Seeing a dog’s nails peeling away from the nail bed is deeply alarming. Sometimes, dogs tear their nails while running or digging. Other times, dog claws become fragile and brittle, resulting in broken nails.
Even worse, dog nails can sometimes detach from the quick and nail bed for seemingly no reason. So let’s look at what might cause nail problems like peeling and what you need to do about it.
What happens when a dog’s nail peels?
To understand what we mean by “peeling nails,” we need to touch on dog paw and nail anatomy briefly.
The dog nail is the curved, cone-shaped hard claw attached to a bone in the toe called the distal phalanx. We need to trim this hard claw with guillotine-shaped dog nail clippers to avoid overgrown nails.
Between the claw and the toe’s bone is the quick; the fleshy part inside the claw that provides nutrients to keep the nail alive. This is the part we don’t want to cut accidentally when we trim our dog’s nails at home.
When a dog’s nail peels, it likely detaches from the quick inside, leaving it completely exposed. White nails will probably turn black. There may be bleeding, and your dog will likely limp and be in a lot of pain. They may even refuse to walk. Since the nail is attached to the bone in the toe, this can lead to some nasty complications.
Nails peeling can also mean different things. If a dog’s nails are shedding or falling off, this is called sloughing. The medical term is onychomadesis.
Brittle nails may start to break off in fragments. This is called onychorrhexis. Nails may also split (onychoschizia) or grow at unnatural angles (onychogryphosis).
If the medical names are giving you a headache, don’t worry. The important thing to note is peeling nails mean that the hard outer claw detaches from the quick, like in this image:
It can also mean the nails are “sloughing” or falling off. But these two types of peeling nails look very similar.
Dog’s Nails Peeling: Causes
Dog’s nails peel or detach from the bed because of injuries, often from overgrown nails. However, it can also happen because of bacterial or fungal infections, poor nutrition, and underlying health issues like lupoid onychodystrophy (SLO).
Here are the main reasons dog nails lift from the bed and peel off.
1. Overgrown nails
Overgrown nails are the number one reason for peeling and detached nails. Nail trimming is essential, as dogs who run, play, dig, jump or climb can get their overgrown nails snagged on something or otherwise damaged.
In fact, bleeding is extremely common when dogs exercise with nails that are too long. If the quick is damaged, see our article on how long it takes for the quick to heal.
Of course, many owners have a strict nail care regime and still have nails that tear or break. Digging is the most common reason, whether it’s in the yard or your furniture. But dogs running and jumping on rough terrain or ground can just as easily snag a nail.
If the tip of the nail hooks on something and pulls the paw away with enough force, the claw may detach from the quick and nail bed. Owners with active dogs may encounter this at least once in their dog’s lifetime.
Another reason dogs’ nails can become brittle and fragile and more likely to peel is feeding unbalanced dog food. Nutrient deficiencies, specifically in protein, B vitamins, and the omega-3 fatty acid EPA (from fish oil), can cause many skin and nail issues.
Keep a special eye on aging dogs, as their paw pads tend to dry out and often have more claw issues.
Another nutrient to look at is zinc. Large-breed puppies sometimes develop type 2 zinc deficiencies that affect their skin, coat, and nail health. Nordic breeds, such as Huskies, can have hereditary zinc deficiencies and will need to take supplements in the long term.
4. Immune-mediated diseases that cause dogs’ nails peeling
Symmetrical lupoid onychodystrophy (SLO) and dog’s nails peeling
This disease is a mouthful, so we will call it SLO, and it is a type of Lupus. It usually happens in older dogs, and certain breeds are more prone to it, specifically German Shepherds and Gordon Setters. However, it does happen in many other breeds, including Rottweilers, Dobermans, Greyhounds, Retrievers, Corgis, Schnauzers, Poodles, and West Highland Terriers.
Dogs with SLO have nails that slough or shed off. They may also have highly brittle nails, deformed ones, or splitting nails. Essentially this is an autoimmune disease. Your vet may need to diagnose with a biopsy or even amputation.
A dog with SLO will probably need aggressive antibiotic treatment and immunosuppressants. Your vet will also recommend more essential fatty acids in the diet. Ralph Mueller, DVM, notes that in at least two cases, food allergies caused SLO.
We don’t know what causes SLO, but it’s often connected to other hormone and immune-related diseases like hypothyroidism
Another autoimmune issue that affects the dog’s paw and can cause nail disorders is the different types of pemphigus. Specifically, your veterinarian might test for Pemphigus Vulgaris, which affects the nails and nail bed. It is extremely painful and in addition to causing the nails to fall peel off, it erodes the nail bed.
Another possibility is bullous pemphigoid group skin disease, but is much harder to treat.
Treatment will rely on suppressing the immune system with glucocorticoids and similar drugs.
5. Bacterial claw infection
Sometimes dog claws look abnormal and peel off because of an infection. This is often when a dog’s immune system is suppressed because they have conditions like diabetes, hypothyroidism, or Cushing’s disease. Even stress may be a factor.
Bacterial infections can also start because a dog has an infection in their toes, called pododermatitis. This then spreads to the nail. These bacteria can take months to treat.
Infections that cause the claw to peel off are usually bacterial, but your vet may want to rule our deep fungal infections, dermatophytosis,
Another possibility for a peeling nail is a melanoma, mast cell tumor, or squamous cell carcinoma in the nail bed. A squamous cell carcinoma looks like a wound that won’t heal. It can also look like various kinds of tumors that either push the claw off or rob it of its nutrients and kill it.
A vet will need to remove these as soon as possible surgically.
What to do if a dog’s nail is coming off
Treating a dog’s detached nail, or a claw that is peeling and lifting off the bed, is essential because the nail is attached to the bone. If any infection starts here, it can enter the bone, and your vet may need to amputate part of the toe.
If your dog injured their claw while playing or digging, then:
- Apply pressure to stop any bleeding.
- Soak their paw in warm water with Epsom salts for 5 minutes a day, twice a day.
- Trim back the excess nail so that cannot hook on anything.
- Ask your vet for a strong antiseptic wash and a possible antibiotic cream. Do not apply cortisone cream without speaking to your veterinarian because topical steroids increase the chances of infection and delay wound healing.
- Bandage your dog’s paw because you don’t want them licking the area. Excessive licking not only irritates the wound but increases the chance of secondary infections.
- You also need to give your dog something appropriate to help with pain management. Make sure to speak to your vet. Many human painkillers like Ibuprofen are toxic to dogs.
Now here’s the problem. It is possible to treat a peeling nail at home. But once the claw is gone, the nail quick is left exposed and can be a constant source of pain for your dog. It can also make it harder for the new nail to grow back correctly.
For this reason, it is better to take your dog to the vet as they may surgically remove the exposed quick and make sure the wound is treated correctly to avoid infection and complications.
If your dog’s nails are hollow underneath, or they are falling off without blood, then your dog may have an underlying health problem. Ask your veterinarian for a full check-up for immune disorders like SLO or pemphigus or to check the nails for infections or carcinomas.
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Will a dog’s torn nail heal on its own?
A mildly torn or broken nail will likely heal on its own. But if the nail is peeling or severely damaged, it’s better to take it seriously. Dog nails are prone to infection, and infections can spread to the bone and cause a severe condition called osteomyelopathy.
Dogs with overgrown nails often tear or break them. Sometimes, these injuries are so severe that they peel the nail completely off the quick and create a detached nail. In these instances, you can clip the loose nail off, soak your dog’s foot and see a vet about removing the exposed quick so that it doesn’t cause more pain.
However, dog nails sometimes peel off because of diseases such as lupus, pemphigus, or cancer. So always take care to have this kind of nail problem fully examined.
Tamsin De La HarpeAuthor
Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions.
Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.