Why Do Dogs Have Dewclaws?
The Canine "Thumb"
Ever noticed that dangly little nail tucked on the upper part of your dog’s foot? That seemingly insignificant digit is known as a dewclaw. While it’s fun to compare dewclaws to thumbs, why would your dog need thumbs? Why do dogs have dewclaws?
That’s what we’re going to learn today. In this article, we’ll talk about what dewclaws are, how dogs use them today, and if your dog’s dewclaws should be removed.
Sound good? Let’s hook in.
What Is a Dewclaw? The Backstory
Before we dive into the "why," let's talk definitions.
Dewclaws are small, vestigial claws found on the inner side of a dog's front legs.
Think of them as a sort of "thumb" for your dog.
While all dogs are born with dewclaws on their front legs, some also have them on their hind legs, although this is less common.
Front dewclaws are attached by bone like a regular dog nail.
Rear dewclaws can be attached by bone too, but often they are attached by flaps of skin.
But where did they come from?
The easy answer is evolution. But funnily enough, wolves don’t have dewclaws.
The canine thumb is uniquely canine and some breeds are more likely to have dewclaws on all four feet.
Experts claim that dewclaws were more functional digits for early canines.
They helped dogs grasp and manipulate objects, much like our thumbs do for us (though with less dexterity).
Herding and guarding breeds like Great Pyrenees Mountain Dogs and German Shepherds have rear dewclaws. They may have used their extra appendages for work-specific tasks.
“In the Great Pyrenees, these may function as a brake of sorts since they often raced down mountainsides chasing wolves away from flocks of livestock…the double dewclaws might also help them chase sheep-steeling predators over rough terrain.” – American Kennel Club (2)
With selective breeding, some dog breeds phased out the need for their dewclaws so they only have them on the front legs. Other working dog breeds still have them.
While many aspects of their anatomy changed, dewclaws stuck around.
So how might your dog use them today? Let’s take a look.
What Is the Purpose of a Dewclaw on a Dog?
While dewclaws may no longer serve a prominent role in your dog's daily life, they still have some use.
Here’s what we know:
Dewclaws can help stop your dog from slipping
Dewclaws can provide extra traction when a dog is running or navigating slippery terrain – for example when climbing out of water or walking on ice. Some dogs also use them to climb trees and fences (if they can).
This is why working dogs are more likely to have all four dewclaws. It’s particularly beneficial for dogs who do agility or hunting, or that run on varied terrain and need extra stability.
Dewclaws help your dog balance
Some experts believe that front dewclaws can help dogs maintain balance during high-speed chases or while making sharp turns.
“When dogs run, their front feet often bend to the point where their dewclaws contact the ground. At high speeds (especially when turning) or on slippery surfaces, these dewclaws provide extra traction and help stabilise the carpal (wrist) joint.”-- PetMD (3)
This may explain why some breeds that excel in agility, like Border Collies, often have well-developed dewclaws.
It also explains why most dogs with removed front dewclaws are more prone to carpal (wrist) problems.
The dewclaw seems to ease some of the pressure of stabilising the legs as your dog is standing. So they apply more pressure and strain to the wrist when the dewclaws are removed. Over time, that repetitive strain causes arthritic symptoms and carpal overextension. Yikes.
Dewclaws help your dog hold things
Dogs often use their dewclaws to stabilise and manoeuvre objects between their paws. Whenever you see a pup “hold” a treat, toy, or stick you’ll often see it’s slightly higher up where the dewclaws can grip.
This is a clever use of a dewclaw’s increased dexterity, and definitely something I’ve seen with my own dogs.
Dewclaws help your dog fight
In some cases, dewclaws can be used defensively. When a dog tackles an opponent or prey, they may use their dewclaws to gain a better grip over them. Usually, the front dewclaws are more helpful in fights but I’m sure a rear dewclaw could add a damaging scratch too if needed!
Dewclaws help your dog groom themselves
Dewclaws can also assist dogs in grooming themselves, especially their faces. They can use these extra digits to scratch hard-to-reach places or remove debris from their fur.
So these little thumbs seem to be quite useful. So why do breeders and vets remove them? Let’s discuss.
Should You Remove Your Dog’s Dewclaws?
No discussion about dewclaws is complete without this question:
The issue of removing dewclaws has been a hot topic in the veterinary community for decades. Now one really has a clear answer.
The current overarching opinion is this:
Front dewclaws should only be removed if there is a medical reason to do so.
This is because front dewclaws help your dog’s stability. So dogs with removed front dewclaws tend to have carpal wrist issues later in life. (4)
Rear dewclaws are removed if they are only attached by skin.
This is to prevent the chances of snagging or ingrown nail injuries. Because the dewclaw is attached by a flap of skin, it doesn’t serve any strong function as the front dewclaws do.
Generally, front and rear dewclaws are removed by breeders when your dog is around three to five days of age. So if you buy a purebred puppy, their front dewclaws may already be removed. (5)
If your dog has their dewclaws intact, you should always ask your vet’s opinion about their removal if it concerns you.
Some vets will advocate for their removal as a preventative measure against nail problems. Others will suggest to wait and see if it becomes an issue. Many dogs live perfectly happy lives with their dewclaws intact.
Related: Should You Trim Your Dog's Dewclaws?
How Do You Maintain Your Dog’s Dewclaws?
Dewclaws need to be maintained just like any other dog nail.
In fact, I’d argue you need to pay extra special attention to your dog’s dewclaws because they rarely have contact with the ground. Therefore they don’t receive the natural filing that most of your dog’s nails do.
They can grow to extra long lengths and crack or grow inward if left ungroomed.
So here’s a quick primer on how to maintain them:
Choose the right tools
You need a reliable dog nail grinder or nail clipper to care for your dog’s nails.
Related: The Best Dog Nail Grinder.
Related: Dog Nail Grinder vs Nail Clipper: Which One Should You Use
Identify the correct length to clip them
Your dog’s nails have a fleshy inner part that is connected to the bloodstream. This is called the “quick”. If you nip the quick, your dog’s nail will bleed. So be careful not to clip the nail too far up.
Related: How To Cut Dog Nails In 4 Simple Steps – Grinding & Clipping Guide
Feed your dog a nutritious diet
More of a preventative measure but still worth mentioning. Your dog maintains healthy nails with a healthy diet. So feed your dog the best possible dog food you can afford for optimal health.
Can a Dewclaw fall off?
Don’t panic if your dog’s dewclaw falls off. This is relatively common and sometimes doesn’t even bother your dog.
“This actually isn't the whole nail. This can happen when dirt and fur get caught around the nail creating a ‘solid cover,’ and it pulls off the outer layer. Similar to when our nails break and peel. This can happen when your dog is licking or chewing at the nail or if it gets snagged on something” - Preventative Vet 
If you find your dog’s dewclaw on the floor, check your dog for injury or discomfort. Sometimes the hard cover can be half way broken off and still partly attached, therefore your dog might need your helping hand to safely remove it. If there is no other signs of a broken nail or injury, think of it as shedding an unnecessary part and bid it farewell.
My Final Thoughts On Why Dogs Have Dewclaws?
So, why do dogs have dewclaws? They may seem unimportant to the modern canine life, but dewclaws clearly still have a role to play. By providing extra stability and traction, they help your dog navigate the world with greater ease.
To make sure that your dog’s dewclaws are more help than hindrance, don’t ignore them in your dog’s nail care routine. Be sure to keep them trimmed to avoid any nasty accidents.
Want to learn more about dewclaws and dog nails? Check out our other articles:
Vets remove dewclaws if there is a medical reason to do so. For example, the dewclaw might be broken, cracked, snagging, or ingrown. Dewclaws are more prone to injuries because of where they are.
Dog dew claws don’t tend to hurt on their own. They can actually be quite useful to certain dog breeds by helping them climb and stabilise. However, dewclaws are prone to infection and snagging. If that happens, dewclaws can become painful and uncomfortable. If you suspect your dog’s dewclaws are causing them pain, consult a professional vet for medical advice.
- “Dewclaw”. Grammarist. Retrieved September 12, 2023. https://grammarist.com/interesting-words/dewclaw/
- Meyers, H. May 17, 2023. “What Are Dog Dewclaws?”. American Kennel Club. Retrieved September 12, 2023. https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/what-are-dog-dewclaws/
- Coates, J. February 10, 2023. “Everything You Need to Know About Dog Dewclaws”. PetMD. Retrieved September 12, 2023. https://www.petmd.com/dog/care/5-things-you-need-know-about-dog-dewclaws
- Barnes, C., Barnette, C. “Carpal Hyperextension in Dogs”. VCA Hospitals. Retrieved September 12, 2023. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/carpal-hyperextension-in-dogs
- Turner, B. December 9, 2021. “Dog Dewclaws: What Are They and Should They Be Removed?”. Preventative Vet. Retrieved September 12, 2023. https://www.preventivevet.com/dogs/dog-dewclaws-what-are-they-and-should-they-be-removed