Dogs lick their paws for many reasons. While occasional paw licking is normal and part of their self-grooming process, excessive, frequent and aggressive licking may be a red flag for a more serious problem. Skin issues, injuries, allergies, boredom or anxiety may all be factors leading to your pup’s habit.
The first thing you should do is inspect your dog’s paws to make sure there are no injuries. A cut, torn nail, growth or something stuck between the pads like a stone, thorn or any other small object could be causing the discomfort. Your dog may have stepped on something sharp, gotten a bug bite, walked on salted or hot sidewalks or gotten a blister. Some of these problems can be relieved by a simple first aid treatment, while others require treatment by a veterinarian.
Older dog’s who lick their paws and legs may be attempting to alleviate joint pain from arthritis. It’s important to stay up-to-date with regular wellness visits to your veterinarian to help ensure your dog maintains a healthy weight and active lifestyle. Your veterinarian can often catch early signs of osteoarthritis and may recommend joint supplements & medications, physical therapy, weight management or veterinary acupuncture.
Flea Allergy Dermatitis
The most common cause of dermatitis is flea allergy dermatitis, which is a reaction to flea bites. Some dogs are allergic to flea saliva. Affected dogs will typically scratch and lick in an attempt to soothe the itch resulting in symptoms of fur loss, redness, paw licking and hot spots. Your veterinarian can recommend treatments to eliminate and prevent parasites, which should relieve the itching.
Food allergies occur when your dog’s immune system overreacts to some of the protein or carbohydrates in the ingested food. Food sensitivities are typically a gradual reaction to an offending ingredient in your dog’s food. These symptoms may not occur immediately after eating the food but rather may take time to develop. The most common foods that cause allergies in dogs include beef, dairy, wheat, egg and chicken. Dogs lick to relieve the itchiness caused by food allergy and symptoms can include itchy rash, hot spots, paw licking, diarrhea and vomiting. The best way to diagnose and treat a food allergy is to work with your veterinarian to manage your dog’s symptoms and they may recommend and formulate an elimination food trial to help determine the ingredient that is causing the reaction. These allergies are often seen year round, even in the dead of winter when the ground is frozen and other environmental allergy exposure is low.
Atopic dermatitis, or “environmental allergies,” is an inherited predisposition to develop allergic symptoms following repeated exposure to environmental allergens, such as dust, pollen, mold, grasses and other triggers. In many cases, these are seasonal, so you may only notice your dog itching during certain times of the year. Atopic dermatitis is one of the most common causes of itching in dogs, just behind flea allergy dermatitis. These allergies may also result in ear and body scratching, ear and skin infections and foot licking.
If you find your dog licking excessively or more frequently in the spring and fall, they may have an environmental allergy. People often get itching and runny eyes with seasonal allergies and dogs often lick at their feet and get itchy on their bodies. If you notice a rust colored staining on your dog’s feet, this may be a sign of increased foot licking. The staining comes from a pigment in the saliva called porphyrin.
Take a close look at your dog’s daily environment. Your dog may be allergic to certain types of grass, plants, trees, mold, dust mites or forage mites (mites found in dry food) or even an ingredient in their diet. One of these could lead your dog to develop dermatitis, otitis (ear infections), itching and foot licking.
After ruling out other underlying problems, your veterinarian might recommend medications, a diet change or other treatments to help relieve your dogs scratching and licking.
Just like humans, a dog can have dry skin that can become irritated, cracked and flaky (dandruff). Excessive bathing, dry humidity or allergies can cause flaky, dry skin in dogs. Your veterinarian can recommend a good grooming schedule to follow and products to use to ensure your dog’s coat stays healthy.
Stress & Anxiety
If you and your veterinarian have ruled out underlying health problems, then your dog may be suffering from a behavioral issue like anxiety or stress. Dogs, like people, often seek ways to comfort themselves in times of stress. Licking releases soothing endorphins to help dogs feel calm. Changes in household routine, conflicts with other animals and separation anxiety can lead to “stress-relief” licking. Try to identify the causes of your dog’s stressful and anxious behavior and use exercise and redirection to relieve it.
When boredom sets in, a dog may distract themselves by licking for something to do.
To alleviate boredom, consider taking him on walks in new areas, letting him take his time sniffing, runs, or playtime with other dogs. Try introducing him to a fun dog sport like nose work or rally, or rotating interesting puzzle toys. These activities can use up more mental and physical energy.
It’s important to remember that licking behavior can be a sign of serious health problems and can lead to further damage. The moist environment created by excessive licking can lead to a secondary bacterial or yeast infection – making matters much worse! Don’t wait too long and work with your veterinarian to determine the cause of your dog’s paw licking so that you can find the appropriate solution. Be prepared to tell your vet about the food and supplements your dog receives, his daily routine and the detergents and household cleaners you use. The vet may run diagnostic tests that include skin scrapings, a fungal culture or blood work. Schedule your appointment today.