For several decades it has been standard practice in some breeds for show breeders to remove the front dew claws. These are the smaller toes on the inside of all dog front legs, above the main part of the foot. Wolves have them, as do foxes and coyotes. In fact, the only species of the family Canidae that does not have them is the African wild dog (Lycaon pictus), which has only four toes in the front. Today it has become standard for even back yard pet breeders to advertise their pups as “dew claws removed.” I removed dew claws for 30 years, when the pups were about 3 days of age. Even from my first litter in 1975, which I had done by a veterinarian (when I saw the procedure I knew I could easily do it myself, and I did so from then on), I was not really sure this was the right thing to do. Yet years later I took them off of Rowdy, Remba and Penny, with only a passing thought about leaving them on.
The reasoning we all used to justify removing dew claws is that when left on they might get caught on something and tear, and this can be painful to the dog. Since dew claws are vestigial and of no real use, why not take them off and save the dog potential pain later on, especially since the pups really didn’t feel pain at 3 days old? I had read that the puppies did not remember the pain of the removal, which is probably true if the procedure is done at an early enough age, between 3 – 5 days. Human babies do not remember back to their first few days, so why should a dog? If they can’t remember the experience, then where is the harm? In any case, the veterinary literature and breeders said the pain the pups experienced was minimal because not all of their nervous system was fully functional. The pups struggled as you cut their first toe off (anatomists number toes from center to outside), they assured me, only because they objected to being held so tightly. So, since I was trying to do everything “right” I cut them off.
It took many years for me to understand that dew claw removal is a misguided practice. I learned about pain and suffering in dogs of all ages working as a veterinary technician in the 1980’s at a (then) state-of-the-art, high tech private veterinary hospital in Santa Monica, CA, a stone’s throw from Beverly Hills. This hospital was the go-to place for the difficult, often hopeless cases other veterinary hospitals referred over. We had a board certified internist/oncologist, two certified ophthalmologists, a surgeon who did spinal operations, and 8 other veterinarians and interns. No pain medicine was ever prescribed for animals back then, so I took care of way too many dogs and cats that just bore their pain without complaint. I still thought animal pain was a different experience than human pain, as how else could a dog that just came out of anesthesia from having his front leg amputated, struggle to prop himself up in the cage, wagging his tail and “smiling” at me? Then, in 1986, at 35, I went back to college, majoring in biology and science teaching. I learned that dogs and humans are basically the same in neurophysiology. Dogs have the same type of pain receptors and the same nerve conduction that we do. In some ways they are more sensitive to surface tactile stimulation than humans. Now, this does not mean that dogs “suffer” with pain the way most humans do, as suffering is a human mental construct they are not capable of having. But it does mean they are probably experiencing just as much pain as we would in the same circumstance. Even so, the little puppies do forget the pain, so I continued to remove dew claws. It is a fact that puppies do have some of their peripheral nervous system under developed at birth. This is true of many altricial mammals (those that are helpless as babies, usually in a den or nest), including newborn human babies. Nature gives them good conduction of nerve impulses where they need them the most, and the rest take a few days or even weeks to develop. Where do they need to be sensitive in order to survive? The nervous system of the head/face and THE FRONT LEGS, used to find the teat and nurse, are the most developed in a newborn dog. So, the nerves of the front legs at 3 days of age are receptive, and surely when the bone of the dew claw is removed, the puppies are struggling as much trying to escape the pain as to escape the firm grip.
My next education about dew claws came from my work preparing animal study specimens for the US Fish and Wildlife Service National Wildlife Forensic Laboratory in Ashland, OR. My friend, Bonnie Yates, head of the morphology department at the lab, and I, decided to do a study comparing some of the bones of dog feet to those of wolf feet, to see if there is a species-specific difference. For this on-going study, I have dissected dozens of dog front paws, at least ten wolf front paws, and a few coyote and fox forepaws. The bone of the dew claw is firmly attached and quite robust. A dog’s paw, the part that touches the ground, is made of the same bones as your fingers. If you put your fist knuckles down on a surface, your thumb is in about the same position as the dog’s dew claw, although the latter is reduced in relative size. The dew claw is anatomically similar to a very small “thumb.”
Then, two years ago Dr. John Burchard, biologist and fancier of desert-bred coursing salukis, opened my eyes. He has coursed sight hounds, the extreme running athletes of the species, after live prey in Arabia and in the deserts of the USA for decades. He told me that the dew claw is there for a reason. It acts as a stabilizer for the many small bones of the pastern when dogs are galloping, especially when they make turns. The dew claw is in contact with the ground as the dog propels its weight over its foreleg. I started asking people who hunted their dogs if they had frequent injuries to dew claws while in the field, and they all said that while it does happen, it is not common. I asked veterinarians if they treated a lot of dew claw injuries, and they said they got some in, mostly people with pets who did not keep the nail on that toe trimmed back. I myself had an English Bull Terrier that tore her dew claw on a chain link fence when her foot slid through it, but after a couple days of bandaging it healed rapidly. Then I learned that dew claws are never removed in other countries, only the US and Canada. The dogs in the rest of the world seem to do just fine with their dew claws intact. In addition, in many breeds even in the US, it is still standard to leave dewclaws on. So, in 2006 I decided to not remove the dew claws on my puppies. I knew that two other Ridgeback breeders, one of them the well known and respected Clayton Heathcock, had also decided to leave them on. In later discussion with other Ridgeback breeders, I discovered that there were some others who had made the same decision. Although the “leave them natural” group is currently in the minority, I hope it will soon be standard practice to leave Ridgebacks as Nature intended. From the experience of several breeders who have imported Ridgebacks, the presence of dew claws is not a factor in winning in the conformation ring. Judges do not give any consideration to dew claws, one way of the other.
For another view of why dewclaws should be left on, go to this web page by a veterinarian who works with performance dogs: http://www.jandemellobordercollie.com/DewClaws.htm