I must admit that toes are something that I rarely thought about. Once I started really thinking about my dog’s toes, I can see why they form a vital foundation for your dog’s performance.
Toes are important!
Missed or poorly treated toe injuries result in decreased performance or even retirement of your canine athlete.
As always, prevention and early recognition of any toe injury are vital if you want your sports buddy to enjoy a long athletic career.
How are your dog’s toes made up?
On their forelimb, dogs have 5 toes (4 to the front and 1 dewclaw on the medial side (inside) of the paw) and usually 4 toes per paw on the hindlegs.
Each toe consists of 3 small bones while the dewclaw has two bones – a lot like the moving parts of our own 4 fingers and 1 thumb.
The front dewclaws are a lot like the human thumb. They play a very important part when our dogs have to turn sharp corners at high speed as they then add addition grip and stability.
Just like human hands, your dog’s toes consist of a complex web of tendons and ligaments, all of which can get injured.
Your dog’s forelimb muscles all gather down towards their toes and become the fibrous tendons which attach these muscles to bone. These tendons run above and below the toe bones enabling the toes to stretch out (extensor tendons) or curl in (flexor tendons).
Some of these “curl in” or flexor tendons are important as they flex the toes and provide shock absorption when your dog lands e.g. from a jump. They also allow the nails to “dig in” for increased traction.
Toes ligaments are fibrous bands connecting bone to bone to form the joints. Collateral ligaments run on each side of the toes providing side to side stability.
Factors that increase the risk of toe injuries
There are many factors to consider when looking at injury prevention.
Tight turns while maintaining speed and accuracy all depend on good traction and grip. So what could negatively influence your dog’s grip?
1. Foot Fur
The fur that grows between the pads of your dog’s toes will interfere with traction. This is particularly true on wet or slippery surfaces. A furry pad surface is like driving on bald tyres in the rain.
Keep the hair between your dog’s foot and toe pads neatly trimmed. This ensures that most of the pad, especially the areas between the pads, make contact with the ground on turns etc.
Trimmed fur will greatly reduce slipping.
Keep nails trimmed to reduce the risk of them getting “stuck” in grass turf. This may cause pulling on the toes as the nails get jammed. This jamming of the toes happens frequently on contact equipment such as the A-frame. Here is a super video by Dr Leslie Woodcock (hosted by Susan Garrett) showing the importance of keeping your dog’s nails trimmed.
3. Training surface
Always consider the condition of the training or competition surface. The indoor and outdoor surface may be worn down, too hard (drought or concrete) or too soft (after heavy rains). Remember to check your contact
equipment too. Ensure that the surfaces have not become too worn down reducing traction.
Sprains and strains
1. A sprain is a stretched or torn ligament.
A sprained toe often happens when a toenail gets stuck and stays in a fixed position while the rest of the body continues to move in another direction. The result is often a stutter-step or a trip. Most of the time the dog will complete the course. However, after a bit of rest, your dog may show signs of discomfort, pain or intermittently limp a little. There may be some swelling on the affected joint which may be tender to touch.
A complete tear of a collateral ligament can cause a toe to dislocate. This will cause immediate lameness or limping.
Treatment varies and is dependant on the injury. A low-grade sprain is normally treated with rest and an NSAID (anti-inflammatory). High-grade sprains or tears may involve splinting or surgery.
2. A strain is a stretched or torn muscle or tendon.
Toe strains can occur when the toes are overextended upwards on contact equipment. An example would be where the toe is jammed into a slat or catches the edge and is suddenly bent upwards. This may result in the
stretching, tearing or a complete rupture of the flexor tendons.
Visible signs of this type of injury may vary from mild tenderness to immediate limping. Many times the dog only appears “off” for a day or so when an incomplete tear occurs.
The dangerous part is when these incomplete tears go unrecognised. They then heal as scar tissue which may cause the tendon to be more susceptible to repeat injuries. A weakened tendon may tear completely resulting in a “flat-footed” appearance. At this stage, the tendon is not able to be repaired. The dog will have a persistent gait abnormality (this is not always painful).
Again, treatment of strains is dependent on the severity of the injury and may include surgery and rehabilitation.
Early-onset arthritis is common when trauma in joints occur. OA occurs as a result of joint instability, direct or indirect damage to the joint surface, or from faulty bone and cartilage development. OA leads to loss of the
normal joint shape and increased joint instability. Joint instability or laxity will cause the body to try to build support structures such as bone spurs along the edges of the joint.
Dogs involved in sports such as agility, flyball, IGP or similar contact sports sustain repetitive trauma to their feet. This is particularly true with heavy and repetitive training in jumping and contact equipment.
Dewclaw removal is also noted to alter the stability of the toes and paw during training. This places extra, abnormal stress upon other areas of the forelimb such as the wrist and the early development of arthritis.
Regardless of its cause, Osteoarthritis decreases your dog’s range of motion and comfort. This negatively impacts their performance in their sport.
Toe fractures are less common but do occur. Commonly injured during sport are the two outer toes (numbers 2 and 5). Toes on the front legs are more susceptible to injury than toes on the hindlegs.
Fractures are usually splinted or cast for 4 – 6 weeks if it can be well-aligned. This is performed under sedation. Preserving blood supply is paramount and results in better bone healing and the least downtime.
Fractures at the tip of the toe are more difficult to repair and may lead to poor alignment or a non-healing fracture. In these cases, the nail bed and associated bone are removed. Returning to sport is still possible in these cases.
The importance of a proper warm-up and cool-down cannot be emphasised enough. This small habit is beneficial to maximise performance, prevent new injuries. Importantly, it assists in identifying more subtle injuries such as toe sprains early.
Contact me at The Biokinetic K-9 regarding sport-specific fitness and strength conditioning programs for your canine athlete.
Reference: Why the Toes are so Important
PJ Lotsikas, DMV Diplomate ACVS, Diplomate ACVSMR
FM Lotsikas, DMV, CCRT