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Pets: Foot Injuries
By Dr. I. Elizabeth Borgmann. Welcome to the first article of our next information series! This series will focus on first aid for your dog and cat. These articles are designed to help you deal with common problems that occur and manage them until you can get to your veterinarian.
We will be starting with foot injuries because these are extremely common. After all, they are in constant use. Feet are exposed to a large number of potential hazards and if you can avoid these, it is best. They include everything hot, freezing, sharp and pokey: sharp rocks, hot pavement or sand (assuming summer will eventually arrive), glass, thorns, ice, wood slivers, grass awns. Working dogs should consider wearing protective footwear before entering structures such as damaged buildings.
But let’s face it – we can be careful but we cannot prevent all situations. One of the great joys of taking our dogs for a run up a mountain trail is see them bound through the forest and creeks.
You can prevent some damage to your dog’s feet by conditioning them first. The pads of the feet will thicken up with exercise. So before you start long hikes or extensive bike rides, start slow. Let your dog’s muscles and the pads of the feet adjust to the new activity.
To understand the types of problems you will get, you need to understand those feet! They are quite the amazing structures. They are designed to handle a lot of forces. Can you imagine always going barefoot? The feet are made up of many small bones held together by ligaments. The pads have a thick adapted skin covering over cushioning fat pads. They have a generous blood supply. The nails are curved to allow them to dig, scratch and propel themselves. And their feet sweat to cool them. So more than just a walking surface, they are tools and cooling devices.
The nails need to be kept properly trimmed. Since dogs live with us in our nice soft homes, those nails don’t wear down in some dogs. If they are too long they are more likely to catch, snag and rip. Even with the best nail trims, though, this can still happen. Dogs run and scramble over rocks and logs on which they can catch and tear those nails.
Snagged and torn nails can bleed a lot. But unless your dog has a bleeding disorder, they will recover from this. Trim the nail and the snagged splintered portions as short as possible. Wash and clean the site. Dry the foot well. Then wrap it to stop the bleeding and save your carpets and furniture. Your vet will want to assess the nail to determine if it can be left to grow out or needs to be removed. In some cases, depending on the depth of the trauma, your vet may want to prescribe some antibiotics. Obviously, the deeper the trauma, the more likely antibiotics will be necessary.
Punctures with foreign objects are common! They occur in the pad and between the pads (interdigital skin). If you are lucky, the item went in/out and no residual debris is left in the puncture site. If you are not so lucky, some debris will be left within the site. The greatest problem with a puncture is that the outside seals and leaves the introduced bacteria in a nice damp warm location – the perfect place to grow. You may not even know that there was a puncture, until it gets infected and swollen.
Whenever possible, remove a foreign object as quickly as possible so that it does not work its way further into the site. A remaining foreign object can be an ongoing source of inflammation and may result in a draining tract. These types of objects can be notoriously hard to identify but the draining tracts, once they develop, help us find the source of the problem. A magnifying glass in your first aid kit is a must to help you pull these out as well as a nice set of fine tweezers.
Lacerations and deep cuts may need suturing. Lacerations of the pad are very difficult to get to heal. Sutures do not hold well in the fatty tissue of the pads especially because they receive repeated spreading forces. If you notice a laceration, wash and clean this up well, dry it, and wrap it. Splinting may be required to reduce spreading forces. You vet will help you with this.
There are some major ligaments and blood vessels in those feet and if the cut is deep or in unfortunate location you may have some challenges controlling the bleeding. If the bandage keeps getting soaked through, don’t wait til the next day to see your vet. Head down to the emergency clinic!
They will occur if a heavy object falls on top of them (for example, if your dog is scrambling on a rocky cliff and a medium sized boulder rolls onto the foot). Sprains and strains are much more likely to occur as they twist over on the equivalent of their ankles and wrists. A soft padded splint can support the foot until you are able to see your veterinarian. Fortunately, unlike people, broken bones are not considered a life threatening emergencies (dogs don’t ‘throw clots’ the same way people do).
Splint the foot and visit your vet later that day or the next.
If the foot is swollen, icing intermittently, much as you would do on yourself, is helpful.
Do not administer any pain medications unless they given on the advice of a vet. Some pain medications do not mix well with others.
So let’s get to some practical ‘how to’ information.
To clean the foot, a basic antiseptic soap without fragrances works well. If you have surgical scrub soap like hibitane or betadine to use as a dilute soak that is even better. You can also use an Epsom salt soak if the foot is crusted and dirty.
It is important that the foot is dried off as much as possible before bandaging. A little polysporin won’t hurt either as long as your dog does not lick it off!
How do you bandage a dog’s foot? First of all, it usually helps if you have two people. One person is necessary to help quiet the dog and help hold the paw. Then the other individual is free to fiddle with the bandage.
If at all possible, try to leave the toe tips exposed so you can observe the toes for swelling. Place a tiny bit of cotton between the toes to absorb the moisture (remember, those feet sweat and moist damp feet can end up resulting in a skin infection which then complicates the situation).
Cover any wounds with a bandage pad (like the telfa pads – it looks like the white part of a bandaid but larger). 7 Wrap with some soft cotton followed by rolled gauze.
The soft cotton roll offers padding and is often called cast padding. The rolled gauze bandages provide more structure. End with some Vet Wrap or equivalent wrap. These are the bright colourful outer wraps that stick to themselves. Always unwrap this first and gently lay the bandage around the foot. They are stretchy and will tighten over time so don’t apply them snuggly. If needed, add some sticky elastoplast to prevent the bandage from slipping. Keep the bandage dry. Cover it with a sturdy plastic bag while your dog is outside ‘doing his or her business’. Watch for swelling or spreading of the toes which indicates the bandage is too tight.
You can turn this into a soft padded splint by increasing the amount of soft cast padding and slightly snuggly applying the cotton gauze and vet wrap. It is important to monitor the toes if you do this. It is a bit of an art form!
So what should you keep in that first aid kit? If you are camping or travelling, you will want a more extensive kit to keep in the car: magnifying glass, scissors to trim excessive hair so you can see what you are doing and so the foot stays drier in a bandage, small bowl and antiseptic soap, towels, polysporin, cotton balls, cotton cast padding wrap, gauze wrap, vet wrap, elastoplasts sticky wrap, sturdy plastic bags, pain medications prescribed and recommended by your vet as appropriate for your dog. Obviously, if you are just heading to and from your home for a walk, you won’t need the bowls and antiseptic soap and towels.
When is it a true emergency? When should you go to a vet immediately? Can it wait until tomorrow? If you cannot control bleeding, get into a veterinarian immediately. If they are non-weight bearing, an appointment as soon as possible or first thing in the morning is best. This is also the case if they are exhibiting pain and vocalizing.
If they can walk, but are tender, an appointment sometime the next day is fine. It can be left 2 days, if you must.
After you have seen your vet, follow their instructions carefully. Your vet may elect to keep the foot bandaged or to treat it ‘open’. Feet are located in dirty areas that are prone to getting irritated and wet. The fact that they sweat makes it even more challenging. Excessive chewing and licking as well as the forces placed on the foot can delay healing. Patience and persistence are necessary when treating foot injuries.
In our next article, we will talk about trauma involving eye.
Dr. Borgmann lives in Chilliwack and has been practicing in the Fraser Valley for over 13 years and can be reached at the Whatcom Road Veterinary Clinic