “idiopathic” after other potential causes have been ruled out.

9. Allergies

Any allergies that cause itching can lead to secondary bacterial infections. If you notice your dog is chewing at his/her nails, it’s likely because it’s itchy. The constant chewing can leave the skin open and vulnerable to bacteria.

dog nail infection

Summing it up

There’s no question that trimming a dog’s nails can be difficult. However, it’s the best way to avoid trauma and infection.

Any signs of infection should be reported to the veterinarian as soon as possible. Treatment of mild dog nail infections is straightforward. Things get more complicated if there is any underlying disease causing the nail problems.

Most dogs don’t love nail trims, but the more you handle their paws (especially if you start when they are still puppies), the easier it will be. Ultimately, you can always seek the help of a professional groomer. If your dog’s anxiety is too high, ask your veterinarian for anti-anxiety options.

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Works Cited


“6 Things You Didn’t Know About Dog Paw Anatomy.” Furtropolis, 24 Mar. 2022, outwardhound.com/furtropolis/dogs/dog-paw-anatomy.

“What Are Dewclaws? | Do Dog Dewclaws Need to Be Removed? | PetMD.” What Are Dewclaws? | Do Dog Dewclaws Need to Be Removed? | PetMD, www.petmd.com/dog/care/5-things-you-need-know-about-dog-dewclaws. Accessed 3 Nov. 2022.

Health, Mobility. “Dog Anatomy.” Mobility Health, mobility-health.com/pages/dog-anatomy. Accessed 3 Nov. 2022.

“What Are Dewclaws and Why Do Dogs Have Them?” Canidae, canidae.com/blog/what-are-dewclaws. Accessed 3 Nov. 2022.

Dr.med.vet., DACVD, .Patrick Hensel. “Nail Diseases (Proceedings).” DVM 360, www.dvm360.com/view/nail-diseases-proceedings. Accessed 3 Nov. 2022.

Buzby, Dr. Julie. “Dog Toenail Anatomy 101.” Dr. Buzby’s ToeGrips for Dogs, 27 Jan. 2022, toegrips.com/dog-toenail-anatomy.

Staff, AKC. “Nail Neglect Can Lead to Health Problems for Your Dog – American Kennel Club.” American Kennel Club, www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/nail-neglect-can-lead-to-health-problems-for-your-dog. Accessed 4 Nov. 2022.

Design, Seven Ages. “How to Treat My Dog’s Nail Infection.” Banixx, www.banixx.com/faq/faq-dogs-puppies/how-to-treat-my-dogs-nail-infection. Accessed 4 Nov. 2022.

“Animal Surgical Center of Michigan – Veterinarian in Flint, MI.” Animal Surgical Center of Michigan – Veterinarian in Flint, MI, www.animalsurgicalcenter.com/digital-tumors. Accessed 4 Nov. 2022.

Jung, Jin Young, et al. “Treatment of Chronic Idiopathic Onychodystrophy With Intake of Carotene-rich Food.” PubMed Central (PMC), 31 Mar. 2008, https://doi.org/10.5021/ad.2008.20.1.6.

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