It is very frustrating when you watch your dog incessantly and obsessively licking their paws, especially when they lose interest in everything around them.
There are specific reasons for this behavior, and it is up to you, as the owner, to try to figure out what the problem may be. If the behavior appears suddenly, continues for an extended period of time, or is accompanied by bleeding, swelling, limping, or odor, the best thing to do is to see a veterinarian and have them do the investigative work with the right diagnostic tools.
While it’s normal for dogs to groom their paws every now and then, too much licking is often indicative of an underlying problem.
Don’t let your dog’s paw-licking get out of hand! Sometimes, it can become an addicting habit that is difficult to eradicate. Dogs who lick their paws excessively often develop stains on the fur of their feet (if they are light-colored), swelling and sometimes excessive licking may cause moisture to become trapped between the dog’s toes, making it an ideal setting for an opportunistic infection.
Once inflammation or an infection sets in, a vicious cycle forms, triggering the dog to lick even more, further contaminating his paws with more bacteria which impairs the healing process.
What Does It Mean When a Dog Licks or Chews Their Paws All the Time?
- GI issues
- Displacement Behavior
- Hormonal imbalance
- Dry skin
- Fleas and ticks
- Deicing salts and cold weather
Licking One Paw Only
If your dog suddenly starts licking their paws, then it is usually indicative of pain or irritation, especially if they are licking only one paw.
If the licking is limited to one paw, then this often suggests that the source of trouble is right there on the paw. The pain in that area can be caused by anything, such as wounds, insect bites, a thorn, a piece of embedded glass, a broken nail, etc.
Licking and Limping
If you do not see anything, don’t ignore it. Take your pet to the vet as soon as possible. Sometimes there may be something going on at a deeper level, such as a muscle sprain or some type of inflammation or fracture, especially if the licking is accompanied by limping.
2. Allergies or Yeast Infection
Chronic licking is usually attributed to allergies that can be traced to just about anything. It could be the food, the chemicals in your yard, your carpet cleaning products, weeds, and so much more.
For example, if your dog is licking their paws after walking, then the itching is likely caused by pesticides found in the grass or by the grass and weeds themselves. Clean your dog’s feet with a wet wipe after going for a walk to prevent further irritation.
Finding the real cause of the itchiness can be a very frustrating ordeal. It may take some enormous investigative work to figure what your dog is allergic to, and it is best to run a blood test with the vet so you can treat the root cause of the problem rather than just giving your dog anti-histamines to cover the problem.
If you suspect a yeast infection, then it is usually caused by a poor diet. Sometimes the simplest treatment for hair loss and itching is switching out your dog’s food, ask your vet for advice. Make sure to provide quality foods full of specific nutrients and vitamins that are beneficial for the gut and the skin.
Causes and Treatment for Dog Allergies
|Food||Common ingredients that cause allergic reactions include beef, chicken, pork, corn, wheat, and soy. They can also be allergic to artificial additives. Have the vet run a food allergy test. Avoid cheap commercial foods and try to feed them an all-natural diet.|
|Mold, Grass/Weeds, and Pollen||Wash food and water bowls frequently. Don’t let your dog out into the yard during high pollen season or right after you cut the lawn. Clean your dog’s feet with a wet wipe after going for a walk to prevent further irritation.|
|Dust Mites||Vacuum often or limit your dog to carpet-less areas. Wash your dog’s bedding weekly. Change furnace and air conditioning filters.|
|Prescription Drugs||Speak to your vet. They might be able to prescribe another brand.|
|Flea-Control Products, Cleaning Products, and Perfumes||Avoid using these.|
|Insecticidal Shampoo||Avoid using if you suspect this is the cause.|
|Rubber or plastic material||Use glass or stainless steel food and water bowls.|
3. GI Issues
A dog who licks their paws excessively may sometimes be suffering from GI issues. According to a clinical study conducted by a group of researchers, 19 dogs that were showing signs of excessive licking were compared with 10 healthy dogs.
On top of taking medical and behavioral histories and conducting a thorough physical and neurological examination, the dogs underwent an abdominal ultrasound, endoscopic examination, and biopsies of the stomach and duodenum were taken.
The research revealed that 14 out of the 19 licking dogs were found to have some sort of GI abnormalities such as lymphocytic-plasmacytic infiltration, chronic pancreatitis, and gastric foreign body.
Modern times have created an environment of boredom for dogs. Once used to walking, hunting and scavenging, dogs today are often left at home in a small yard, or, worse, in a crate for many hours a day. High-energy dogs may become frustrated, and often engage in destructive activities that may include excessive licking and chewing of the paws.
- Don’t leave your dog at home alone for long periods of time.
- If you must leave your dog alone, give him/her a Kong to keep occupied.
- Give your dog frequent times to play and exercise. Take your dog for a walk or to play fetch at the park for at least 30 minutes each day.
- Allow your pup to socialize with other people and other dogs (if well socialized).
- Don’t keep your dog confined to a crate or tied in the backyard.
Anxious dogs often try to find relief by licking themselves excessively. The causes of such anxiety may vary and range from separation anxiety to obsessive-compulsive disorders. In this way, paw-licking or chewing is similar to human nail-biting.
Dogs may often lick their paws before bed or lick themselves to sleep. This is just their way of relaxing and soothing themselves. If there is no redness or swelling, this type of paw-licking should not be a concern.
Causes of Anxiety:
- Lack of proper exercise
- Separation from owner for long periods of time
If the licking becomes compulsive and excessive, dogs may lick themselves raw and develop unsightly ulcers often referred to as ”lick granuloma.” It is still not completely understood whether lick granulomas are triggered by anxiety or if they are the cause of anxiety. It’s a “chicken or egg” scenario.
6. Displacement Behavior
Sometimes, dogs may lick their paws as a displacement behavior. Displacement behaviors in dogs occur when they are facing conflicts and display some out of context behaviors that seem rather unrelated. Let’s see some examples of displacement behaviors in both animals and humans.
A broody chicken that cannot decide whether to send away a human from her nest or return to the nest, may decide to scratch her beak on the ground. In a similar fashion, chewing on a pen or twisting your ring when you feel mildly stressed and not sure on how to proceed in a situation.
Recently, a dog I had over for boarding and training was often chewing her right paw. Interestingly, the paw chewing occurred when she was frustrated about something. For example, it would almost always occur without fail when her toy dropped to the floor. It also occurred when she couldn’t have something that she desired.
With training and impulse control exercises for dogs, her paw chewing dramatically improved and her visible staining on her paw disappeared!
7. Hormonal Imbalance
When a dog has a hormonal imbalance, they either produce too much cortisol (otherwise known as Cushing’s disease) or doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism), which increases a dog’s susceptibility to developing skin issues such as red spots, balding, and brittle hair. Licking these irritated red spots or bald patches can lead to a secondary infection.
8. Dry Skin
Dry skin can be breed specific or caused by over-bathing or a dry environment.
- Breed Specific: Hairless breeds are often prone to a variety of skin conditions because they don’t have the natural protection that hair provides. Breeds in this category include the Chinese Crested, the Xoloitzcuintli, and the American Hairless Terrier.
- Weather: Dry skin is also common among dogs living in cold and dry climates. If this is the case, ask your veterinarian to recommend a natural dog lotion or oil to relieve the dryness. If you are worried that oils will leave a mess around the house, feeding them quality vitamins and oil supplements is one of the best remedies for dry skin.
- Bathing Habits: You should avoid excessive bathing and the use of harsh soaps.
9. Fleas or Ticks
Fleas and ticks cause severe itchiness that can lead to compulsive paw licking and chewing. The condition can get even worse if your dog is allergic to fleas. In addition to using insecticides and flea medication, make sure to rid your house of fleas. If your pet is allergic to cleaning products or over-the-counter medications, there are non-toxic ways to get rid of fleas and prevent them from coming back.
10. Deicing Salts and Cold Weather
If your dog only licks their paws during the winter, then the cause may be deicing salts or sore paws caused by ice balls.
- Deicing Salts: The salts used to melt ice on driveways and roads can lead to chemical burns on your dog’s feet. Avoid areas that are sprayed with deicing products or give your pet boots to wear when going outside during the winter. You should also keep a bowl of warm water and a towel near the door, so you can wash off your pup’s feet and prevent them from ingesting the toxic salts.
- Ice Balls: Ice balls form between hairy toes when snow gets caught in the fur. It can lead to cracking, bleeding, and hair pulling, which is really painful. Keep hair between the pads and toes trimmed and short during the winter. If you have a really hairy dog, there are ways to prevent the formation of ice balls, including rubbing Crisco between the pads and into the fur.
How to Solve the Problem for Good
The cause of your dog’s irritation may have been something simple like a mosquito bite, but their chewing and licking may have worsened the problem and caused a secondary infection. You must simultaneously stop your dog from licking their paws AND find a cure to relieve the itchiness.
How to Stop Your Dog From Licking Their Paws
- Have your pet wear an Elizabethan collar or cone
- Distract your dog with toys to chew
- Provide stuffed Kongs to keep his mind occupied
Home Remedies for Itchy Paws
- If your dog has allergies or is suffering from dry skin, use a steam vaporizer or a humidifier in your home. The steam brings back moisture to the dry air and also prevents your dog’s nasal passages from clogging up with mucus. Make sure to clean the humidifier to prevent mold; otherwise, the irritation may get worse.
- Wipe your dog’s paws any time from coming outside in case the allergy is due to something your dog walks on. Use a damp wash cloth.
- Make a 10 minutes foot soak made with cool water and an oatmeal shampoo designed for dogs. The water helps rinse off any allergens and the water’s cool temperature soothes itchy skin.
- Give your dog a high-quality fish oil supplement rich with omega fatty acids. The fish oil strengthens your dog’s immune system and it acts as an anti-inflammatory, but it may take 8 to 12 weeks to kick in.
Vet Treatment for Paw Licking in Dogs
Treatment, of course, is based on the underlying causes.
- Anxiety: If a dog is anxious, find out the cause of anxiety. Prevention is always better than medication. If you cannot remove your dog from the thing or situation that is causing anxiety, then sedatives may be prescribed. Pheromone plugins may be helpful, and so are Bach Flowers.
- Allergies: Some allergies may require anti-histamines and, in severe cases, only steroid shots. Steroids have nasty side-effects, so use this as a last resort and do not use it on a long-term basis. Again, the best way to remedy allergies is to avoid the stimulant that is causing irritation.
- Food allergies: if the allergy is likely to your dog’s food, you vet will likely prescribe a special diet containing one novel animal protein (rabbit, duck, e.g.) or diets where proteins have been chemically altered (hydrolyzed).
Understanding Paw Licking in Dogs
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.