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Brittle Nails

I learned something new recently: those hard black protrusions at the end of my paws that I, in my domesticated lifestyle, have always thought of as nails are actually claws. It’s a touch animalistic, but since we canines see ourselves as the most superior of man’s friends in the animal kingdom, it gives me a sense of my true wilderness nature to think I possessing a fine set of claws.

It is important to do a regular inspection of our paws and claws. Personally, I am fond of the occasional pedicure. Being a dog who mostly romps in the yard or runs along a woodsy path, I seldom exercises on concrete, so my nails, (oops!) claws need to be trimmed with regularity. City dogs will find that the sidewalk can keep claws at a desirable length, while some of us add it to our regular routine at the groomer.

Your caretaker should examine your paws carefully in search of swelling, flaking, or imbedded debris and report any abnormalities to the veterinarian. Dr. William Miller, Professor of Dermatology at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, says the most common problem is onychorrhexis. This is a term used to describe claws that are dry, brittle, and crumbly. Your veterinarian can determine if this condition is indicative of systemic disease, nutritional deficiencies, and/or hormonal imbalances, or is a result of a localized problem such as trauma, fungal infection, or tumor.

“When dealing with claw disease,” says Dr. Miller, “the first point to be decided is whether one claw, a claw/paw, or multiple claws on multiple paws are involved. If only one claw is affected [we would focus] on a local event. If there is one claw affected on both front feet, trauma secondary to digging might be appropriate. When there are multiple claws on multiple paws involved, systemic diseases need to be considered.”

In cases of nutritional deficiencies, endocrine disorders and auto-immune diseases, the dog’s skin may also be involved, which make diagnosis easier. But, Dr. Miller points out that onychorrhexis due to nutritional deficiency looks very similar to onychorhexis due to autoimmune disease, so diagnostic testing must be performed. A biopsy can reveal what disease is present and the best course of treatment.

Another condition of the claw is paronychia. “Paronychia means inflammation or infection of the claw fold, not a disease,” says Dr. Nina Shoulberg, MS, DVM,DACVD. There are multiple causes of paronchia including bacterial and fungal infections, neoplasia, trauma, demodex, and immune mediated disorders.

Dr. Miller cautions that if multiple claws are involved, a veterinarian will look for underlying immunodeficiencies, the sterile pyogranuloma syndrome, or specific claw diseases. “Dogs with widespread onychorrhexis will have a secondary bacterial paronychia,” says Miller. “If you treat the infection but ignore its underlying cause, the infection either won’t respond to treatment or the infection will recur shortly after treatment is stopped.”

A dog’s behavior can be an important tool for an aware companion. Behaviorist Dr. Ellen Lindell, Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, says that any changes in your dog’s behavior such as no longer jumping on or off a bed, avoiding certain surfaces and refusal to jump on command could be indications of a claw problem. “If a dog is in pain, as with most nailbed conditions, there could be aggressive behavior secondary to the pain,” says Dr. Lindell.

Our veterinarians agree: proper trimming and nutrition is essential. Dr. Miller recommends painting the diseased nails with clear polish, and Dr. Shoulberg suggests acrylic nail cement for idiopathic onychorrhexis. She says “for brittle nails, try 1 pack Knox gelatin per 7 kg of weight every 24 hours.”

And all this time, I thought the only things I needed to know about my claws were that they were great for digging a hole to hide my favorite toy, a terrific way to get that little morsel of popcorn that rolled under the TV stand, and the most satisfying way get to that little place on the back of my neck, just behind my ear. And ah…that feels so good!

March 2003 DogWatch