Let’s talk about paw pads! Foot care is just as important for our dogs as it is for us humans — dogs can suffer from blisters or torn paw pads, burnt paws from walking on pavement that’s too hot, or mats between their toes. Ouch! Injured paw pads make walking painful and can get infected, and mats between their toes can cause walking problems or a variety of skin issues if your dog licks at them. It’s important to properly care for your dog’s feet beyond making sure their nails are trimmed, and it’s pretty simple!
What Exactly Are Paw Pads?
Paw pads consist of a layer of pigmented skin, usually pink or black, covering fatty tissue. Since fat is insulating, these give your pup's paws a bit of protection from colder surfaces in the winter. They’re also an integral part of your dog’s foot structure, and work in conjunction with your dog’s nails (which provide protection for the pads). Paw pads help with your dog’s balance, and provide traction, stability, and shock absorption, too.
You might notice that your dog’s paw pads are rough and calloused or smooth and soft — this all depends on the terrain your dog regularly walks on. If you take your dog hiking often, or they take regular walks out on asphalt, they’ll have more calloused paw pads due to the exposure to rougher terrain. If your dog is older and doesn’t walk as much, or spends most of their outside time running around on grass, their paw pads are likely to be smoother (and more likely to tear when they do walk on rougher surfaces). Just as we humans can build up calluses by incremental exposure to rough surfaces, you can do the same with your dog if you plan on frequent hikes or know they’ll be walking on rougher surfaces throughout their life. Start with shorter periods of time on these surfaces to let the pad build up toughness over time.
Paw Pad Maintenance and Care
Make it a habit to check your dog’s paw pads regularly. Gently spread their toes apart and inspect the sides of their paw pads and between their toes for any injuries or foreign objects (like burrs, pebbles, or dangerous foxtails). It’s also a good time to check for any swelling or discoloration. Watch to see if your dog shows any signs that they are in pain or have tenderness when examining their foot.
Avoid walking your dog on hot pavement! You can easily check to see if the ground is too hot for your dog to walk on by placing the back of your hand flat on the pavement and try holding it there for 7 seconds. If it’s too hot for you to keep it there for the full time, it’s too hot for your dog to walk on! If the pavement is that hot, it’s probably too hot for a dog walk or other outdoor activities.
Winter can also be tough on your dog’s paw pads, with snow, ice, and salt. No ice-melt product is completely safe for your dog and many can cause your dog’s paw pads to dry out, crack, or even burn, and can be toxic if your dog ingests it by licking it off their paws. (Read our article about which ice melters are safer for your pet if you need to de-ice your driveway or sidewalk.) Wash off their paws after any trip outside where they've been walking on salt-treated surfaces.
A paw pad injury can be very painful for your dog, whether it’s from ripping a paw pad during excessive running and play, cutting a pad while on a hike, ice build up between their pads, or burning and blistering from walking on hot surfaces. The best way to protect your dog’s paw pads from wear and tear is to have your dog wear booties when they are participating in activities or in environments that could damage their pads. Look for a sturdy, well-fitted, and non-slip boot for your pup.
It’s always a good idea to introduce booties slowly with some desensitization techniques to help your dog feel less stressed by their new kicks and more comfortable moving about in them. Watch this video to see how easy it is to teach your dog to love wearing their boots:
These all-weather dog boots by Muttluk are easy to size and introduce to your pup. If you're looking for dog boots specifically made for cold weather and snowy climates, these Snow Mushers by Muttluk are a great choice with their fleece lining and rubber soles.
Another way to protect your dog’s paws is to use paw pad waxes or balms, which are a great option if your dog doesn’t tolerate wearing booties or you can't find one that stays on. Paw pad wax, like Musher’s Secret (originally created for working sled dogs), is easy to apply and moisturizes their paw pad, creating an invisible barrier around your dog’s foot that repels ice, salt, dirt, and helps protect your dog’s paw pad from burns.
Keeping Your Dog's Paw Pads Trimmed and Mat-Free
Keeping the fur or hair that grows between your dog’s paw pads nice and short can also help to keep their feet healthy and provide more traction on slippery surfaces. When their paw pads are trimmed it’s easier for you to inspect and clean their paws, and keeps ice build up out from between their toes during snowy weather. It also helps to prevent any matting between your dog’s toes, which can be painful and cause your dog to chew at their feet (which leads to hot spots and other skin issues). Some dogs don’t have much fur growing on the bottom of their feet, but medium to thick coated dogs tend to have fuzzy feet that can benefit from trimming.
It's easy to trim your dog's paw pads at home* — watch this video from Love of Grooming to see how:
Pro Tip: Preventing mats is much better than having to shave and trim them out!
The easiest way to prevent matting is to keep their coat thoroughly brushed.
If you have a breed or breed mix whose coat is prone to matting and tangling, make sure to brush out their legs, feet, and between their toes frequently — especially after getting wet! Moisture causes a dog's coat to curl and twist around itself ... which results in mats galore if it isn't brushed out while drying.
Toe Tangles and Mats
If you notice that your dog has a mat between their toes or between their paw pads, you can try using olive oil to loosen the mat, or if your dog allows it, try gently combing it out. Often a dog will not tolerate having a foot mat combed out, as it can be extremely painful. I recommend having a professional groomer help you with any matting on your dog’s feet*.
*Grooming Safety Warning: Scissors can cause injury to your dog during grooming. Do not use scissors to try and trim paw pads or trim out mats unless you are properly trained in these grooming techniques, have the proper tools, and feel comfortable doing so. Dogs can be very sensitive about their feet and might be extra wiggly when you’re holding their paws. Using scissors instead of clippers to trim out any matting often results in injury. If that happens you’ll need to go to the veterinarian for treatment and medication to prevent infection (which can be costly), plus your dog will be much less willing to be handled the next time. It’s oftentimes easier and safer to leave mat trimming to the professionals.
Common Dog Paw Issues
Dog paws can smell for a variety of reasons. They have sweat glands in their paw pads that help them cool down in hot weather, and they have scent glands as well that let them leave behind their pheromones so others knew they were there (which is why many dogs scrape their feet on the grass or kick the dirt after going to the bathroom).
More commonly, people complain (and others find it oddly comforting) that their dog's feet smell like corn chips. This smell is from bacteria or yeast on your dog's feet, usually between their toes and paw pads. Yeast and bacteria on your dog's feet is normal, and your dog's immune system works to keep them at a manageable number. However, if you're noticing that your dog's paws really reek of Fritos, visit your veterinarian to find out the cause and treat the infection. Sometimes these infections are caused by food or environmental allergies. Make sure to thoroughly wipe and dry off your dog's paws after they take a trip outside to help prevent an overload of yeast and bacteria between their toes.
Do your dog's paw pads look thick and crusty? Does is look like they've got fur growing from their paw pads? This is called canine hyperkeratosis, and you might see it on their paw pads or on their nose. Hyperkeratosis can be genetic or the result of an underlying medical condition, so it's important you speak with your vet if you notice it. In the mean time you can keep your dog's paws moisturized and protected with paw pad balm to reduce your dog's discomfort.
Caring for Your Dog's Coat: Brushing, Combing, and Mats — Oh My!
Why Your Dog's Coat Gets Matted — and What You Can Do About It
Anal Glands — Why Dogs Have Them & What To Do When They're a Problem
How to Clean Your Pet's Ears
How Often Should You Cut Your Dog's Nails?
Finding a Dog Groomer Your Dog Will Love and Trust