Broken Toenails may be more Serious than Your Dog Just Being a Klutz

Paw of a German Shepherd with Symmetrical Lupoid Onychodystrophy

A few days ago I wrote about one potential danger in the use of wire crates for your dogs. Our situation has changed drastically in just the past three days and the update needs to be told so that others can learn from our experience and help their own dogs. Riley is taking us on yet another learning adventure into illnesses that affect dogs. Our poor guy just can’t seem to catch a break! First it was hypothyroidism, then it was his bi-lateral hip dysplasia and now this! Hey, Riley? Any time you wanna jump off the adventure-wagon is ok with me! Thank goodness your sister Nissa doesn’t like trips down Adventure Lane, I don’t think I’d have any hair left on my head if she did!

Everyone knows that dog’s nails are no different than humans in that occasionally a dog will break a nail. Often you can pinpoint the cause of breakage or at least think you have it figured out. You may or may not actually see it happen. If you don’t see it happen, thinking back over what the dog was doing before you found the break you can often come to a common sense conclusion as to how it happened. This is exactly what we did but boy … were we ever WRONG! Normal nails are pretty darn strong and don’t break easily. If your dog seems to be breaking nails for no reason or something doesn’t seem right about their nail loss, please read on. Your dog could be suffering from a serious and very painful disease that needs immediate vet attention!

Riley’s Broken Nail History

Riley is now seven years old and up until the past six or eight weeks he broke one or two nails in that time frame. I’m not talking about breaking a nail near the tip where it doesn’t hurt. Think about how it hurts to break one of your own nails right down to the quick. You can wrap your nail and treat it with antibiotic cream, it still hurts but at least you can take steps to protect it from being bumped or otherwise irritated. When a dog breaks their nails down to the point of exposing the quick it’s very painful. There are nerve endings there that are now exposed and we all know how much nerve pain hurts! Add to that a dog’s nails are all on their feet which they must use all four of to get around. They walk through grass, snow, mud, sand — whatever — and this all rubs on the injured nail area, I can only imagine how much this hurts. When a dog breaks their nails to the point of exposing the quick, the nail usually bleeds significantly. Ever try to keep a bandage wrap on a dog? It’s not easy. Most dogs will find a way to get that annoying gauze wrap off their foot and then they lick and chew on the affected area.

The one or two previously broken nails (spread out over seven years) was disturbing because of the amount of blood, I never in a million years even considered there was an underlying problem. Not a bad average over time and nothing to get alarmed about, right? I felt really bad for him each time because I knew he was in a lot of pain but he healed up and all was well and I never thought about it again until recently. On June 1st I came home to a blood bath on my kitchen floor. Scared me good until I found the source of the blood, he’d broken another nail. I just followed the instructions I’d previously gotten from the vet and we contributed the break to him having mis-stepped and caught his foot on the wire crate. This explanation made perfect sense to us being that we know how he charges around performing his self-appointed duties as our “Head of Security” guarding the house. 

A few days later he lost a second nail off the same foot. We then moved to what we felt was the common sense cause that he didn’t just mis-step going over the wire, he must have caught his foot between the crate wires, panicked because he felt trapped and so fought to free himself. At this point I started to feel that something else was going on and I wrestled with that feeling and the human conclusion wire crate reason for the broken nails. It just made sense to us that having caught his foot in the crate and fighting to get out of the wire could have caused severe bruising and the loss of his nails because of it. Over the next week or two, his remaining nails began to to “pop up” and he then lost all nails on that foot and his middle toes on the left rear foot were flipping up when he walked at the “move yourself forward point” which started me thinking he may have something broken inside. I just knew something was not right and I wasn’t going to have a minute’s peace until I found out for sure. I mean really, us humans will manage to justify anything that makes sense to us because our dogs cannot tell us something hurts. Reality as we later learned was (as dogs will do) — Riley was hiding his pain too damn well! Oh how I wish our dogs could tell us when they hurt! We could help them so much sooner!

Two vets told me he couldn’t have broken anything in his foot because he would not be able to walk on it. Trusting my gut feeling,  I wasn’t going to believe anyone until they could prove to me nothing was broken so I insisted on x-rays. Two x-rays and a flouroscopy later it was confirmed — there was in fact nothing broken or disjointed. I thought I finally had peace of mind. I then managed to more or less convince myself I was just being paranoid and that he would eventually heal up just fine. Total vet costs at this point was almost $750.00 and me feeling pretty darn foolish at that point. A few days later we found a broken dew claw. Our human reasoning? He’d caught it on the chain link fence going off on another dog across the yards.

Then a nail from the other rear foot broke and we were left scratching our heads for a reason and my gut was telling me that there was something more to all of this than just a run of bad luck for Riley’s toenails. A couple of days later a nail from his front foot broke. Ok, I’m done with this crap, and went on my own research hunt that very night and I’m still kicking myself for not doing so sooner!

Trusting My Gut was the Right Thing to Do

Since he had seen two vets already who both told me they couldn’t find anything wrong with him other than he’d “really done a number on his nails” it was going to be up to me to find out what was wrong with our Riley. I didn’t care how many vets couldn’t find anything wrong, my gut told me there was more to this than anyone had seen so far. I keep in touch with Judi, the founder of the Central Wisconsin German Shepherd Rescue where Riley came from. I remember telling her about the (now we know human-sensical) crate incident to her and she thought it odd that he kept breaking nails and I couldn’t get her comment of my head either.

OMG! What a Reality Check!

The photo at the top of this article is *not* our Riley’s foot, however it is very similar to what his left rear foot looked like a few weeks ago just after he lost the two outside nails and before he lost the two middle nails. With permission to use it from the owner of this photo is from a post on German Shepherd Home. We thought the middle nails were just loose and taking their own sweet time to actually fall off and that they looked really long because they were loose and not seated where they are supposed to be. WRONG!

When I Googled for things like “dogs breaking toenails” what came up was a real mind blower. I found article after article after article on a disease called Symmetrical Lupoid Onychodystrophy also known as SLO which is an auto-immune condition whereby the immune system attacks the affected dog’s nails and — it’s incurable. The more I read the more I was convinced this is what we were dealing with. I found bookoodles of stories from other dog owners that mirrored Riley’s broken nail history and the same human common sense reasoning that we suffered from. We were not alone in assuming our dogs suffered from occasional klutzy-ness and somehow managed to simply break their nails in some way or another. In a way it was comforting to know that we were just being human, but reality is that we all wished we had looked into this sooner.  Some people were good enough to include photos of their dogs feet showing what the nails looked like and they were just like Riley’s! If you want a quick photo overview, I Googled “pictures of symmetrical lupoid onychodystrophy.”

I immediately printed and faxed three of the articles I found to our vet so she’d have them when she got in that morning. Due to the fact that there are other things that some of his symptoms could be (bacteria, virus or fungus) she consulted with the U.W. Vet Clinic’s Dermatology department in Madison, WI. We had to find out if a culture or biopsy was in order before proceeding. A biopsy would mean having to remove an entire toe! They told her to skip these because the only thing this could be is SLO, that there’s no point in putting Riley through these other tests and that we should just start treating it immediately. Being incurable means it can only be treated and managed for life. In Riley’s case the disease is progressing quickly and it’s obvious he’s in pain when he walks. I’ll be at the vet’s office when they open this morning to pick up the meds and get him started on his treatment today. Until he can show me he’s walking with no pain, we have discontinued our walks. He’d happily go on a walk and be excited about it, but I’m not about to intentionally put him through pain to do it.

NOTE: If your dog is showing signs of this illness and your vet doesn’t look at SLO as a possibility, don’t be too hard on them. I learned this disease is considered to be rare and so it’s not known to many vets. I found what I consider an abundance of information on it so I’m surprised it’s considered a rare condition but rare is what was stated in a number of articles.

Dog Breeds Prone to Symmetrical Lupoid Onychodystrophy

German Shepherds, Rottweilers, Labs, Pit Bulls, Gordon Setters, Greyhounds and other large breed dogs are all supposed to be susceptible to SLO. There is more information on this on page 3 of this article; The Role of Breed in Canine Skin Disease and Brittle Nails in Dogs.  The more I look, the more breeds I found that suffer from this. From what I can find the disease is not contagious so you shouldn’t need to worry that your other dogs can contract it if you’ve got a multiple dog household. Untreated it can lead to total lameness! If you have a dog showing symptoms it’s imperative that you find out if SLO is the cause and take immediate action!

Attack Plan A

I’m going to start by reading all the posts on the Cooper Project website. It looks like there’s an enormous amount of information on this one single website. I plan to read it “cover to cover” just like you would a book and follow all links to other sites that might be mentioned in these articles.

Our hearts hurt for Riley’s pain and we’re not happy that he’ll need lifelong medication to control his SLO, but at least I found the cause and he hopefully will be ok if we can get it under control quickly. When his nails grow back, they won’t grow back normally, they’ll be deformed. Not something I wanted to hear but the alternatives are much worse. Funky looking nails are the least of my worries right now. I hope that the first medications we try will do the trick, but for now that remains to be seen. It’s hard to know that it will take so long to see results especially since we may have to try several medications to find what works for him. The longer this disease is allowed to attack him, the longer he’ll suffer and the more chance there is that it will do damage that may cause him to go lame. I’m also learning SLO can damage a dog’s coat and there may be more but I’m just beginning my research. I’m hoping that because he needs a bath right now (groomer appointment scheduled for next week) that what I’m seeing as far as coat quality is only because he needs a bath. His coat is a tiny bit on the dull side which is not normal for him at all. I’m hoping a nice soapy bath and fluff job will fix that right up!

On my husband’s request, I did ask our vet about what I considered an extreme measure of removing all his toenails as an alternative to lifelong medications. I wasn’t about to disregard the idea without checking to see if it was a viable option. She agreed this was extreme and recommended against it because you also have to remove the lower part of the bone in order to get the nail bud or the nails will continue to grow back causing a vicious recurring cycle of the disease. I can’t believe this extreme measure would not cripple a dog and/or cause other significant negative issues since he’d have to have all nails removed.

I would love to hear from others who are going through this with their dogs. I wasn’t overly worried this morning but tonight I’m finding that this disease is uglier than I originally thought and the more I research the more scary it becomes. Do you have a story about your own dog’s SLO illness or information about Symmetrical Lupoid Onychodystrophy (SLO) that you can share with us?

4 responses on “Broken Toenails may be more Serious than Your Dog Just Being a Klutz

  1. Brenda says:

    How horrible! Poor Riley. I don’t have the answers, but I wonder if it might help to try NZYMES® Sprouted Granules from http://www.nzymes.com. Their product is designed for dogs with chronic yeast infections, the result of antibiotics wiping out their immune system. This can be another serious condition, for which I am currently treating Ariel and Garnet. However, I feel impressed to see many testimonials on their website how it has cured such diseases as epilepsy. All I can say is it wouldn’t hurt to try! Hugs to Riley (and his Mom!) <3 Brenda

    • Mom says:

      Hi Brenda,

      Great hearing from you again, hope all is going well for you! Yeah, it’s been heartbreaking here the past couple of months. Day before yesterday he had a bad day but yesterday he had a good day — not great but good. We even were able to go on a half hour walk. I think he may have gone longer (he didn’t tell me he wanted to go home which he does) but I didn’t want to push it. There are two nails in the process of coming off and soon will be painful for him. One of the worst things is that had I known more about the consequences of vaccines I would have stopped their vaccines after they were a year to year and a half old and this probably would never have happened. Our country really needs to smarten up about over-vaccinating our dogs! Thanks for the link, but for now I’m going to stick with what the vet and others who deal with this disease tell me to give him. I don’t want to take a chance that something might not play nice with his meds. I’ll share the link though, might get some good feedback that will prompt me to try it. Take care, Brenda! So glad you came to visit again.

  2. Lou & Missy says:

    OMG… I googled this because our German Shepard “Gunny” started losing his nails and the picture above sadly looks exactly like his. I’m taking him to the vet in the morning. He was a very active and rambunctious guy until recently which I can only assume is due to his discomfort/pain. This really hurts us as we had a bad experience in the past with another shepherd that past away from parvo virus many years ago. Has anyone found anything that will help over the long term? Is this a life threating disease? I’ll try and stay in touch with everyone as this is a member of the family that is now going to require long term care.

    • Mom says:

      Hi Lou & Missy,

      First of all, please relax. SLO is not a fatal disease. The only way I’m aware of that it could become life threatening is if it were to go untreated and your dog goes lame. Without the ability to walk, most people would put their dog down. You’re concerned and you’re looking for answers. The big thing is to get your dog to a vet so he can get treatment. Be forewarned though, SLO is still considered a new illness so some vets aren’t familiar with it. Do your research and take it with you to your vet. Ask him to consult with a dermatology vet, these specialists are the ones who know the most about the disease.

      Yes, your dog is in severe pain so he’s going to be different. Riley spent most of last summer laying on the floor, he didn’t want to do anything because of his pain. If you get treatment for him, he should be fine. His nails may not grow back normally. We don’t care what his nails look like as long as he’s not in pain and he’s not. We do believe his feet are more sensitive to cold in the winter so we keep walks shorter and don’t allow him outside for long periods of time. Both of these are designed to help keep him for being in pain.

      The treatment Riley is on is long term, in fact it’s probably for life unless something new and wonderful comes along. His antibiotics *would* run about $600.00 per month at current pricing. However, don’t freak out just yet. If you can, get your dog’s antibiotic prescription filled at Walgreens. They have a program (plan?) whereby I register once a year for their “W” card, yes just the letter W. Use of the card drops the cost of his prescription to just $40.00 per month which obviously is much more manageable. The supplements (vitamin e, niacinamide and his salmon oil) I order online from Puritan’s Pride and Vitacost and they’re very cheap. Please reread my posts on this because they will tell you about making sure to get niacinamide (no substitutions) and give you other info.

      I also sent an email to my vet’s office asking them to check into the Pentoxifylline which was mentioned in other posts by people using it, but I don’t have an answer from my vet yet.

      You are welcome to come back here if you have any more questions. Your pooch will be ok long as you get him to the vet and on the meds and supps he needs! So, smile and just do it and you’ll both feel better! Come back and let us know how it goes, ok?

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