Dogs and cats put a lot of miles on their feet, running and leaping just for the fun of it. Ordinary skin isn't built to withstand this pounding, which is why their paw pads are thick and springy.
The paws get additional protection from calluses -- thick, dry skin that accumulates on the pads wherever there is a lot of pressure. Dogs that run on concrete, for example, normally have thicker paw pads than those that stroll on grass or carpet, says Patricia Ashley, D.V.M., a veterinary resident in dermatology at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine in Knoxville. "Your pet's skin gets thicker with age, just like people's skin does," she adds.
In some cases, however, the pads accumulate too much callus or the callus forms unevenly. Heavily callused pads lose their flexibility and the ability to absorb shock. Your pet's feet may get sore and tender. She will feel as though she is walking on stones.
Heavy or uneven callus may be caused by the way your pet walks. "The feet can tell us if a pet has a problem with her elbow, for example, because of the wear pattern on the pad," says Dr. Ashley. In dogs particularly, being overweight can put a lot of pressure on the outsides of their feet, causing uneven calluses to form.
Calluses on all four feet may be a sign of internal problems such as liver disease. Even immune system diseases such as lupus can make the pads thick and painful, says Charles McLeod, D.V.M., a veterinary pathologist at Antech Diagnostics in Carney, Maryland.
Zinc is an important nutrient for healthy skin. A dog that isn't getting enough zinc in her diet may get very thick paw pads. (This problem doesn't occur in cats.) Siberian huskies and Alaskan malamutes often run low in zinc because they have a genetic defect that makes it hard for their bodies to absorb this important mineral, says Dr. McLeod. In addition, pets eating low-quality foods or taking calcium supplements can have problems getting enough zinc.
Another problem unique to dogs, called hard-pad disease, may occur after a bout with canine distemper, says Dr. Ashley. Cats that have feline leukemia sometimes develop thick, cone-shaped calluses on one or more feet, which look like unicorn horns and often stick out to the sides. These horn-shaped calluses usually don't cause discomfort, says Margie Scherk, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in Vancouver, British Columbia.
See Your Vet If...
- Calluses form unevenly on your pet's pads
- She has calluses on all four feet
- Your dog has been eating a very low cost food
- Your cat has had leukemia, or your dog has had distemper
- Your pet has begun having trouble walking, getting up, or climbing stairs
- One or more legs is dragging
- He has a limp that doesn't go away
- One or more legs is in an awkward position
- There is swelling in the toes, feet, or legs
- Your pet can't get up
- Your pet is constantly licking or biting his feet
- The nails are broken, cracked, or bleeding
- There are cuts, blisters, growths, or burns on his paw pads
- Your pet is lame first in one leg and then another
- He has pain when jumping off a bed or changing position
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