Dogs walk and bear weight in a very different way to humans – instead of being flat-footed like us, they use their incredibly strong toes to stand and walk on. This way they navigate each step of their life whether it’s a slow walk, a faster pace, trot or gallop.
The paw pads (when walking) only touch the ground briefly before the leg lifts off again but the main work of putting weight on the leg, gripping the surface, balancing, turning direction and navigating the next step is done by the toes - also called digits – and therefore the type of posture in a dog is what we call a “digitigrade stance”.
This means that we need to look at how a dog stands and moves in a very different way to understand how complex the joints and their adjoining structures in the paws are. This helps us shed some light why injuries can happen the way they do in a dog and how a mild lameness can be an indicator that there may be a problem within a tiny joint, joint capsule, ligaments or tendons.
The tendons that “steer” each toe in a dog’s paw come from much further up in the leg and a therapist will know that a pain point somewhere in the paw needs treatment in a muscle further up and even around the knee as that’s how far the muscle-tendons reach to make the whole leg move.
Muscles and tendons that coordinate the placement and motion of the paws are structured as flexors, extensors and rotators – they all need to work in harmony and when one of them is injured or compromised, the others fall out of their routine and “don’t know what to do”. Muscles in the lower limbs that contribute to balance, paw movement and stance are long and thin, not very fleshy and bulky at all. They don’t “produce” much strength as they are not the prime movers but instead are crucial to micromovements and fostering the proprioceptive nervous system.
Within many of the tendons that wrap around and attach to the individual joints and bones there are what’s called “sesamoid bones” (tiny rounded bony structures) that are embedded in the tendons to help with the change of directions and to prevent the pull on the tendons rubbing against other structures that could make the tendons rupture.
Dogs are weight-bearing from their 2nd to 5th toe with the third and fourth digit carrying most of the load. Because of the large number of bony structures, joints and joint capsules that are much more “burdened” than our human ones, many dogs suffer from arthritis within their paws. Sadly, this is often overlooked and not diagnosed and as consequence, other issues are being misdiagnosed.
Injuries and osteoarthritis in a dog’s paw can have huge pain outcomes for the dog with lameness and weigh shifting to other limbs for compensation.
Because dogs’ paws work so hard and are under a lot of tension and stress all the time, it is vital that we look after them:
Maintain nail length: if you hear them clipping when your dog walks on concrete or tiles, you need to take a bit off but not too short so they still have enough nail length to be able to “grab” the floor. Some dog’s need to get their nails clipped as often as 2-3 weeks so make sure you’re onto it
Trim under-paw fluff often
Give your dog gentle paw massages – pull gently on each toe to release tension and count to 5 per toe
“Play” with the webbing – this stimulates neural pathways throughout the body and is especially therapeutic for older dogs and increases the blood flow through the toe’s ligaments, tendons and joint capsules
When out and about, find surfaces that foster tactile awareness and strengthen the balancing muscles such as walking over forest floor, foliage, pebbles, rough flooring, tall grass
Remember to have as many non-slip rugs everywhere so the toes have something to “grab”
If you notice that your dog is lame or touch sensitive when wiping their feet, the vet or therapist should check the toes / paw thoroughly and take x-rays