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

Medical Articles
Brown dog's paw pad and nails

Trauma is most often the cause of broken toenails in dogs. Once the protective outer shell of the nail cracks, it exposes what little tender tissue lies between the nail and the bone in the toe.

How painful are broken toenails for a dog?

Broken toenails are incredibly painful no matter how or why they happen. How painful on a 1-to-10 scale? “Gosh, I think it’s variable, but I would say at least a 7,” says Jennifer S. Pendergraft, DVM, MS, a board-certified veterinary dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology and otology at Colorado State University’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital. Therefore, please use extreme caution if your dog suffers a toenail injury. A muzzle may be necessary to protect you and your veterinary team. 

Veterinary Treatment and Additional Risks

Do not try to fix a dog’s broken toenail at home. It isn’t fair to him, and it’s dangerous for you and your family. For everyone’s safety, consider crating your dog until you can get him to the vet.

If you see any of the following symptoms as a result of a broken toenail, please seek veterinary help:

  • Persistent or excessive bleeding

  • Licking or biting at the injury

  • Swelling in the toe or foot

  • Lameness or other signs of pain (whimpering, being clingy, snapping, etc.)

In many cases, veterinarians end up removing the remainder of the toenail under sedation. Because it is painful and the exposed tissue is at risk for infection, your veterinarian may prescribe both pain-control medications and antibiotics. Your dog may also need a bandage on the entire foot for a while.

Do not ignore signs of possible infection as a result of a broken toenail in a dog. Because of the anatomy of the toenail and toe bones, the infection can get into the bone – degrading the bone itself – which can require partial or total surgical amputation of the toe.

Underlying Diseases

Seek help if your dog breaks or loses the same toenail again and again or breaks or loses several toenails in a short time. In such cases, your veterinarian may refer you to see a board-certified veterinary dermatologist to look for one of these underlying causes:

  • Symmetrical lupoid onychodystrophy (SLO) is an inflammatory condition that involves the nail bed. “Essentially what happens is the nail that develops from that bed is abnormal,” says Pendergraft. “The nail is not well-adhered, and the nail will slough off… I wouldn’t say it’s common, but it’s the most common reason for multiple nail loss.”

  • Vasculitis is inflammation in the small blood vessels in the toe and toenail and can lead to poor blood supply that affects the nail.

  • Cancers such as subungual melanoma or squamous cell carcinoma can develop near the nail.

Pendergraft explains, “Sometimes it’s not immediately apparent that there is a tumor there because when the nail sloughs off, it’s inflamed and bloody. If there is a history of that nail sloughing off more than once, that’s another reason to have it checked out. There could be a little tumor at the base of that nail… Those are also not common, but we definitely see that on a referral basis.”

How to Prevent Broken Toenails on Your Dog

Prevention starts with keeping your dog’s toenails short, which means getting him accustomed to having his feet handled and examined for toenail trims. Typically, this is done by pairing the process with high-value food, such a small pieces of liver, chicken, or cheese.

If you and your dog struggle over this issue, consider having an experienced groomer or someone from your veterinary hospital trim your dog’s nails.

“I’ve conditioned my dog to allow me to touch her feet,” Pendergraft says, “but I have someone else clip her nails. And I’m a vet! She does better with somebody else. It’s less traumatic. I know it sounds odd, but sometimes they do better away from their owners.”

For dogs with active outdoor lives, including those hiking rough trails , Pendergraft recommends booties to protect footpads and toenails from injury.