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What are Discoloration in Nails?

Nail discoloration in dogs can be disconcerting for dog parents, but the causes can range from normal aging and genetic factors, to various treatable or more serious medical conditions. While trauma to the nail or paw is often the culprit to a gradual or sudden change in nail appearance, infections and certain diseases may also cause a color change over time.

While nail discoloration can be an innocuous symptom, it could point to a more serious condition that should be treated by your veterinarian. Discoloration can be red, brown or black, which can each indicate a specific issue. If you see your dog’s nails changing color, consult your vet to find out what is causing it.

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Symptoms of Discoloration in Nails in Dogs

The symptoms of nail discoloration itself are simple, a change in the color of one or more nails, but they often come with other signs of the underlying issue causing the color change. Be on the lookout for any changes in your dog’s nails, skin around the nails, other areas of their body, attitude, temperament and habits that may help point to a cause.

Signs of nail discoloration can include:

  • Nails gradually change to red, brown or black coloring
  • Brittle, splitting or bleeding nails
  • Abnormal nail growth
  • Nails fall off
  • Chipped, cracked or torn nails
  • Nail sloughing
  • Redness, swelling, pus, discharge or crusting in skin around nails
  • Biting, chewing or licking paws and nails, indicating itchiness
  • Difficulty walking
  • Sensitive paws

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Causes of Discoloration in Nails in Dogs

The causes of nail discoloration in dogs vary considerably, ranging from normal issues to serious conditions that may need veterinary attention. Reasons for discolored nails can include:

  • Normal aging
  • Hyperpigmentation – Color changes range from light brown to black, and can be caused by a genetic component or an underlying issue such as allergies, dermatitis, infections or hormone abnormalities.
  • Genetics – Some puppies can have white nails when young that naturally turn black as they grow.
  • Trauma – This common cause of nail discoloration occurs from injury to the nail, such as a torn nail, smashed nails, too much running on rough surfaces such as gravel, asphalt or concrete, or poor nail trimming.
  • Auto-immune disease - Rarely, bullous auto-immune diseases can affect the nails, including Pemphigus vulgaris, foliaceus, and erythematosus.

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Diagnosis of Discoloration in Nails in Dogs

Since there are many different reasons why nails can become discolored in dogs, your veterinarian will start with a physical exam, paying close attention to the nails, skin surrounding them and paws. Be sure to relate any and all symptoms relating to the nails, paws and skin, any changes in movement, disposition and activities, and any signs of pain. Also relate any injuries to the nails and paws, including botched nail trims or excessive exposure to rough surfaces, and medical conditions your dog may have and medications they are taking for them.

Testing to narrow down the cause can include biopsies, microscopic inspection and testing of nail scrapings and skin surrounding the nails, comprehensive blood panel, food trials and allergy testing, checking hormone balances including thyroid testing, urinalysis, use of ultraviolet Wood’s lamp, and X-rays.

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Treatment of Discoloration in Nails in Dogs

Once the cause for the nail discoloration is discovered, treatment can be prescribed as appropriate. If nails have changed color due to normal age or genetic factors, no treatment is needed. Similarly, if hyperpigmentation is alone the cause, there is no treatment or cure.

Medications

If bacterial infections are the primary or secondary reasons for the color change, antibiotics are prescribed. They can also be given to prevent infections from happening during other treatments, especially if the dog is licking and chewing their nails and paws. If fungal infections are primary or secondary causes, anti-fungal medications will be prescribed in oral form, as topical treatments, or in medicated shampoos, rinses, dips, sprays, soaks, ointments or wipes.

Medications for auto-immune diseases can include immunosuppressants, cytotoxic drugs, and corticosteroids to help reduce inflammation. If thyroid or other hormones are out of balance and contributing to the primary cause of the discoloration, drugs to correct the imbalance may also be given.

Removing nails

If nails are brittle or damaged, they may need to be cut down or partially removed. If infections or trauma has severely injured or compromised the nail or digit, surgery to amputate them may be considered.

Supplements and diet

If your dog has lupoid onychodystrophy, a change of diet and the addition of supplements such as biotin, vitamin E and essential fatty acids have been shown to help improve symptoms. Any type of allergies may also require a change of diet to manage the allergies, and can also benefit from adding essential fatty acids and probiotics to their diet.

Other treatments

Whenever there is risk of any kind of infection, special care should be taken to keep the nails and paws clean. Bullous auto-immune disease sufferers should limit exposure to sunlight, as the conditions can be exacerbated by ultraviolet light. In the case of fungal infections, you may need to sterilize the environment and items such as beds and toys to prevent re-infection. 

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Recovery of Discoloration in Nails in Dogs

Recovery is good for most conditions with proper treatment, including for infections and injuries, and can resolve in a matter of weeks to months. Auto-immune diseases and many allergies are lifelong medical conditions that will need constant management for your dog’s comfort and safety.

If partial or full removal of nails or digits, or injuries that breached the nail or skin occurred, you’ll need to pay close attention to keeping sutures, incision sites and injuries clean and bandaged, and prevent any new or re-occurring infections. Fungal treatments will need sterilization of the dog’s environment, and frequent trimming of damaged nails as they grow out.

You can help prevent many fungal and bacterial injuries by following a few steps, including:

  • Trimming your dog’s nails regularly, or providing regular trimmings at the groomer
  • Trimming your dog’s nails correctly by learning the proper technique to prevent injury to the nail and quick inside
  • Start trimming nails at an early age and use conditioning techniques to keep your dog comfortable with this routine procedure
  • Routinely touch and check your dog’s nails, pads, skin and feet to spot any potential problems
  • Stay on top of any medical condition that may cause damage or discoloration to your dog’s nails and paws

Nail discoloration can be expensive to treat. If you suspect your dog is at risk of developing discolored nails or other nail conditions, start searching for pet insurance today. Wag! Wellness lets pet parents compare insurance plans from leading companies like PetPlan and Embrace. Find the “pawfect” plan for your pet in just a few clicks!

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Cost of Discoloration in Nails in Dogs

The average cost of treating discolored nails ranges from $200 to $2500.

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Discoloration in Nails Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals

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