Why a Dog’s Broken Toenail may be a Bigger Deal Than You Think

Medical Articles
Brown dog's paw pad and nails

Breaking a toenail seems like it should be only a minor injury for a dog, but in reality, it usually tends to be a very dramatic problem. For one thing, broken toenails tend to bleed EXCESSIVELY because of the large blood supply to the nailbed. For another, even the most mild-mannered pet will favor the foot with the injured toenail, not wanting to put any weight on that foot, nor letting anyone touch it. Some pet owners will rush their fur babies to the vet’s office thinking their poor dog has broken its leg, only to find that he cracked the nail on his pinky toe.

How painful are broken toenails for a dog?

Broken toenails are extremely painful for dogs. When a toenail breaks or cracks, the sensitive quick, which is a fleshy, pink or red color, becomes exposed. Exposed quick is very sensitive. Imagine how you feel when you have a hangnail that gets snagged or pulled. Now imagine doing something that causes the entire nail to come off, but you have to keep using the injured finger. For dogs, they have to walk on the injured foot, so even a cracked nail is painful for them. Putting any pressure on that toe can really hurt and even the most stoic, tough-natured dogs will favor the injured foot. Understanding why broken nails can be so painful for dogs starts with a dog's toenail anatomy.

Toenail Anatomy 101

Dog toenails have similar anatomy to human toes and fingers. The nail itself is comparable to human nails but tends to be thicker and it wraps around the tip of the toe, rather than laying flat like a person’s. The nail attaches to the underlying dermis (i.e. the layer beneath skin) just like with people, and has an unattached, insensitive portion just like us too. The unattached part comes to a point in dogs whereas it tends to remain only slightly naturally curved in people. The part of the dermis that is attached to the underside of the toenail is called the quick, and it too is pointed in the dog. It has a large blood supply for its size and is extremely sensitive. The dermis covers the end of the third phalanx, which is the bone that comes off the last joint of the toe. This is similar to people as well, but because a dog’s toenail essentially wraps around the point of the toe instead of laying flat, it makes contact with the ground more often. Thus, dog toenails tend to split down to the quick or break off more easily than most people’s nails. Dogs also prefer to use those nails for digging and scratching, further increasing their risk of a broken nail.

What to Look For if You Suspect Your Dog Has a Broken Toenail

Sometimes the nail will become avulsed, meaning it will be attached to the base of the nail, but not the quick- it may look like the dog has two nails instead of one. Sometimes the nail gets ripped off completely leaving behind only the shorter, blunted quick. Bleeding is common, especially if the nail only partially comes off. In this case, every time the dog puts pressure on the paw (e.g. when he walks), it will cause the broken nail to irritate the quick and cause more bleeding. Some dogs only bleed for a short period of time, and others don’t bleed at all (or more commonly, the bleeding isn’t noticed). Usually a dog with a broken toenail will limp, guard the injured foot, and lick it frequently. He may not let anyone try to look at it or touch it. He may hide, act scared, or even skip meals.

What to Do if Your Dog Has a Broken Toenail

You can try to remove the toenail if it is barely attached, but in general, it is best to just avoid messing with the injured foot altogether. Most dogs are in so much pain that they will bite anyone trying to touch the nail. If the dog is bleeding heavily and you can’t make it to the vet right away, you can try gently wrapping the entire foot in a light bandage. If his foot is extremely dirty, you can try rinsing it and drying it, but again, dogs are usually experiencing too much pain to allow you to do this. Wrapping the foot can also help prevent a partially torn nail from getting snagged on something and causing more pain and bleeding. Be sure the wrap is not too tight- you don’t want to accidentally cut circulation off to the foot. Do not give any over-the-counter pain medication. While it’s tough to see your pet in pain, most pain medications are not safe for dogs. You don’t want to create a more serious problem than the one he already has. Keep him quiet and in a small space so he can’t run around and further injure the nail.

What to Expect at a Veterinary Visit for a Broken Toenail

Once at the vet’s office, your veterinarian will start him on pain medication. He or she may need to sedate him to remove the broken nail. The quick will need to be cleaned carefully and usually a bandage will be placed. Depending on the severity of the injury and how much quick is exposed, the bandage may need to stay on for several days. Your dog may be sent home on antibiotics to prevent infection as well as pain medication to keep him comfortable. Once home, the bandage (if used) and injured foot will need to be kept clean and dry. Do not allow your dog to lick his injured nail. If he won’t leave it alone, you may need to purchase an E-collar (i.e. Elizabethan collar; known to some as “the cone of shame”) for him to wear. Give all medications as prescribed. Pain usually subsides within a few days. Risk of infection usually passes after about a week. Note that sometimes the nail doesn’t grow back normally if the cells at the base of the nail (where the skin meets the nail) were damaged. Have your vet recheck it if you are not sure if it is healing well.

Why do my dog’s toenails keep breaking?

If broken toenails are a common problem with your dog, there may be an underlying issue causing them to break. Chronic or persistent fungal infections, immune-mediated or hereditary diseases such as lupoid onychodystrophy, and nutritional deficiencies can lead to brittle nails that break easy. If your pet likes to dig, broken toenails can be a common problem as well. Have your vet assess your pet to see if an underlying problem might be causing the frequent nail breaks. Once a diagnosis is reached, therapy can be started to hopefully improve nail health.

How to Prevent Broken Toenails on Your Dog

Keep your dog's toenails trimmed regularly to help minimize the risk of him snagging a toenail on something. If he is averse to toenail trims, consider a nail dremmel. Frequent walks on abrasive surfaces, such as concrete sidewalks, may also help keep the nails short. Try to discourage your pet from digging or provide a safe area for him to dig that won’t tear up his nails (e.g. sandbox). If digging occurs because of separation anxiety (e.g. he tries to dig his way out of a kennel or crate), talk to your vet about ways to help him get past his anxiety. If broken nails keep occurring, have your vet assess your pet to see if an underlying issue is causing the problem.