by Seth Bynum, DVM
The spring thaw began its slow ascent from the valley floor to our favorite grouse covers in the timber. The dogs and I, wound tightly in the grips of a long and snowy winter, needed to stretch our legs and take stock of the resident flock of wild turkeys who shared this same habitat as we painfully inched closer to the start of the spring gobbler season.
An old impoundment, frozen along its southernmost shaded half, served as a meeting place for much of the wildlife in this drainage, so I wasn’t surprised when the eldest of my two shorthairs cast wide into the thick timber, enraptured by the fresh scent of game. He emerged at the end of his tangential, self-guided adventure on the pond’s snowy bank and acknowledged our location across the thawed half. Instead of navigating the bank, he walked out on the ice, oblivious to the progressively weakening facade that held up his limbs as he approached the center.
My attempts to redirect him away from the hazard – arms waving and yelling – seemed only to increase his pace instead of altering his trajectory. He can’t see or hear as well as he once did, either by choice or by physical limitation; the old man has grown increasingly headstrong as the rest of him succumbs to years of hard use.
Predictably, his trot was interrupted by the crash of ice and a dunk under the surface of the frigid water beneath. Alerted by the excitement – and not a dog content to be left behind on any adventure – my younger female broke from the safety of my side and sprinted out on the ice to investigate the thrashing old shorthair flailing about in the icy water.
Lighter in frame but equally impulsive in mind to her bracemate, she lost her balance on one of the bobbing ice rafts calved in the milieu of stupidity and joined him in the drink.
My initial reaction was one of profound annoyance rather than an acknowledgment of the potential danger to my dogs. Over the years, we’d climbed out of hairy situations and successfully navigated some of the weather’s worst offerings in pursuit of birds. I took a photo of their momentary struggle with every expectation that this story would end the same as countless others, with a scolding and later a laugh, codified by an unspoken agreement to avoid such risky behavior in the future.
Within seconds, the young pup hoisted herself upon solid ice, shaking off the chilly water and the insult of what she must have considered a sinister slapstick prank from Mother Nature. Still, the old man paddled, unable to gain enough momentum in his upper body to escape the icy pool. He slipped, and his head bobbed under, sending a sucker punch of adrenaline through my veins along with a realization that my role as a mere casual observer in this fiasco was likely to change.
The mental inventory-taking of clothing, wallet and water-sensitive electronics in preparation for a rescue attempt was interrupted by a singular intrusive thought: If this dog still had his front dewclaws, would he be out of harm’s way by now?
An unsettled debate in the dog world about the function and utility of dewclaws has perpetuated for centuries. Depending on their perspective and experiences, dog enthusiasts view these digits somewhere within the two polarities of worthless vestigial remnant or invaluable mobility tool.
In my veterinary career, I’ve removed hundreds of front dewclaws from newborn puppies, a rapid and seemingly benign procedure when performed correctly, with rare, if any, complications. Their removal is commonplace in the bird dog realm, where advocates of dewclaw amputation act under the assumption of trading a little discomfort now in young pups to prevent serious digit injury in the field down the road. From their perspective, the adult dew claw only serves to snag on brush and grow a nail that has little hope of wearing naturally with minimal contact with the earth.
Other proponents prefer the clean, sleek look of a forelimb devoid of the canine thumb equivalent. Years ago, I learned not to question a breed enthusiast’s preference for aesthetics, for beauty is undoubtedly in the eye of the leash holder.
The idea that dewclaws serve an essential function in balance and mobility – a standard of the agility dog realm – has gained traction (pun intended) in some bird dog circles as well. It’s hard to argue with slow-motion videos that show these canine athletes actively engaging their thumb analog when carving tight turns or gaining leverage on uneven surfaces while climbing. Subjectively, I’ve noticed an increase in the number of my sporting dog breeder clients that have adopted this philosophy as a means of giving their pups an advantage in the field.
Another, often more vocal, camp argues that dewclaw amputation in puppies should face the same enhanced scrutiny as other primarily cosmetic alterations, namely ear cropping and tail docking. While I certainly don’t intend to discredit any dog fancier’s perspective on animal welfare, I have a hard time believing that, with the availability of analgesia and sterile techniques, removal of dewclaws and tail docking in an otherwise vigorous 3-day-old puppy warrants sounding the alarm of abuse.
Performing these same procedures in an older pup or adult is by all accounts a different matter, with increased risk of postoperative pain, hemorrhage or other complications, from my perspective. For this reason, I decline requests for these cosmetic or functional alterations unless there’s a profound medical necessity. Many of my colleagues will, however, and I’m honored that our profession still bestows upon its members the right to practice under our discretions.
While video footage may show dogs using this digit in pursuit of sport or hoisting themselves from a frozen pond, no one has yet demonstrated a compelling distinct advantage in doing so. Could this year’s National Agility Champion have won even without dewclaws? Could the runner-up at Ames Plantation have placed first with them? Who knows? Both are still athletes performing at the top of their respective games. Neither is likely to suffer from severe dew claw injury or early-onset osteoarthritis due to their owners’ decision to keep or remove these controversial digits.
To perpetuate the debate regarding the usefulness of dewclaws, scientific research has yet to offer much convincing evidence to support either side. A handful of retrospective studies – compiled in both the U.K. and the U.S. – show dew claw injury as relatively uncommon in sporting and herding breeds. However, these papers all suffer from painfully small sample sizes, rely on limited medical records or are plagued with an undeniable inability to calculate how many dewclaw injuries might have been prevented by early removal. In the absence of science, we’re left to stand on the shaky ground of bias and the superficial Google searches that support them. For the time being anyway, the debate will carry on, unresolved.
The heaviest and slowest member of our team, I broke through the ice closer to the bank than my dogs, well out of reach of the rapidly tiring old man. The rush of ice water on my skin brought my focus away from a tiny appendage – now 12 years removed – and back to the important business of getting my old dog and myself out of the ice and safely to shore. After all, the youngster barely felt the sting of frigid pond water on her fur before launching herself from the pond without the aid of dewclaws. I immediately tabled the internal ethical debate until we were all back at the truck and warming by the heater.
The old dog now spent more time below the pond’s surface than above it, and panic ensued. I pulled myself up on the ice and crawled back to shore, soaked and struggling to contrive a rescue plan in the fog of adrenaline and cold water. I thrashed a sapling fir with all the enthusiasm and delicacy of a rutting bull moose and extended the broken branch out on the ice towards him.
“Fetch!” I demanded.
His look begged the question, why – of all possible inconvenient times – would I chose this moment of chaos to conduct an impromptu training drill? He humored my request, always the dog in my string that complied with commands solely for the sake of my happiness. I recall the look of acknowledgment in his eyes when he realized that the grip upon the fir bough offered not just a taste of sap, but salvation. Cold and wet, we all arrived soundly at the shore, me with my thumbs and him without. The old man took a few long drying rolls in the understory of the timber, then shook off the debris along with the bad vibes of the experience. No mention from him how much easier that would have been with dewclaws. Without so much as a thanks or a look back in my direction, he re-commenced pursuing the flock of turkeys that had gained ground during his near-death experience. Gun dogs don’t trouble themselves with such trivialities when birds are on the move.