Why Are my Dog's Toenails Breaking?

Have you examined nutrition as the cause?

Published: June 18, 2018
Photo by Dr. Amelia White

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.

This toenail is broken at the base. Photo by Dr. Amelia White

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.


Sherlyn Jones
August, 30, 2023

My Blue Tick Izzy this year 2023 is 4-5 yrs old this year. Her toe nails on all 4 feet have come off whole like a shell. They have started to grow back and are not long. They are lifting and coming off again. It is painful for her.Another thing that worries me is she gained at least 20 lbs after being spayed. She has been on a diet maybe this caused it. My other hounds have not had this happen. Any help would be appreciated. She is a big girl and eats less than the others.

Michelle L Gardner
August 18, 2022

I'm tempted to give collagen powder that I take for hair, skin & nails to help my 2yr old terrier mix brittle nails and dry wiry mohawk hair?

Missy Skeeter
January 15, 2022

Over 35+ years my labs have never split a nail except during the winter, which I assume is due to the nail clawing into ice and that is the splitting mechanism.

Destiney Donahoe
February 7, 2021

My baby girl is a pit-mastiff  her nails brake all the time vet said to give her an egg a day and another one broke this morning what can I do to help her not brake them

December 9, 2020

Look into SLO (Symmetrical lupoid onychodystrophy, the most common inflammatory disease to cause abnormal nails in dogs) for cracked and breaking nails on your fur babies!

Traci Voedisch
November 22, 2020

My baby boy is a mix of Blue Heeler, Border Collie, Australian shepherd, wolf and husky. He really like to rake his feet after he goes potty because there are girl dogs also around in my apartments. He really broke up his nails from the last snow we had because it turned to ice. He was limping and not using that paw for a week. I order nails clippers and then we cut all his nails down and that so far seems to be working he is walking in it again. But his nails are very brittle so that worries me. What are your suggestions?

March 26, 2020

I rescued my mutty boy from the area here and when I got him, he had horrible skin issues that I treated with coconut oil and supplements. He was for the most of his young life been fed goat milk and tortillas for his meals!!!? I was horrified obvi. So now he has a nail issue in which its very easy for him to rip them off and/or injure them. I always felt his issue was a nutrient one but I see there may be other options I need to look into. Poor guy had a terrible first year and a half of life and its been rough getting him on track. Any thoughts from anyone?

Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVVM
March 11, 2020

Hi Zyon,  it does sound like there's more going on than just random puppy trauma.  I'd strongly suggest you make an appointment with your regular veterinarian to pursue a full work-up including referral to a veterinary dermatologist if necessary.

March 9, 2020

Hi there, I have a 7 month old puppy (Bull mastiff x Pit bull) who has recently broken 6 nails in the span of 4 weeks. Initially she broke her pinky toenail on her front left paw. I was at work when this happened, but this same day she managed to jump the fence and get out of the backyard so we assumed that was the cause of the broken nail (not to mention blood in the driveway + on the back door step as it was bleeding quite a bit when I finally got home that day. Two weeks pass and again, we're at work . When we get home, we find that she has broken 2 nails on BOTH her hind legs - meaning she now has 5 broken nails/claws. When we found this, we quickly rushed her to an emergency vet where they cleaned it up and gave me a clotting kit as they had advised me that "she is going to do it again so best to be prepared". We don't know the cause of her breaking these 4 claws and because the vet didn't make a big deal, we just assumed once again that it's from her activities during the day while were all gone to work (jumping, digging and play fighting with her sister). 1 week passes and little miss has managed to break yet another claw, this time it is her thumb claw on her front right paw. This now takes it up to 6 broken claws in the past 3 weeks. As always, we are at work when these injuries occur so we have no idea the causes of them. I have read many articles and cannot seem to pin point what it could be as there are so many different experiences and many different findings. I have considered her diet, but we feed her and her sister the exact same thing every single day (1/2 champ puppy can + 1 cup of beneful puppy biscuits) for breakfast & dinner. Also, after rushing her to the emergency vet that night, she had trouble sleeping/resting that night + the following day - so we had to take her to the local vet that afternoon (after I got off work, partner stayed home with the puppy for the day) to request some pain relief and solution to clean the wound. After cleaning the wound and feeding her the medicine, she began running/walking like her normal, silly self again... Is there any chance you can please help/give any advice?

Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM
March 9, 2020

Hi Michelle, as Dr. White mentioned in the article, miniature schnauzers can be predisposed to certain conditions that cause nail breakage.  Your best bet is to follow-up with your veterinarian with further diagnostic tests.

March 8, 2020

Hi, i have a 2yr old miniature schaunzer, about 7 months ago his nails started to lift and split one by one, after a series of antibiotics to clear any infections and having some removed we put him on a strict high omega diet recommended by the vet, he has been on this for almost 5 months now and his nails have grown back but now he has started licking at one of his paws and i see that 2 nails are split! Is this something that is seen in this breed of dog? Is there anything i  an do additional to diet to prevent it getting any worse? Appreciate any advise

Lori Miller
September 8, 2019

Heather Wasnick, you described my current situation except my dog is a 2yr old Dutch Shepherd.  We were told she doesn't have Crushing Disease but that's about it. She eats Purina ProPlan and never goes hungry yet is very thin. I don't know if it's because she's super active or something else but her nails are breaking daily. She's on antibiotics,  prednisone and Epsom salt soakes very frequently.  Help, suggestion? Anyone? Thanks!

Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM
May 6, 2019

[From Dr. Amelia White]  In general, most dogs' nails remain strong and healthy throughout the entire lifetime of the pet.  Age is not generally a direct cause of brittle nails.  If your pet has developed brittle nails, then this usually is a sign that something else is going on.  Dietary modifications can be helpful in case the pet is no longer absorbing the nutrients as well as they once did.  Brittle nails can also be a sign of disease in the nails themselves, even when there is no significant inflammation at the nailbeds. Continue to work with your vet to see if sampling of a nail or nailbed is required to confirm that everything is functioning normally.  Supplements, such as biotin, can sometimes be helpful if no direct cause of the brittle nails is discovered.  Working with your vet to discover the cause and select treatments at appropriate doses and formulation can lead to improved health of the nails.

Laura Diaz
April 26, 2019

I have a question. I have a 13 y/o doxie. We’ve had him on the same diet for over a year now, acter some visits to the vet. Nevertheless, we’ve noticed in the past couple months that his nails seem very brittle. They break easily, but they don’t bleed, there’s no sign of infection and he isn’t in pain. We’re gonna talk to a vet to see what we can do to strengthen his nails, but I would also like to know if age is also a factor that can affect the brittleness of a dog’s nails.

Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM
March 4, 2019

Hi Heather, While nail breakage can be no big deal, it sounds like this is a change for your dog.  Given that you mentioned they are becoming infected, I'd suggest seeing if your veterinarian will do a more in-depth work up or refer you to a dermatologist.  As Dr. White mentions in her article, it's pretty important to be patient with each step of the process since skin, nail, and hair conditions can take a while to "nail down."

Heather Wasniak
March 2, 2019

I’m not sure how this site works, but have a question. I have a 4yo female lab. She is very active/athletic (hiking, agility, tracking, etc). We are careful wth her diet and grooming (including her nails). In the last two months she has suddenly started breaking nails. They are not regrowing and tend to get bloody and infected when not on antibiotics. After the first one broke, we stopped our hikes as I assumed it happened in the woods and we haven’t done agility or tracking in four months. Now they seem to break even in our yard and she wasn’t even running. It happened again last night and I took her to her vet this morning and when I asked if there was a bigger problem going on was told that “this is normal”, even though nothing has changed in the four years she’s been with us and not breaking nails. So my question is, is this sudden breaking of multiple nails “normal” or should I be pushing it, even getting a second opinion? Thank you!

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