Ever looked at your dog’s feet and noticed webbing in between the toes?
If so, you were probably a little surprised. And we don’t blame you — webbed feet aren’t something we typically associate with dogs!
But believe it or not, all dogs have at least a little bit of webbing between their toes.
Usually, it’s so minimal as to be unnoticeable unless you’re looking for it. But on some breeds, it’s so pronounced that you might think you’ve got a duck-dog hybrid on your hands!
So why do dogs have webbed feet, and which breeds feature them most prominently? Let’s take a look!
What Is Webbing?
The term “webbing” refers to the thin, stretchy tissue that connects fingers and toes.
It can be made of skin, membrane or other types of tissue depending on the species.
Webbing increases the surface area of the hand or foot, enabling it to move more efficiently in water.
It relies on the same principle that makes boat paddles and diving flippers work. The greater and flatter the surface area, the greater the volume of water that can be pushed at a time.
And the more water you can push, the faster and more powerful you can swim.
Without webbing, water would simply flow right through the fingers or toes. Pushing through the water becomes a lot less efficient, and swimming uses a lot more energy.
Out of the water, webbed feet are better able to walk on mud and other slippery, semi-liquid surfaces. Rather than sinking into the goop or falling down, the animal remains on top of it.
That’s because the webbing redistributes the weight of the animal across a greater surface area. It’s similar to the way snowshoes redistribute our weight to let us walk on snow rather than trudge through it.
But true webbed feet, like those found on ducks, have the disadvantage of making it more difficult to walk on regular dry land.
That’s why geese, penguins and the like have such slow, clumsy gaits on land.
When we walk about dogs with webbed feet, we don’t mean full webbing like those animals have.
As we’re about to see, it’s a different kind of webbing, one that’s specially crafted during a dog’s gestation.
Webbing in the Womb
Early on in utero, dogs don’t look much like dogs at all.
Signature canine body parts like the tail, ears, and nose don’t become fully formed until later on in development. Young dog embryos look like hairless blobs as their energy is devoted to forming the internal organs.
But look closely at a dog embryo and you’ll notice something very curious: webbed feet.
In fact, all land vertebrates have webbed feet during their early days in the womb.
It’s likely a holdover from our evolutionary origins in the sea, where webbed feet would have been essential for mobility.
Most of the time, the webbing disappears as the fetus enters the later stages of development. But a few species and breeds carry genes that make the webbing persist.
Usually, animals that keep their webbing spend a lot of time in the water. Ducks, frogs, penguins, and platypuses are a few examples of semi-aquatic animals with webbed feet.
But you can still see evidence of webbing on strictly land-based animals. Take a look at your own hands and notice the tiny bit of skin that stretches in between your fingers — see, you’re webbed too!
Dogs with webbed feet fall somewhere in between the two extremes. They’ve got more webbing than we do, but less than waterfowl and frogs.
It’s a testament to the power of genetics and the ultra-detailed developmental process. In a way, dogs with webbed feet have the best of both worlds.
Dog Breeds with Webbed Feet
Historically, dog breeds with webbed feet were used for retrieving and hunting — two jobs that often involve getting wet.
These types of working dogs need to be excellent swimmers in order to find and catch fish, waterfowl and other aquatic prey..
Let’s meet a few of these special breeds with webbed feet!
Portuguese Water Dog
Portuguese Water Dogs were first described in 1297 when a monk reported of a drowning sailor who was pulled from the water by a dog matching the description of a Portuguese Water-Dog.
The breed is an important part of Portuguese fishing culture. Its webbed feet make it an excellent swimmer and an invaluable member of many fishing boat crews.
At sea, the Portguese Water Dog can corral fish into nets, carry messages and objects between ships and retrieve lost or fallen items.
Today, there are over 10,000 Portuguese Water Dogs registered worldwide. That’s a dramatic increase from just 900 in 1995!
America’s most popular dog breed sports the same unique webbed feet as many rarer breeds. If you know a Lab, take a peek between his toes and see for yourself!
Labradors absolutely love water, and they’re definitely built for it too. Aside from the webbed toes, Labradors have broad tails and tight coats that repel water and dry quickly.
A relatively young breed, Labradors were first described in 1830. They were originally bred by hunters to retrieve kills from the water, but their friendly personalities and sensitive souls have made them one of the best companion dog breeds.
Despite its recent origins, the Labrador’s rise to fame has been extraordinary: it’s taken home the title of “most popular breed” 27 years in a row!
You might not expect a giant like the Newfoundland to be a very adept swimmer. Those bulky bones and dense muscles seem like they’d make a dog sink like a stone!
But their webbed feet plus their extreme strength made Newfoundlands a necessary member of many a Canadian fishing boat crew in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
Able to pull fallen sailors back on board, Newfoundlands acted as sentient life preservers on the rough seas. But they were also brought along on inland adventures.
Most notably, a Newfoundland named Seaman accompanied Lewis and Clark along both legs of their voyage from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean and back.
Today, the 150-pound Newfoundland is kept as both a working dog and a pet. As a companion, it’s known for its sweet temperament and propensity for cuddling as if it’s a tenth of its size.
Chesapeake Bay Retriever
In the 19th century, duck hunting clubs were all the rage along the Atlantic coast of the U.S. In particular, the waters of the Chesapeake Bay off the coast of Maryland and Virginia were a hotspot for waterfowl hunting.
But the waters of the bay were freezing cold for half the year. So hunting dog breeders developed the Chesapeake Bay Retriever, a dog with webbed feet, a double-layered insulating coat, and a broad chest for pushing through ice.
It ended up being one of the most effective breeds of hunting dog, with some catching over 300 ducks a day!
A tireless, waterproof dog with exceptional swimming abilities and a high tolerance for cold, the Chesapeake Bay Retriever is still employed by hunters today.
But it’s also gained popularity as a pet: it’s the 45th most popular breed (out of 195) in America.
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Other Dog Breeds with Webbed Feet
These four breeds are far from the only ones with webbed feet.
Others include the German Wirehaired Pointer, the Weimaraner, the Otterhound and even the Dachshund.
Specialized hunting breeds like the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever and the American Water Spaniel also sport webbed feet.
"If you think dogs can’t count, try putting three dog biscuits in your pocket and then give him only two."
-- Phil Pastoret