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Why Are my Dog's Toenails Breaking?
June 18, 2018 (published)

It was a normal morning of chasing little boys around my house, trying to be sure no major disasters or injuries occurred. As I was slicing the grapefruit for breakfast and keeping one eye up as the boys galloped dangerously close to my china cabinet, a little bit of the fruit juice trickled down my hand. All of a sudden, three of my fingers were on fire! I could not wash the acidic poison off my fingers fast enough before my eyes were watering. Having a job that requires handwashing multiple times per hour combined with a vicious autoimmune disease has left me with the most brittle nails on any 30-something-year-old’s hands. I find that my nails crack and break to the pulp with the silliest of insult. And boy can it be uncomfortable at times!

Maybe that’s why I feel especially empathetic towards my canine patients who have similar conditions that lead to frequent breaking and cracking of nails.

But first things first: if your dog’s toenails are cracking or breaking frequently, then you must examine nutrition. Did you know that hair and nails are made of keratin, which is comprised of over 90 percent protein? This protein is primarily acquired through the nutrients in the food they eat. The most common reason your pet’s nails are too brittle is that there is a nutritional deficiency somewhere. If you are feeding an AAFCO-approved diet then it may be less of a problem with the diet and more of a problem with your pet properly absorbing the nutrients during the digestion process. We won’t get started on the hundreds of pet food options to choose from and how absolutely anyone can make and sell a pet food product with a pretty label and value statements like “grain-free” and “Made From Whole Wild-Caught Fish Only.” While ingredients are important in developing diets, ingredients are not essential for your pet’s health…nutrients are. Nutrients can come from many different ingredient sources, even those black-listed as nutrient-poor. So developing wholesome, high-quality diets is a science, not an art. Leave it to the experts to make a diet that sustains your pet for life. If your pet is on a high-quality diet and having trouble absorbing the nutrients properly, then speak with your veterinarian to see if additional vitamin, mineral, or protein supplementation is needed.

But maybe your pet is like me, and has a medical condition that causes brittle nails. We use our hands for everything. If you don’t believe me, try to scroll through this article using your nose…it’s hard! We put our hands through a lot of trauma during their use. Our pets also send their toenails through the ringer as they walk, run and play their way through each day. If the nail is not firmly attached at the nailbed, then it can be more prone to injury, cracking and dislocating completely. This can cause an immense amount of discomfort to your pet. Sometimes excessive bleeding and secondary infections can develop when the nail dislodges, which further complicates the matter. The nails can take over six months to grow back, and sometimes will be misshapen from the trauma they have sustained.

Medical conditions that can cause damage to the nails include vasculitis (inflammation in the vessels leading to reduced blood flow to the area), autoimmune diseases (e.g., pemphigus, lupus), allergies, ringworm, bacterial infections, endocrine disorders, parasites, viruses, or inherited cornification disorders. Treating the primary disease is necessary to prevent further breaking and shedding of the nails.

In some dogs, breaking nails may have more to do with trauma, as is often the case with sighthounds who run quickly and have almost no cushion to protect against concussive forces. 

Breed predispositions for the autoimmune cases of nail breaking include: boxer, German shepherd dog, golden retriever, greyhound, Labrador retriever, miniature schnauzer, Rottweiler, and Siberian husky.

Breed predispositions for the allergic causes, such as dogs are chewing their nails and causing them to break, include: Golden retriever, Labrador retrievers, Westies and other terriers, German Shepherd, Bichon Frise, Maltese, and the list goes on.

It can be hard to get to the root of the cause. Your veterinarian likely will recommend starting with some basic diagnostics to rule out infectious causes first. If there isn't an infection and your pet is only mildly affected, your veterinarian may recommend starting with a simplistic, noninvasive approach such as dietary modification, essential fatty acid supplementation, and vitamin/mineral supplementation. You must be patient with this step. Toenails don’t grow back overnight - ask any ballerina (your dog walks around on her toes all day too). If you are not seeing significant improvement after three months of supplementation, it may be time to consider exploring other causes of your pet’s brittle nails. This may involve doing some blood tests or even biopsies to better understand the cause. Once the cause is identified and the proper treatment implemented, then those nails will make a comeback. But remember to be gracious because those toenails might grow back in looking a little bit like something growing on the Wicked Witch of the West. As long as your pet is no longer in pain, then I doubt she will suffer too much ridicule at her next doggie play date.

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