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Protecting Your Dog’s Paws In The Summer and Winter

By Dr. Kaitlin Wurtz April 14, 2021

A dog’s paws are a critical part of their body. Healthy paws allow dogs to walk, run, dig, search for food, scratch themselves, swim, and play. Since their paws come in contact with the ground, there are a few hazards that we should be aware of to ensure our pet’s paws stay injury free during their exciting outdoor adventures in all weather conditions.

About Your Dog's Paws

The paw is composed of skin, bone, tendons, ligaments, blood supply, and connective tissue. The footpad that comes in direct contact with the ground is made of special skin that provides insulation from hot and cold surfaces and cushion from impact. Dogs evolved from canines that would have to survive in extremely cold conditions so they retained some of those anatomical characteristics. Most notable is a special heat conserving structure made up of blood vessels that helps keep their paws warm on snow and ice, even over long periods of time (Ninomiya et al., 2011). This is similar to the mechanism that keeps penguin’s wings and legs from freezing in extremely cold and wet environments (Frost et al., 1975) and how artic foxes can keep their feet from freezing in icy water (Henshaw et al., 1972). In addition to their footpad, the dog’s paw consists of nails which help them dig and provide traction and fur for added protection. Water dogs have special webbing between their toes that help serve as paddles when swimming.

What Can Harm Your Dog’s Paws In The Winter?

If you live somewhere that gets snow and ice, you will need to take some extra precautions to protect your dog’s paws during the winter. It is important to remember that while our feet may be bundled up in insulated and waterproof boots, our dogs are essentially barefoot. As previously mentioned, dogs are well adapted to handle cold temperatures on their paws, but some may still experience discomfort from snow and ice, especially when exposed to wet snow which has been shown to cause more paw stress than hard packed snow (Bradley et al., 1996). Salt is commonly added to sidewalks and driveways to help prevent ice. The sharp edge of the salt pieces can cut or cause discomfort to the surface of the footpad or they could end up stuck between your dog’s toes. If your dog is experiencing any skin dryness (common from dry heated buildings in the winter) resulting in skin cracking, the salt can cause further irritation and discomfort. Some salt treatments contain added chemicals to help melt the ice which could lead to dryness, itchiness, peeling, or irritation of your dog’s skin, especially if prolonged contact occurs.

How Can You Protect Your Dog’s Paws During Winter?

One easy way to protect your dog’s feet from rough salt and snowy conditions is by outfitting them in boots specifically made for dogs. These boots are often waterproof and secure around the dog’s ankle or lower leg. When using boots on your dog for the first time, make sure you give your dog plenty of time to adjust. Let them wear the boots around the house for short periods of time to allow them to get comfortable to the feeling. Moreover, this will help prevent overloading their musculoskeletal system as they alter their gait to accommodate walking in boots (Lawman et al., 2018). This is similar to when we buy ourselves a new pair of running shoes. We will want to give our bodies some time to adjust before going out and running a marathon in new shoes. If boots are too uncomfortable for your dog, there is the option of applying paw wax to provide a layer of protection to your dog’s paw and prevent them from drying out. Waxes can also help prevent snow and ice from balling up on their paws. When using a wax product, always make sure it is food safe in case your dog ingests some when licking their paws. Another way to prevent snow and ice from accumulating on their paws is to keep the hair trimmed short between their toes and around their feet.

When purchasing salt for your own home, look for products that are marketed as pet safe. These will be less likely to contain harsh chemicals that can irritate or dry out your dog’s sensitive skin. Some may even have rounded granules to avoid jabbing or cutting your dogs feet when they walk across it. Using pet safe sidewalk salt not only benefits your own dog, but all the other dogs that walk by your home will appreciate it too! Finally, it can be beneficial to rinse off your dog’s feet after they get home from a walk. This can help clean away any debris that could cause irritation if left on your dog’s skin for prolonged periods.

What Can Harm Your Dog’s Paws In The Summer?

During the summer, one of the biggest threats to your dog’s paws is burns from walking on hot surfaces. When air temperatures reach around 80 degrees Fahrenheit, asphalt temperatures may get hot enough to cause burns (Harrington et al., 1995). It is good to get into a routine of checking surfaces before walking your dog on them. You can do so by placing your hand on the surface. If you cannot comfortably hold your hand there for at least 5 seconds, then it is too hot to walk your dog on. Asphalt isn’t the only material that can cause burns – concrete, sidewalks, boat docks, sand, and even the bed of pick-up trucks can all reach damaging temperatures in the summer heat. Signs that your dog’s paws are getting burned include refusing to walk, limping, or redness or blisters on the footpad surface. If skin damage is visible, your dog should head to the vet for treatment to ease the pain and to prevent infection.

Scrapes from sharp objects can also hurt a dog’s paws. Keep an eye out for broken glass and avoid the area if possible. After passing the area, double check that there are no pieces stuck between your dog’s toes. Also, small pebbles can sometimes find themselves lodged between the toes leading to discomfort. Burrs or dried grasses such as Foxtail can have sharp edges that can penetrate your dog’s skin (Acker and Fergus, 1994). Sharp rocks or sticks are other hazards that could potentially cause an injury to your dog’s feet. Aside from physical objects, be aware that your dog’s paws may come in contact with irritating or toxic chemicals either from cars in parking lots or fertilizer runoff from yards. Washing your dog’s paws after a walk can prevent chemical irritation or accidental ingestion. Finally, some pests such as ticks could attach themselves to your dog’s paws. These can be easily missed since we often don’t check the bottoms of our dog’s feet or between their toes after an outdoor adventure.

How Can You Protect Your Dog’s Paws During summer?

To avoid burns, consider walking your dog in the morning or evening during the cooler part of the day when the sun is less intense. Always give dogs the option to walk in the grass which is often cooler than the walkway temperature (Yilmaz et al., 2008). Walking your dog often on abrasive surfaces such as concrete can help build up calluses which offer some protection from the heat. Use caution after your dog has been in the water as this can soften their paws making them more susceptible to burns. Paw waxes can be beneficial in the summer months as well as winter months as they provide an extra layer of protection to your dog’s skin. Boots may also be useful in the summer months to provide a protective physical barrier. However, boots should be used with caution as dogs cool themselves through their paws and may overheat when wearing them (Takahashi, 1964).

Does Your Dog’s Paws Need To Be Moisturized?

Most dogs probably don’t need their paws moisturized on a regular basis. But if you notice any cracking or peeling on their footpads, this could be a sign of dry skin. Dry paw pads can be moisturized using dog safe balms or creams. Products that contain Vitamin E are great. Vaseline or coconut oil are also generally regarded as safe to use on dogs. Paws that are well moisturized are less likely to be injured or to experience pain from salt exposure due to open wounds.

How To Get Your Dog Comfortable With You Checking Their Paws

Sometimes dogs are not comfortable with having their paws handled. They may find it uncomfortable, ticklish, or may just be defensive of their body parts. Other dogs may have developed negative associations with their paws being handled, such as a bad nail trimming experience. Extra care and caution should be used when handling a dog’s paws that are injured. Since this can cause pain and further anxiety related to paw handling.

To help your dog feel more comfortable with you checking their paws, training exercises that work on desensitization and counterconditioning can be useful (Crowell-Davis, 2008). Use treats or a high value reward item to reward progress made towards paw handling. Work slowly in short training segments to keep your dog’s anxiety and arousal low. Your first training exercise may start with touching your dog’s leg gently and pairing it with a treat. Next, you may work towards touching their paws. Once they are comfortable with their paws being touched (this may take many training segments), you can advance to picking up their paw. From here, gradually increase the intensity of handling across training sessions. Never increase the intensity of training if your dog is showing signs of discomfort (Yin, 2007). Be patient and work at your dog’s pace because you will have to eventually gain their trust with their paws being checked. For a more advanced training exercise, you could even teach them to give you their paw on command. This can make checking their paws a rewarding experience for both dog and parent.

Conclusion

As responsible pet parents, we need to be conscious of our dog’s sensitive paws when we are out on walks. Winter and summer weather come with different potential hazards to be aware of. The best way to protect our dogs is through prevention. Whether you alter your walking routine, use boots, or provide extra preventative maintenance on their paws, there are many ways to make sure our dog’s paws remain healthy and comfortable throughout the year.

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Works Cited

Acker, Randy, and Jim Fergus. Field Guide: Dog First Aid Emergency Care for the Hunting, Working, and Outdoor Dog. Wilderness Adventures Press, 1994.

Bradley, Dino M., Steven F. Swaim, Dana M. Vaughn, Robert D. Powers, John A. Mcguire, Gregory A. Reinhart, John Burr, and Rick A. Swenson. "Biochemical and histopathological evaluation of changes in sled dog paw skin associated with physical stress and cold temperatures." Veterinary Dermatology 7, no. 4 (1996): 203-208.

Crowell-Davis, Sharon L. "Desensitization and Counterconditioning: The Details of Success." Compendium (2008).

Frost, P. G. H., W. R. Siegfried, and P. J. Greenwood. "Arterio‐venous heat exchange systems in the Jackass penguin Spheniscus demersus." Journal of Zoology 175, no. 2 (1975): 231-241.

Harrington, William Z., Bonnie L. Strohschein, David Reedy, Jennifer E. Harrington, and William R. Schiller. "Pavement temperature and burns: streets of fire." Annals of emergency medicine 26, no. 5 (1995): 563-568.

Henshaw, Robert E., Larry S. Underwood, and Timothy M. Casey. "Peripheral thermoregulation: foot temperature in two arctic canines." Science 175, no. 4025 (1972): 988-990.

Lawman, Caleb, Kathleen Shorter, and Wendy Brown. "Ground force kinetic adaptations associated with canine boots." (2018).

Ninomiya, Hiroyoshi, Emi Akiyama, Kanae Simazaki, Atsuko Oguri, Momoko Jitsumoto, and Takaaki Fukuyama. "Functional anatomy of the footpad vasculature of dogs: scanning electron microscopy of vascular corrosion casts." Veterinary dermatology 22, no. 6 (2011): 475-481.

Takahashi, Yoshikazu. "Functional activity of the eccrine sweat glands in the toe-pads of the dog." The Tohoku journal of experimental medicine 83, no. 3 (1964): 205-219.

Yilmaz, Hasan, Süleyman Toy, M. A. Irmak, Sevgi Yilmaz, and Yahya Bulut. "Determination of temperature differences between asphalt concrete, soil and grass surfaces of the City of Erzurum, Turkey." Atmósfera 21, no. 2 (2008): 135-146.

Yin, Sophia. "Simple handling techniques for dogs." Compendium (2007).