What's the Deal With... Paw Pads?

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The old saying states that in order to truly know someone, you have to walk a mile in his shoes.

That’s not really possible when it comes to our four-legged buddies, who tend to go barefoot, but — at the very least — we can learn about their feet.

Dr. Tara Miller, DVM, of West Hollywood’s VCA TLC Animal Hospital, and Dr. Rachel Barrack, DVM, CVA, who's based in New York City, shed light on the story behind our pets' paw pads.

What Makes Up Paw Pads?

“The pad is made up of hairless, pigmented skin overlaying a thick grouping of fat and tissue,” explains Dr. Miller, who also points out that the surface texture can differ based on an animal’s environment. “They’re often tough in dogs who are exposed to rough surfaces, and more smooth and sensitive in cats and dogs who do not walk much or who are always on smooth, soft surfaces.”

Do They Serve a Purpose?

Paw pads aren't just for decoration. In both cats and dogs, they help with balance and stability.

“The paw pads on the bottom of dogs' and cats' feet provide traction and act as shock absorbers for the bones, tendons and ligaments of the limb,” Dr. Barrack says.

“The pad is coarse, so it also increases friction when walking,” Dr. Miller adds, noting that dog and cat paw pads can be compared to shoes with insoles.

Can Pets Develop Problems With Their Paw Pads?

Although paw pads are composed of tough keratinized epithelium, “that doesn’t mean they are invincible to damage,” Dr. Barrack warns. “Most commonly, they can sustain cuts and abrasions, which can become infected if not properly treated. In addition, paw pads can develop yeast infections, which is analogous to a human getting athlete’s foot.”

“They are sensitive enough that, with an injury, animals exhibit pain," Dr. Miller says, adding that owners should monitor a pet's pads for a change in color or texture. 

Key things to look for: cracks, cuts, abrasions, bleeding or swelling of the pad and the surrounding area. Pets may also excessively lick an injured paw pad or exhibit difficulty walking or bearing weight. If you notice any of these signs, take your pet to the veterinarian.

What Can I Do to Prevent Injuries?

“In the summer, it is especially important to use caution if your dog is running on hot rocks or asphalt as the surface can get exceedingly hot and result in blisters," Dr. Barrack says. "The outer layer of the pad can slough off, leaving a sensitive layer of fresh skin that can take days to weeks to properly heal. It is advisable to use caution with prolonged exercise on these surfaces.”

In fact, owners should inspect their dogs' feet and pads, including the interdigital webbing, for signs of injury following any strenuous activity or even simply walking on rough terrain.

Dr. Barrack notes that there's one nearly foolproof way to prevent injuries: “Although they may look silly, dog boots are a great way to protect dogs from paw damage on hot surfaces or rough terrain.”

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