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The dewclaw debate: should your dog keep them, or are they dangerous?

Whitney Coy is a freelance writer and editor based in Columbus, OH, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. She writes frequently for SheKnows, as well as several other websites. She writes on topics including parenting, pets...

Consider what is best for you dog's safety and comfort before making the decision to remove their dewclaws

It may surprise you to know you're not the only mammal in your house sporting thumbs. Your precious pup has them, too — he just doesn't find them as useful.

Dewclaws are the nails or claws — located on a fifth digit on the side of a dog's paw — that don't touch the ground. Most dogs only have dewclaws on their front paws, but rarely, you can find them find them on the back paws as well. Rear dewclaws are less rare, but can be found in breeds like Great Pyrenees and Briards.

More: Why your dog chews his paws, and how to make it stop

The dewclaws aren't functional, though many experts believe they suggest evolutionary changes that occurred in response to changes in the environments dogs commonly navigate, as well as changes in the position of dogs' legs and feet. Since that fifth digit is no longer used, it slowly moved to a higher position on the leg, where it won't get in the way.

Should they be removed?

Since they're not needed, it's the practice of many breeders to have them removed within the first few days after birth. Sometimes this is done for cosmetic reasons, especially for full-breed dogs or dogs that may become show dogs.

In other cases, breeders and owners feel it's in the best interest of the dog to get the dewclaws out of the way. Since they're on the side of the leg, they're susceptible to getting caught — especially with dogs that hunt or spend a significant amount of time outside. Even bedding and loose rugs can pose a threat to these awkwardly situated nails.

If they do get caught, they can tear or even be ripped off completely, which is just as painful as it sounds.

Letting them stay

Dewclaw removal is considered more cosmetic than necessary. For this reason, it's starting to become less common, much like ear clipping and tail docking. It's becoming less common for dog owners to put their pets through unnecessary procedures, a step which the animals surely appreciate.

More: Osteoarthritis in dogs: what it could mean for your aging pup

In some breeds, depending on the location of the dewclaws, they may give the dog extra grip and agility.

If the dewclaws do remain, it's the responsibility of a dog owner to pay close attention to them. Keeping them well trimmed greatly cuts down on the chance of injury. Dewclaws grow just as fast as the rest of your dog's claws. In fact, they sometimes appear to grow even faster, since they're not being worn down from walking.

The procedure

If your dog's dewclaws were left intact after birth and you would like to have them removed, many vets recommend having it done when they are spayed or neutered. Since the vet is removing the entire fifth digit and not just the claw, it is something that should be considered carefully before you take action.

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In puppies, dewclaw removal is a fairly simple procedure, but it gets more complicated with older dogs. When puppies are born, the dewclaws aren't fully developed and aren't well attached. In older dogs, they have likely attached to muscle and bone, meaning a much more difficult and painful procedure.

As with any procedure, there are risks involved with anesthesia and the possibility of infection. With younger puppies, vets often only use light sedation or local anesthetic, both of which have lower risks than the general anesthesia used on older dogs.

Whatever decision you make regarding your dog's dewclaws, make sure you're taking your dog's comfort into consideration, both with and without the dewclaws.

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