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Bird Dogs – Health Matters

My English setter was in a groundgobbling gallop across the chollachoked short grass prairie in search of Colorado scaled quail. Watching her elegance as she sped across the prairie, I noticed at times she had all four limbs off the ground. Cinder suddenly slowed to a trot before she froze into one of those high tail and nose points that steal your breath and make your heartbeat skip. A huge covey of birds got up all around us in a chaotic flush and zoomed to safety across the fence onto private property without a single feather being dropped. I was so ecstatic and in awe with her performance that I forgot to fire my double gun at the escaping birds.

Bird dogs are the ultimate endurance athletes. The forces that are placed on their limbs and joints are immense, so it is not surprising that they suffer from joint disease at an early age. The gallop is their fastest and most strenuous pace, and there are times during the gait that all four feet are off the ground, and they land hard placing extreme force on their wrists and pads. Dogs place 60% of their total body weight on their front (thoracic) limbs while in locomotion because of the weight of their heads, while the remaining 40% is distributed to the back (pelvic) limbs.

Bird dogs are the ultimate endurance athlete. Notice this pointer has both of his dewclaws.

A long-standing traditional practice among veterinarians, breeders, bird dog trainers, agility and even amidst the show ring folks has been to remove the dewclaws of pure-bred puppies at 3 to 5 days of age. The litter is brought in shortly after birth, and the first digit or dewclaw is severed from its boney and soft tissue attachments and either glued or sutured closed. Removing the dewclaws gives the dog a sleeker look and reduces the chances of the nail growing too long and penetrating into the surrounding skin.

Note Cinder’s severe wrist swelling, the result of having her dewclaws removed as a puppy at 3 to 5 days of age.

A common misperception is that the dewclaws (comparable to our own thumbs) are vestigial or have become functionless in the course of evolution. Dewclaw removal in sporting, racing or agility dogs was thought to prevent injury to the canine athlete by preventing trauma or snagging. Evidence-based medicine and keen observation have proven the exact opposite.

In one peer reviewed study, researchers found that sporting dogs were more likely to injure digits 3, 4 and 5 in the field and on the agility course because they absorb the most energy and stress during exercise. Rarely did these dogs ever have an injury to the dewclaw.

The thoracic limb dewclaws generally attach to the limb through bones and ligament, and four or five very important tendons attach to the digit. Remember from your anatomy classes years ago that ligaments attach bone to bone, and tendons attach muscle to bone. These tendons that anchor muscles to the dewclaw have turned out to be very important structures in the stabilization of the canine athlete’s carpus (wrist). These tendons arise from the muscles that flex and extend the wrist as well as muscles that move the wrist sideways.

This field trial Gordon setter has front limb lameness and swelling associated with having his declaws removed.

Dewclaws come in contact with the ground as sporting dogs run in the field, and this prevents rotational torque on the lower leg and wrist. Rotational torque places an abnormal force on the wrist and can lead to destruction of the joint (osteoarthritis); therefore, the dewclaws are vital to our bird dog’s mobility and overall joint health. Dewclaws have also been shown to assist dogs that have broken through pond ice by helping them grasp onto the surrounding ice or bank in order to pull themselves out of the freezing water.

If you are one of the thousands and thousands of bird dog owners who have had their dogs’ dewclaws removed, please do not panic. Not every dog missing their front limb dewclaws suffers from severe effects. Many veterinarians recognize that sporting dogs without their dewclaws are more prone to osteoarthritis of the front limbs, so we are recommending prevention of arthritis at a young age.

Prevention can be as simple as keeping your bird dogs lean and fit. Supplementing their diets with Omega 3 fatty acids (found in fish oils or krill oil) and other joint support supplements like glucosamine and chondroitin, elk antler velvet, eggshell membrane, Astaxanthin and hyaluronic acid can help reduce their chances of arthritis later in life. Trimming their nails and keeping their feet in balance will also aid in arthritis prevention.

Radiographs of the left front limb/foot on a field trial dog secondary to dewclaw amputation. In this radiograph there is a large amount of soft tissue swelling in the carpus/wrist and also in the flexor tendons on the back of the wrist. This bird dog had the same pathology in the right front leg as well. (Photos/ShawnWayment)

Breeders are becoming more knowledgeable on this debate, and many are electing to not amputate their puppies’ dewclaws unless they are floppy, nonattached pelvic limb dewclaws that are at greater risk of getting snagged or traumatized in the field. If your bird dog has its front dewclaws, you can protect them by trimming them regularly.

Over the years, I have had several bird dogs with dewclaws and have never had an injury except when booting them for hunting in fields with prickly pear cactus. One trick I have learned is to liberally pad the skin beneath the dewclaw to prevent pressure sores caused by the boots.

I have seen only a handful sporting dogs in my 26-year career with severe osteoarthritis (carpitis) of the wrist due to removal of the dewclaws. I can offer personal testimony on the importance of dewclaws in stabilizing the wrist in high-energy endurance athletes. Cinder from the opening paragraph above suffers from severe carpitis and had to be retired from hunting at the young age of four. Her malady was caused by subluxation of the radial carpal bone due to the instability caused by having her front dewclaws amputated. Cinder’s chronic pain is a daily reminder to me to educate breeders and sporting dog clients of the importance these structures perform in canine locomotion.

We now understand as a profession how important a role the canine dewclaws perform. The front limb dewclaws are necessary to prevent rotational forces in the lower limb during extreme exercise our hunting and sporting dogs endure. Removal of their dewclaws will ultimately place them at risk of osteoarthritis and pain.

Dr. Shawn Wayment

About author
Shawn K. Wayment, DVM, knew by the age of 7 that he was obsessed with bird dogs. After serving a stint as a parachuting medic with the 82nd Airborne Division, he enrolled in Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, graduating in 1997. Shawn practices in Castle Rock, Colorado, specializing in the veterinary care of sporting dogs. In the fall, he can be found roaming the uplands of North America, chasing his cover-dog English setters. Shawn can be reached at birddogdoc@uplandways.com.