Like most veterinarians in dog/cat private practice, I’ve seen oodles of cases where a dog’s foot is swollen from a bandage. If you’re Googling this issue because it’s happening to your dog, first don’t panic. There is a spectrum of severity. Let’s go through why this happens and what to do when it does.
What happens if I wrap my dog’s foot/leg too tightly?
The circulation to a dog’s foot and leg consists of arteries that carry blood from the heart to the leg. Arterial blood is under high pressure and can still enter the leg with a properly placed bandage around the limb. Very tight bandages may prevent arterial blood from circulating into the leg at all.
The arteries branch down smaller and smaller until they turn into veins that carry deoxygenated blood back to the heart and lungs. Venous blood is under much less pressure so a tight bandage can restrict blood from exiting the leg.
Once venous blood flow is restricted, fluid starts to ooze out of the veins, building up in the spaces between cells in the foot and leg. Normally, low-pressure lymphatic vessels will remove this fluid but with a tight bandage, the fluid is stuck.
All that fluid and lack of proper blood flow are bad for a dog’s cells. Eventually, they become injured and may be destroyed if the circulation constriction continues.
Explanation of blood and lymphatic circulation.
Why vets wrap a dog’s entire leg and paw
More than once I’ve seen dog owners and untrained vet staff place a bandage around the middle of a dog’s leg. Those are the most likely ones to cause a swollen foot.
With a tight band around the middle of the leg, blood can get into the tissue below the bandage but blood and lymphatic fluid can’t get out. Even a bandage that doesn’t seem that tight can lead to a swollen paw.
That’s why most veterinarians apply bandages all the way down to the dog’s toe area. It avoids the problem of fluid getting trapped in the foot area.
How to tell if a bandage is cutting off circulation on a dog (symptoms)
Circulation problems from a tight bandage range from mild to severe. Some of the effects depend on the nature of the wound that required the bandage, the dog’s age and health status, and especially how long the tight bandage has been in place.
Common symptoms we see when a dog’s leg or foot bandage is cutting off their circulation:
- Increased pain (can be hard to assess with injuries)
- Edema (puffy, swollen skin)
- Pale or bluish skin or paw pad color
- Cold to touch
- Loss of feeling in toes
- Oozing straw-colored or pinkish fluid
- Necrosis-dark color, hair pulls out easily, bad smell, peeling skin
You will probably need to remove the bandage to assess the condition of the foot if it covers the paw. If the toes are exposed just peeking out from the bandage, you might be able to see swelling, redness, etc.
I always advise my clients that, when in doubt, removing a bandage early is better than leaving it on too long. You might have to pay for a bandage change, but it’s better than your dog losing their foot!
What to do if your dog’s foot is swollen from a bandage
Here’s what I tell my clients to do when they think their dog’s foot is swollen from a bandage:
- Call your veterinarian or their designated emergency vet clinic for advice
- If you can’t contact anyone, consider removing the bandage at home if you can do so safely
- Assess the swollen foot for symptoms mentioned above
- Monitor the swelling for improvement over the next few hours
- Watch for new symptoms and report those to your vet
How do you reduce swelling from a tight bandage on a dog’s paw?
As stated above, in most cases, I advise my clients to remove their dog’s bandage completely if they think it is causing the foot to swell. Just removing the bottom of the bandage may not relieve the problem.
After removing the bandage in cases of dogs with mildly swollen toes, simply having them resume normal activity will clear the edema from the foot. Even in mild cases, if there is no improvement after a couple of hours, you need to seek veterinary care.
Depending on why your dog has a bandage in the first place, you may need to take them to an emergency clinic to have the bandage removed and replaced. Dogs with broken bones or major wounds would fall into this category.
The other consideration is that you must keep your dog from chewing on their wound or paw injury. It’s really common for a dog to lick and gnaw their foot after removing a tight bandage. They can cause a lot more damage than the bandage. Use an Elizabethan collar or go to an emergency vet clinic if you need help.
Will my dog’s swollen paw go down on its own?
If the paw has only been swollen for a few hours, it may go back to normal in a few hours after removing the bandage.
If there is extensive tissue damage after days of swelling, you will need to get treatment for it from a veterinarian. Some dog health conditions like diabetes and kidney disease can delay tissue healing.
In severe cases where there is no pulse in the foot and there is a lot of dead tissue present, amputation may be the best option.
Dog boots can also cut off circulation
Bandages aren’t the only thing that can cause a dog’s foot to swell. Dog boots, rubber bands, and rope/string can all cut off the circulation in a dog’s paw. Anything that applies pressure around the entire circumference of the leg, paw or toes can potentially cause fluid trapping below it.
That’s why you have to be really careful applying a bandage or a boot to your dog’s paw at home. Because dogs are so adept at removing bandages and boots, people end up putting them on too tight. Or the bandage material slips down and ends up getting tighter due to tissue swelling.
It happened to one of my dogs once when I had put a boot on her foot for a few hours to stop her from licking between her toes. I sort of forgot about it until she whined a little. When I took the boot off, her foot was all swollen!
Fortunately, it went back to normal after she walked around a bit, but swollen toes like that are scary to see as a veterinarian.
Is a swollen paw an emergency?
A dog with a swollen foot is definitely an emergency if you see any of the changes listed in the bulleted list above. But sometimes it’s hard to tell the extent of tissue damage right away, even for a vet.
I strongly recommend that you be very cautious if your dog’s foot is swollen and take them to a vet right away. Quick, proper treatment could mean the difference between healing and amputation.
Dog paw swelling as the result of having an improperly placed, soiled or slipping bandage is pretty common. Dog owners should take the situation very seriously even if they think the swelling is not severe.
Take your dog to your vet or an emergency vet clinic if you are in doubt about removing a bandage. Some injuries need to be rebandaged immediately by a professional.
Anderson, D. M., & White, R. A. (2000). Ischemic bandage injuries: a case series and review of the literature. Veterinary surgery, 29(6), 488-498.