A limping dog, a bleeding foot: as dog owners, we often take our pet’s paws for granted unless there is an obvious injury to one of them. The fact is, dogs’ paws give us a wealth of information about our dog’s moods, needs and physical condition. Particularly informative is when a dog curls his paws. However, another issue, called paw knuckling, can be a symptom for a health-related problem. In this article, we explain the differences between the two as well as what they mean.

Why does my dog curl his paws?

There are actually two types of paw curling that mean several different things. First is paw curling, a behavior the dog shows to communicate with you, whereas paw knuckling is usually a sign that your dog is suffering from a health issue.

Paw Curling

Dogs curl their paws both when awake as well as when they’re sleeping.  In fact, when a dog curls his paws while sleeping, he is communicating a host of things. More to follow on curling.

Paw Knuckling

Paw knuckling is a physical problem where the dog actually walks or rests on the top of the paw. Think of it as paw dragging, which can also cause scraping on the top of the paw. You may also notice uneven wearing or breaking of the nails on the affected foot. Knuckling can occur on one or more paws and not necessarily at every step your dog takes.

Checking for Knuckling

A test for you to determine if your dog is knuckling is very simple. Here’s what to do:

Make your dog stand normally.

Take the suspect paw and move it, so the leg is standing on top of the foot.

Dogs who correct the position are not knuckling.

Dogs who leave the foot as you placed it are knuckling.

If you see your dog knuckling, do get a veterinary evaluation as soon as possible.

Causes of Knuckling

Knuckling is a physical ailment with several potential causes. These include the following:

Arthritis: Dogs experience the pain of arthritis just as humans do. When the pain becomes severe, it becomes more comfortable for the dog to knuckle his paw under.

Degenerative Myelopathy: A serious disease, this is an inherited condition that affects the dog’s overall mobility. Paw knuckling is usually one of the first signs of this devastating illness.

Spinal cord embolism: Any spinal cord malady can affect how the dog walks. A spinal cord embolism can result in spinal cord damage that also affects a dog’s mobility.

Neurological disorders: Anything that causes an interruption of signals from the brain or spinal cord can affect how a dog moves.

Why does my dog curl his toes when he lies down?

Your dog may enjoy curling himself into a fetal ball when he lies down. You’ll probably notice his paws are also curled up loosely in this ball of contentment. On the other hand, when a dog is anxious, the fetal ball will become tighter, and he’ll tuck his paws completely under his body.

Why does my dog curl his toes when I pet him?

A dog curling his toes while you’re petting him is a mark of true affection! In fact, if you stop petting him, he may take his curled paw and start patting you with it. Likewise, when you’re busy doing something and your dog wants your attention, be aware that his curled paw may find and tap you until you give him the attention he seeks.

Why does my dog curl his paws when he sleeps?

A sleeping dog is a “talking” dog. A dog sleeping on his back with his curled toes up in the air is a secure and totally relaxed pet. Most often a dog will sleep on his belly with his toes curled up to stay warm. You may also notice his paws are drawn up close to his body. This is to keep the sweat glands on his paws up close.

What to do about my dog curling his paws?

A curling-toed dog is a healthy dog and often one who is very affectionate. It is when a dog is a paw-knuckler that action needs to be taken.

Treating Knuckling Paws

A visit to your vet is a must if your pup is paw knuckling. Your dog will need to undergo a series of tests to determine the cause, and fortunately, most cases can be treated.

Rehabilitation may be prescribed, during which a special device or aid dog may be worn to prevent your dog from knuckling. Some of these devices can only be worn for very short intervals while others can be worn frequently or all the time.

Some important things to consider when choosing and using a device include the following:

A device that is light in weight won’t further tax your dog’s problem.

Make sure whatever you use puts your dog’s paw in the right position.

Scrap collars for good, padded, strong harnesses which provides additional support for your dog when walking and standing.

Some devices require that you keep your eye on the dog at all times.

Is your pet suffering from an injury where the prognosis is excellent?

Is your pet suffering from an illness where the prognosis is poor.

One thing you can do to keep your dog comfortable when he is not in an exercise or rehab session, is to put his paws in regular boots which will keep his paws protected from the cuts and scraping typical of knuckling.

Home Adjustments

You may need to make some adjustments in your home to help your dog function more comfortably. Think about purchasing pet steps leading to your couch or bed. Ramps into the house would also assist your dog in getting around. If you have uncarpeted floors, consider purchasing thick yoga mats which will give your dog more traction than walking on bare floors. Going up and down stairs can be particularly challenging for your knuckling dog so consider using a special harness or sling to help him. Another option is to install baby-type gates to prevent him from negotiating stairs unnecessarily. 

Author

I created and currently manage Pet Dog Owner, the website you can go to when you have questions about your dog's behavior. It is my hope that you find Pet Dog Owner to be a helpful resource. It is also my hope that it will help you to improve your relationship with your dog. You can read more about me and my website here.