First digit amputation in dogs

First digit amputation in dogs

Policy type: Policy
Reference: 9d
Status: Current
Date ratified: September 2017


1. Definitions

Although both forelimb and hindlimb first digits are commonly referred to as “dew claws”, only the vestigial digits inside the hindlimbs are dew claws proper (Evans & de Lahunta, 2016).

1.1 Forelimb first digit
An articulated first digit of the forelimb consisting of a proximal phalanx (bone) and a distal phalanx (bone). The distal phalanx has a claw attached. The digit articulates with the first metacarpal bone via the metacarpophalangeal joint.

1.2 Articulated hindlimb first digit
A fully developed digit consisting of a proximal phalanx (bone) and a distal phalanx (bone). The distal phalanx has a claw attached. The digit articulates with the first metatarsal bone via a metatarsophalangeal joint.

1.3 Non-articulated hindlimb first digit (dew claw)
A vestigial structure composed of a terminal phalanx with a claw attached and connected to the hindlimb by skin tissue.


2. Policy

The NZVA is opposed to the prophylactic amputation of the forelimb first digit and the articulated hindlimb first digit.

Forelimb first digits and articulated hindlimb digits may only be amputated in response to existing disease or injury (i.e. therapeutic reasons) by a veterinarian using appropriate analgesia.

A non-articulated hindlimb first digit (dew claw) may be amputated for prophylactic reasons, if the veterinarian believes that the procedure will provide a net welfare benefit to the dog. If amputation is undertaken, it should always be performed by a veterinarian using appropriate analgesia.


3. Explanation

3.1 Forelimb

 3.1.2 Forelimb first digit

The first digit on the forelimb is fully articulated, associated with functioning tendons, along with blood vessels and nerves. A significant surgical procedure is required for its removal.

Figure 1: Anatomical diagram viewing the medial side of a dog’s left front leg demonstrating the tendons that attach to the forelimb first digit. (Evans & de Lahunta, 2016)

When a dog is standing, the forelimb first digit does not touch the ground. However, when performing a running turn, the forelimb first digit becomes a weight-bearing appendage. During a running turn, it contacts the ground, giving support to the lower forelimb, preventing torque. Without the forelimb first digit to provide stability, the forelimb is prone to twisting. Over time, it has been proposed that this twisting action may lead degenerative changes in the carpus joint of dogs that is more pronounced in dogs that have had their forelimb first digit amputated (Zink, 2013).

Figure 2: In this galloping dog, the first digit is in touch with the ground. If the dog needs to turn right, the forelimb first digit digs into the ground to support the lower leg and prevent torque (Zink 2013).

The forelimb first digit can also provide anchor points on slopes and slippery surfaces, allowing dogs to more safely navigate difficult terrain. Dogs also use the forelimb first digit to stabilise objects, such as bones, whilst chewing.

There is no research available to determine the actual incidence of injury to the forelimb first digit (Mills, von Keyserlingk, & Niel, 2016), however anecdotal reports from New Zealand veterinarians suggest that it is not common.

While it is possible that the forelimb first digit claw can become overgrown and catch or become ingrown, it is more appropriate to manage this by clipping the claw from time to time rather than amputating a digit that serves a useful function to the dog.

3.2 Hindlimb

3.2.1 Non-articulated hindlimb first digit (dew claw)
Hindlimb first digits (dew claws), when present, are commonly not articulated and tend to protrude from the limb. They therefore may be at risk of being injured. The prophylactic removal of these can be justified.

3.2.2 Articulated hindlimb first digit
Where the hindlimb first digit is articulated, it does not protrude from the limb and is therefore not at such risk of being injured. The prophylactic removal of an articulated hindlimb first digit is not justified.


4. Guidelines

Recommended best practice from the New Zealand Animal Welfare (Dogs) Code of Welfare 2010 is that “jointed dew claws should not be routinely removed.” This applies to both of the forelimb first digits and the articulated hindlimb first digits (National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee, 2010).

The New Zealand Veterinary Council’s (VCNZ) Code of Professional Conduct does not allow veterinarians to perform amputations of forelimb first digits and articulated hindlimb first digits unless for therapeutic reasons (Veterinary Council of New Zealand, 2005).

4.1 Forelimb first digits and articulated hindlimb first digits

It is not acceptable to amputate any canine forelimb first digit or articulated hindlimb first digit at any age, unless for therapeutic reasons.

Forelimb first digits and articulated hindlimb first digits shall not be amputated solely for prophylactic, convenience or cosmetic reasons, or to conform to a breed standard.

If a forelimb or articulated hindlimb first digit must be amputated for a therapeutic reason, this must be performed by a veterinarian, using appropriate analgesia.

4.2 Non-articulated hindlimb first digits (dew claws) 

Non-articulated hindlimb first digits (dew claws) may be amputated prophylactically if a veterinarian believes that their amputation will provide a net welfare benefit to the dog.

Amputation of non-articulated hindlimb first digits (dew claws) should only be performed by a veterinarian, using appropriate analgesia. This is also recommended best practice from the New Zealand Animal Welfare (Dogs) Code of Welfare 2010.

When non-articulated hindlimb first digits (dew claws) are amputated prophylactically, timing the procedure to coincide with desexing so that an additional anaesthetic is not required is encouraged.

4.3 Advice to owners and breeders

Veterinarians should encourage owners to monitor all their dog’s digits to ensure that claws do not become overgrown.

Breed clubs are encouraged to alter breed standards that require the arbitrary removal of forelimb first digits and articulated hindlimb first digits.

Hindlimb first digits are an inherited trait. If breeders desire dogs without hindlimb first digits, consideration to selecting breeding pairs who naturally do not have hindlimb first digits will reduce the incidence in future generations.


5. Proposed changes to animal welfare regulations

5.1 Current situation

Both forelimb first digits, articulated hindlimb first digits and non-articulated hindlimb first digits (dew claws) can be amputated from puppies by a person other than a veterinarian as long as:

  • it is done before the eyes have started to open or before four days old, whichever comes first
  • the person performing the amputation possesses the knowledge, training and competence, which are necessary to maintain the health and welfare of the puppy.

In dogs after their eyes have begun to open or after four days of age, forelimb first digits, articulated hindlimb first digits and non-articulated hindlimb first digits (dew claws), must only be amputated by a veterinarian.

5.2 New regulation from 1 October 2018

Non-veterinarians will be permitted to amputate only the non-articulated hindlimb first digits (dew claws) in puppies under 4 days of age whose eyes have not opened.

It is proposed in the new regulations that veterinarians will be able to remove both articulated forelimb and hindlimb first digits and non-articulated hindlimb first digits (dew claws) for any reason, providing appropriate analgesia is given.

5.3 Conflict between the new regulation and veterinary ethics

The proposed new regulation is contrary to the obligations contained in the VCNZ Code of Professional Conduct (COPC). The COPC does not allow for veterinarians to perform prophylactic amputations of the forelimb first digit or articulated hindlimb first digit. This is to protect animals from being subject to unnecessary medical procedures (i.e. purely cosmetic procedures).

These ethical obligations effectively mean that veterinarians will only be permitted, where they believe it confers a net welfare benefit to the dog, to provide prophylactic amputation for non-articulated hindlimb first digits (dew claws).

Due to the ethical obligations on veterinarians, the NZVA advise that requests from owners and breeders for prophylactic amputation of forelimb first digits and articulated hindlimb first digits are declined.


6. References

Evans, H., & de Lahunta, A. (2016). Guide to the Dissection of the Dog. St Louis: Saunders Elsevier.

Mills, K., von Keyserlingk, M., & Niel, L. (2016). A review of medically unnecessary surgeries in dogs and cats. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 162-171. doi:10.2460/javma.248.2.162

National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee. (2010). Animal welfare (dogs) code of welfare 2010. Wellington: Animal Welfare Directorate. Retrieved from http://www.mpi.govt.nz/protection-and-response/animal-welfare/codes-of-welfare/

Veterinary Council of New Zealand. (2005). Code of Professional Conduct. Retrieved from http://www.vetcouncil.org.nz/CPC/index.php

Zink, C. (2013). Canine structure and its effects on canine performance. In M. Zink, & J. Van Dyke, Canine sports medicine and rehabilitation. John Wiley & Sons.