What Should You Do if Your Dog Has a Swollen Toe?

Dog on woman's lap

Dr. Phil Zeltzman is a traveling, board-certified surgeon in Allentown, PA. His website is www.DrPhilZeltzman.com. He is the co-author of “Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound” (www.amazon.com).

Zee Mahmood, a veterinary technician in Reading, PA, contributed to this article.

When your dog has a swollen toe, it is easy to underestimate the potential seriousness of this condition. Dog owners can sometimes write it off as a bug bite or something their dog has stepped on. However, the swollen toe can be a sign of something much more serious. Cancerous tumors may initially present themselves as a swollen toe and should be diagnosed and treated as early as possible for a positive outcome.

Swollen toe red flags
A swollen toe can cause limping or reluctance to walk due to pain. Usually, only one toe is affected. [Editor’s Note: If you see your dog limping for any reason, visit the veterinarian.]

Cancerous tumors can be tricky as they may disguise themselves as a broken toenail. The tumor weakens the toenail and causes the nail to snap off without major trauma. Large-breed dogs (Labradors, Standard Poodles) and black-colored dogs are more likely to be affected by such tumors. Tumors of the toe are most commonly (but not always) seen in dogs older than 10 years.

How do veterinarians find the cause of a swollen toe?
After performing a thorough exam and blood work, your family veterinarian may recommend taking a sample of the swelling to check for the presence of cancerous cells. The most important step in the diagnosis of a broken nail is x-rays of the foot, which may reveal bone destruction in the toe. Further x-rays can show if cancer has spread to other body parts, such as the lungs.

How can a swollen toe turn fatal?
All of these diagnostic procedures will help your veterinarian pinpoint what may have caused your dog's swollen toe. A broken toenail may just be a broken toenail, or it may be a sign of something much worse beneath the surface:

  • Your dog's swollen toe may be caused by an infection or a foreign body in the toe, such as a splinter, or more rarely an insect bite or sting.
  • There may be a fracture in the bone of the toe.
  • Most cancerous tumors, such as melanoma and squamous cell carcinoma, occur at the junction between the toenail and the toe.
  • A small lump may just be a wart or blister, but a similar appearing nodule could very well be squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common type of tumor to affect a dog's toe. There is no known cause.
  • Melanoma is the same disease known as skin cancer in humans, most often a result of excessive sun exposure. Although it is not known what causes this disease in dogs, it is malignant and spreads quickly to other parts of the body including the lungs.
  • Less common cancers occur in the bone (osteosarcoma) or the cartilage (chondrosarcoma) of the toe.
  • Any of these conditions may present itself as a swollen toe, making it even more important to see your veterinarian early so that an appropriate treatment plan can follow.

How is a swollen toe treated?
The treatment plan recommended will depend on the cause of the swollen toe. A simple infection will be treated with antibiotics. Pain is treated with pain medications.

Aggressive tumors however require a much more aggressive treatment. If the tumor is confined to the toe, the most successful treatment by far is surgical removal of the affected toe. Although this may sound extreme to some, it is the best way to stop the cancer from spreading. Fortunately, dogs recover well after toe amputation, especially if it is a “non-weight-bearing” toe. This term refers to the two outermost toes (similar to our pinky and index fingers), whereas the weight-bearing toes are the middle two (similar to our ring and middle fingers).
Again, early detection is of utmost importance so that surgical removal need not go further than the affected toe.

If the tumor has spread further than the toe itself, your veterinarian may also recommend chemotherapy along with surgery, taking into account factors such as overall health, age, and quality of life. You may be referred to a veterinary surgeon for the surgery and a veterinary oncologist (a.k.a. cancer specialist) who can tailor a treatment plan specifically to your dog's needs.

What do I do after surgery for a swollen toe?
After surgery, your family veterinarian or your surgeon will have specific instructions for the post-op care of your dog. This will include limited activity and very close observation, along with specific medications to aid in recovery. Limping or reluctance to walk is normal initially, and is soon overcome through slowly easing into normal activity. Some veterinarians use a splint or a bandage to protect and support the foot after surgery. In such cases, regular bandage changes will be required.

What is the outcome of treatment for a swollen toe?
The outcome depends on the cause of the problem. A broken nail or an infection should resolve in a matter of days to weeks. A cancerous tumor however is typically aggressive, which is the reason why early diagnosis is so important.

So please don’t neglect a swollen toe in your dog. Remember than early diagnosis is critical.

Questions to ask your veterinarian:

  • Why is my dog’s toe swollen?
  • How do we treat it?
  • What will the outcome be?

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian -- they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.

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Reviewed on: 
Wednesday, February 11, 2015