Take your dog’s foot injuries in stride with help from vet Harvey Carruthers.
As soon as a dog steps out of its home or kennel, it is at risk of injury, a risk that is even greater in dogs that work in the countryside. In my daily work I find that of all canine athletic injuries, foot injuries are the most common – I see a great number of them every week. This one category of injury covers a huge range of problems, ranging from lacerations, to crushing injuries, abscesses, fractures and foreign body penetration. The type of injuries a dog sustains are influenced by the dog’s lifestyle and its environment, including soil type, habitat and the time of year. A dog’s breed, and thereby the work it carries out also influence the type of injury incurred; a terrier, for example, is more prone to injuries through digging, a beating dog may experience wounds from undergrowth, while a sighthound may suffer athletic injury. Similarly, dogs that exercise on concrete or tarmac often get pad abrasions. You might find foot lacerations if your dog works in areas where flint is found, glass in areas where tipping occurs, or by ice on farm tracks in winter.
If you suspect a foot injury, examine the foot gently and systematically. It can be hard to locate the problem, especially in dark or longer-coated dogs which are muddy. Foot injuries can be extremely painful, so be careful not to cause more pain or get bitten in the process.
The pads are superbly adapted to the needs of working dogs. They act as all-in-one shock absorbers, brake pads and all-terrain tyres. Because of this, the pads sustain a great deal of wear and tear and so are prone to injury. The most common injuries I see are lacerations, scalping injuries and puncture wounds. The problem with lacerations is that they seem to occur when the dog is working hard, meaning it is often oblivious to the damage to the foot. Usually a dog will not stop working, even if it has a deep laceration that would require surgery to stitch. This might be a natural effect of adrenaline and a keen focus on the job in hand, but it means that by carrying on despite injury, the sensitive tissue of the toe underneath the pad becomes bruised and healing. As a result, the dog’s recuperation takes longer.
Lacerations are likely to be contaminated with dirt and bacteria and so should be thoroughly flushed with water, tap water or clean running water, which will help to physically remove infection and foreign material like grit. Once flushed, cover the foot with a layer of material until a sterile dressing can be applied. In a field situation, a handkerchief or clean gun-cleaning cloth would do. If you use a polythene bag as a makeshift dressing, make sure not to leave it on too long, as the foot rapidly becomes soggy as sweat from the pads builds up.
The next decision to make is whether veterinary attention is needed; superficial wounds often heal with simple daily cleaning and medication as needed. For deeper wounds, I have used both conservative care with regular clean foot dressings and surgical treatment, usually by stitching. In my experience, surgery allows the quickest return to work, though staples and skin glue are frequently-used alternatives to stitching. I advise owners that the wound may not heal first time round and that the dog will be off work for between two and four weeks – this can be especially bad news in the middle of a busy shooting season. The hard surface of the pad will heal last, and you will see a deep scar at the wound site until the surface of the pad is replaced, which can take weeks.
The nails have a strong blood supply and, like the rest of the foot, have many pain receptors. Because of this, nail injuries may appear unremarkable but can bleed strongly and are often painful. The most frequent nail injuries are where the nail is torn off entirely, or split lengthways. Split nails are a particular problem when the crack runs along the entire length of the nails. When this happens, with each step the dog takes the split portion of nail applies pressure to the highly sensitive nail bed. Dogs may chew or lick the split nail in an attempt to relieve the pain, but in the process merely cause more damage and allow infection to set in. To reduce the pain, split nails that are firmly attached need to be removed by a vet. I either use local anaesthetic, or sedation, and often apply a bandage for a couple of days to protect the healing tissue. Where the entire nail has been removed, a light dressing can help protect the area. Trauma is not the only cause of nail damage; overzealous nail clipping often causes pain and much bleeding. In dogs that regularly lose nails, other diseases such as autoimmune disease and infection should be considered. If you routinely clip your dog’s nails it is worthwhile buying a silver nitrate pencil to stem any bleeding from inadvertent injury. The nails of the dew claws are injured as often as the other nails, and should be clipped as short as is reasonable, especially in older dogs.
Bones and Tendons
Compared to nail and pad injuries, I see relatively few foot fractures or tendon problems; the upper limb joints are much more commonly injured. If your dog is lame and you cannot see an injury, you should always always try to rule out elbow or shoulder pain in the front legs or stifle and hip pain in the back legs before homing in on the foot as the source of lameness. One of the more common types of foot fracture is when dogs are accidentally trodden on. Livestock, especially horses that are shod, can easily break the bones in a dog’s foot, although thankfully most dogs have the sense to give horses and their feet a wide berth altogether. Puppies are often trodden on by their owners but because their bones are more elastic, don’t always end up with a fracture. Some of the bones in the foot, the sesamoids, are only a few millimetres in size but can cause long term lameness – although confusingly, some dogs have broken sesamoids and are never lame.
Of the tendons in the foot, damage to those at the back, the flexor tendons, is easiest to pick up. Instead of bearing weight on the pads of the toes and the ball of the foot, the weight is borne further back, giving a flat footed appearance. I have seen dogs develop this stance because the back of the foot has been lacerated, severing the tendons, or infected through a puncture wound, causing the tendons to gradually lose their strength. Some older dogs may develop a flat footed posture as the tendons weaken. Whatever the cause of this unusual posture, further foot injury is likely to follow as sensitive structures come into contact with the ground. A boot may provide some cushioning but I have yet to find a method of supporting the limb to allow a return to full function.