March 3rd is “What if pets had opposable thumbs? Day”! I have never really given the idea much thought, but I’m sure in my household it would have disastrous consequences--I would likely wake up to my cats raiding the refrigerator. (Then again, - it sure would be nice if the dog could throw her own frisbee!)
Most species do not have opposable thumbs. In fact, it’s one of the things that sets us humans apart. But dogs and cats do have “thumbs” or first digits, better known as dewclaws. Dogs walk on four digits, and technically they are walking on digits two through five. Their thumb, or dewclaw, is located higher up the leg on the inside and does not make contact with the ground when the dog is standing. All dogs are born with dewclaws on their front legs, and some are born with dewclaws on the rear legs as well. Dogs use the dewclaws on their front legs for traction and balance. If you watch slow motion video of a dog running around a tight corner, you’ll see that the dewclaw actually does touch the ground. Additionally, the dewclaw can be used to help lightly grip a bone or toy when the dog is lying down. Some breeds, like the Great Pyrenees, have two dewclaws in the back, and are known as “double dewclawed.”
To Dew or Not to Dew
Removal of the dewclaws is a debatable subject. Purebred dogs often have the dewclaws removed when they are three-to-five days old if the breed standard (as described by the AKC) calls for it. Some people think that the dewclaw is more prone to getting torn or injured because of its location, but in general I have not found this to be the case. Certainly hunting dogs may be more prone to getting a rear dewclaw caught on vegetation occasionally, but your average house dog is probably not at a high risk for injury to their dewclaw.
In my opinion, surgical removal of the dewclaw in any dog older than three-to-five days old poses a larger threat to your dog than the small chance of injury he might have from keeping them. The incisions can be difficult to heal and may become infected, as this is a site that dogs just love to lick. I have seen many more complications from surgical removal of the dewclaw than actual injuries to the dewclaw itself.
What about cats? Well, we never really think about cat dewclaws, and we certainly never remove them. But cats have their own thumb issues. Some cats exhibit what is known as polydactyly, or extra toes. Normal cats have five digits on the front paw, and four to five digits on the rear paw, but polydactyl cats can have sixor seven digits on each paw! In fact, the Guinness World Record for most toes on a cat goes to a Canadian cat named Jake, who has 28 toes total! Now, that’s nothing to thumb your nose at!