Why Is My Dog Licking Its Paws So Much?

Ron Hines DVM PhD

Another article on lick-related issues

 Our feet when we lick too much 

How about Cytopoint® or Apoquel®?

What about Atopica®?   

Might a home-cooked diet help?

 Phobias part of the problem? 

Why Does My Dog Do This?

That is one of the most common question that dog owners ask their veterinarians. Licking and fretting over their paws is part of a dog’s normal grooming behavior. It is part and parcel of their subconscious body language – just like tapping your feet or playing with your hair. It only becomes a problem when your pet does it in excess or carries it to the extreme.

When your pet licks and nibbles its front paws and forearms compulsively, it is either do to paw irritation or it has become a way for your pet to deal with boredom or stress or both. A few cases are quite easy for your veterinarian to solve – a broken toenail, a splinter, a bacterial or fungal infection, contact sensitivities. But most cases are complicate, complex and exasperating, without simple solutions.

Some cases are a prelude to generalized itchy skin problems; but many times they never progress beyond your pet’s toes.

To Answer Why, We Need To Sort Out The Clues:

Your Dog’s Breed and Temperament

Certain breeds seem to suffer from paw licking issues more than others. Among those breeds are Labrador retrievers, terriers of all kinds, poodles, chihuahuas and Maltese. White and blond-haired breeds may not be more prone to paw licking, but when they do have the problem, their saliva discolors their paw fur and makes it more apparent. Compulsiveness seems to be the common thread and it is often linked to your pet’s individual genetics. 

Highly alert, hard working breeds are more likely to relieve stress and boredom through over grooming and paw licking – breeds like greyhounds, dalmatians, and cattle dogs.

At What Point In Your Dog’s Life Did The Problem Begin?

Paw licking problems run in dog families (lines). If your pet’s parents or siblings shared this problem, it more likely to be a family trait than an acquired issue. Dogs in this group often began to lick their paws in their second year. They often cannot be entirely cured – but many things can be done to make the behavior less of a problem.

Dogs that began the activity later in life are more likely to respond to environmental, lifestyle and dietary adjustments.

The Context Of The Licking And Chewing – When Does Your Pet Do It?

If your dogs worries its paws only in one or two situations – say when it is left alone, during certain times of the day or after visiting the groomers – you have a better chance of modifying that behavior. Many of those solutions hinge on environmental enrichment which I’ll get to later.

Just One Paw, Two or Four?

When only one paw of your dog is being licked, the problem is almost always within that paw. It could be a broken toenail or one worn too short or left so long that it curled. It could be a thorn or splinter in the pad or a burr lodged between the toes. It could be a foot pad cut by some sharp object. It could be a bone in the foot that had been fractured or arthritis most prominent in a single joint. In older dogs, it might be a skin tumor. It could be that an interdigital (between the toes) abscess has formed on that foot. (Considerably rarer, it is due to a lack of normal feeling in the foot subsequent to nerve damage or heredity [ read here ] .)

Occasionally a dog will develop a lick granuloma (a raw area with raised edges) on the upper surface of its paw. You can read more about that problem and how one might deal with it here.

An Otherwise Clean Bill Of Health?

It is always wise to be sure that a paw-licking problem in your dog is not part of a broader-based health issue(s). Ear infections, hair loss, musty odor (seborrheic dermatitis) , discharge from the eyes, sneezing and rashes can indicate that more than your pet’s paws are involved. They can be signs that your dog is itchy – something often related to allergies, fleas or contact sensitivities. So your veterinarian might suggest a general health screen or profile that includes a group of blood tests and microscopic skin scraping examinations to rule out a broader-based problem. That is particularly true when simple methods of control have failed or the problem reoccurs multiple times.

What Are The Triggers That Start My Dog’s Licking Cycles?

Keep a diary and record things that appear to make your pet’s problem worse. Is this a seasonal problem ? Does the dog worry its paws mostly when you are away? Does it usually occur after the dog has been groomed? Did the problem begin suddenly and, if so, what events preceded it? Does the problem appear worse after the pet has been out in the yard? Is it more common after periods of rain? Does it get better when you and your pet are visiting a different location? Has your pet recently gained or lost substantial weight ? Has its general activity level changed? Does it limp or appear stiff? If the problem occurs during your absence, does destructive or bizarre behavior also occur during those times too?

What Tests Might My Veterinarian Perform To Determine The Cause?

Veterinarians have a myriad of sophisticated tests available to them that make it considerably easier than it once was to diagnose medical problems. But when it comes to paw licking, the oldest tests of them all, a careful physical examination of your dog and a good account of your pet’s history, are still the most important. In over 80% of paw-licking dogs, those sophisticated tests will be normal. Never-the-less, blood tests, microscopic skin scrapings and perhaps even x-rays need to be included in most workups because the 20% or so of the cases in which they reveal something are the 20% that can be the easiest to treat successfully. Those are dogs with sluggish thyroid glands (hypothyroidism) , dogs with certain autoimmune disorders ( pemphigus ), those with sarcoptic mange or demodectic mange, those with  fungal skin infections or uncomplicated bacterial infections. Through the process of eliminating all those causes – as well as ending flea exposure –  it leave boredom, compulsive behavior, anxiety or allergies as the most likely underlying cause (in quite a few dogs more than one cause underlies the licking problem).  When it comes to allergies, blood-based allergy testing is of very little help in determining if allergies really the underlying cause. That is because these tests give too many false-positive and false negative results. ( read here ) Just putting your dog on one of the allergy-relief hydrolyzed protein diets for a month or two is a considerably better test.

Tell Me More About The Common Causes:

Boredom And Individual Temperament

Self-grooming and snoozing are the natural ways that dogs pass their time when they are not concentrating on other matters. Their ancestors, the wolves, spent most of their time hunting for food, interacting with their pack and cleansing their bodies after the hunt. Only 3-14% of their hunts are successful, so they do not stay in one place long. About thirty five % of their time is spent traveling and about half of their day keeping an eye out for food. Your dog has it easy. It has so much more idle time on its hands than its ancestors ever did. You will need to fill that extra time with non-destructive activities if you want your dog to remain healthy. One way is to make mealtime more challenging with puzzle feeders, multiple small meals or feeders that dispense only small portions at a time. A whole science has sprung up that focuses on ways to relieve the boredom and stress in dogs and cats. It is called environmental enrichment. All environmental enrichment relies on distraction, complicating the simple repetitive activities of daily life, playing games, interacting with other family members and pets and positive reinforcement techniques. Read suggestions online as to how to create a more stimulating, distracting environment for your dog. 

Your pet’s individual temperament and frustration level also has a lot to do with many paw-licking problem. High strung, active breeds just require more stimulating activities during the day than more laid back individuals or breeds. But the opposite can also be true. Dogs that are inactive for any reason spend more time grooming themselves. Mobility issues that occur as the result of arthritis, obesity or the lower activity and metabolism levels of hypothyroidism can also lead to paw licking.

There is a practical way to separate boredom and anxiety-based psychological reasons for licking from physical causes. I never suggest a dog receive long-term medications without a good reason; but Zoetis’  Cytopoint®  medication was designed to primarily target a messenger compound (IL31) that plays a large part in itch sensation. If a single test injection of this medication does not decrease licking of the area rapidly (within a week), your dog’s problem is probably psychological rather than a true itch. You can read about Cytopoint® here . If Cytopoint® does stop the problem, you have to decide if the licking is a serious enough issue for your dog and you to warrant the risks that all powerful medications entail.

Allergies – Canine Atopy

I suspect that allergies top the list of the physical reasons why dogs lick their paws excessively. The most common of those allergies are to the things that dogs inhale – probably the same ones that would cause hay fever in us. Grass pollen is high on the list, as are mold spores, weed and tree pollen. Food allergies in dogs and cats are much rarer. When food allergies are present, gastrointestinal signs ( diarrhea) are generally a large part of the issue as well. That said, there is no downside to trying a month of hypoallergenic diet diet and see if it has positive effects. 

Just as in humans, things found indoors, like dust mites, cockroaches and cat dander are often culprits too. When allergies are the root cause of a paw-licking problem, with time, the dog’s whole body, particularly its flanks tend to become itchy as well. Other skin problems, like a musty odor, hair loss, excessive shedding, ear infections and matter at the inner corners of your dog’s eyes are likely to occur also. Although these problem often begins seasonally, with time they usually progresses to a year-round problem. You can read more about allergy problems in dogs here.

Contact Allergies and Irritants

When you suspect that the cause of paw licking is allergic and the problem never progresses to a general body itchiness, explore the possibility that your pet might be allergic to substances that end up on its paws. Is the problem worse when it returns from the yard or a walk? Does the problem go away while the dog is away from your home for extended periods? Does a foot rinse basin or pre-moistened, hypoallergenic, non-scented skin wipes alleviate or reduce the problem? Did the problem begin when you started using some cleaning or odor control product or moved to a new home? Toy breeds, perhaps because of their temperament, seem particularly prone to this problem.

Persistently wet paws, either from a damp environment, licking or from excessive sweating, will eventually cause paw infections and inflammation.

Food Allergies – Often Discussed, But Rarely The Cause

Food allergies are not high on my list of causes of paw licking. A lot of attention is paid to them because marketers and veterinarians push these more profitable “hypoallergenic” diet lines. They are also popular because providing them to your pet is a low-effort, easy thing to do with little or no downside. Treated your dog with lifestyle changes and/or medication is time-consuming and more expensive. Because most dog owners end up combining these diets with other forms of treatment, their effectiveness is quite difficult to judge.

Anything that an animal hospital front desk person or technician can sell you makes life easier for a veterinarian like me. That said, a two-month trial on one of these products is always worth a try because it would be so so nice if it truly did work – just don’t get your hopes up too high.

As I mentioned about blood allergy tests earlier, the fact that a blood test determined that your pet was “sensitive” to some meat protein or grain product does not make these hypoallergenic products much more likely to be helpful. here is that same reference .

Fleas

A very common cause of excessive paw licking are fleas. Some veterinarians might put them at the very top of the list. A flea problem is sometimes diagnosed as a “staph” problem. When staphylococcus are isolated from raw areas on your dog’s feet they are almost always the result, not the cause, of the problem. Staph normally reside on your dog’s body. Healthy skin barriers keep them from causing mischief. But when a dog licks, it keeps the area damp and disrupts those skin barriers as it licks and chews. That causes the staph infections and boils that sometimes appear between your pet’s toes. Read more about staph infections further down in this article. Fleas themselves are rarely found on the paws. The fact that no fleas or flea dirt are found on your pet is still no guarantee that fleas are not the cause or a contribution to the paw-licking problem. That is because in many dogs with flea-bite sensitivity, the itching resulting from a bite, or even the presence of a flea that did not bite, goes on for a long time after the flea has left. Even if fleas are not the only cause of your pet’s licking, they may well make a low level problem into a much worse problem. So no matter what the final diagnosis, fleas are something you need to be vigilant about prevent. Some of these cases are true allergies to the flea saliva that gets injected when it bites. You can read an article of mine on fleas and what to do about them here . There are some great new oral flea control medications you can read about here.

Psychological Causes – Obsessive Compulsive Behavior , Anxiety And Stress

Quirky behavior, idiosyncrasies and vices are common in dogs that lick their paws excessively. When your dog shows those behaviors, its psychological makeup is probably a major factor in its licking. Those should not be seen as negative behaviors. Who would want a dog that did not miss you when you were gone, that did not sense your life stresses or want to be just another family member? It only means that your dog might have heightened sensibilities that make it prone to over reacting to those type of issues when they are confronted. Other aspects of those same traits might be the things you love about your dog the most. Some forms of stress are obvious, new family members, a new home and neighborhood, new pets next door. But many are much more subtle and all can cause a dog to over groom. Dogs go through life stages just as we do. What made us content once may no longer bring contentment today. What caused us no anxiety in the past may be unwelcome in our lives now. Activities that occupied our time in the past may be beyond our capacities today.

There is no cure for compulsiveness nor one for excessive anxiety – but licking and other unwanted behaviors associated with it can be minimized by diverting your dogs attention to other activities and doing your best to return its environment to the way it was before the problem began. Miraculous cures (as dog whisperers and the Animal Planet present) are few, but improvements are many. You can read more about techniques that help dogs with another forms of this problem here

Bacterial And Fungal Paw Infections

Dogs in good general health almost never get bacterial or fungal foot infections out of the blue. Generally, it is vice versa – their nibbling and licking and the persistent dampness that produces that causes the infection. It still needs to be treated by your veterinarian. It is always better to give needed antibiotics orally because anything applied to the paws will be quickly licked off. Abnormal odor, pain, redness, swelling and limping are the most common signs of these infections.

Bone Joint and Toenail Problems

Dogs that have difficulty getting around due to age-related arthritis spend more time licking and grooming. So do dogs that are overweight. Read about solutions to that here. Dogs that have joint problems, dogs with thin skin due to Cushing’s disease and hypothyroid dogs with lowered immunity are all more likely to injure their skin and paws. These are generally older pets. When you get your next dog, when your child tells you he/she wants a dog, when your friend and neighbor tells you he/she is thinking about a new dog, Have them read this article first:

Some dogs are real stinkers about letting you clip their toenails to a proper safe length. Many owners are fearful that they might clip a nail too short and it will bleed or cause pain to their pet. Your fear transfers to your dog as well, complicating the problem. However toenails that have overgrown begin to twist the joints of the toes, resulting in joint damage and pain. That pain is occasionally the cause of paw licking. Overgrown toenails are also more likely to snag and break. Nails can actually spiral back into the paw itself causing a very painful, infected lesion that your dog will continuously lick.

Combination Cases

It is not unusual for a combination of the causes I already mentioned to all be in play in the same pet.

Treatments Options:

1. Begin by making lifestyle adjustments for your pet, based on the causes you decide are most likely. Since flea exposure is so common with this problem, always include a monthly advance topical or oral monthly flea preventative. If your pet visits doggy parks or kennels, mist them with a quick knock-down product on their way home. If the problem began after a lifestyle change, try to return things as much as possible to as they were.

2. Exercise your pet more.

3. Change your pet’s diet. Decrease the amount per feeding but increase the number of feedings. Feed your pet in interesting, novel and challenging ways. Consider a home-cooked diet made from the same ingredients you eat. Read more about that here. Consider wisely chosen bone treats to help you pet pass the time. ( read here )

4. Try behavior modification techniques. There are dog trainers that specialize in that type of behavior modification. You will find oodles of suggestions in books and on the Internet. Some may be helpful, some probably won’t be and some are downright silly. Those that involve the purchase of a nutritional product or supplement – particularly from the website owner – are in my opinion all worthless.

5. If that was not sufficient, consider specialty dog socks – some similar to this image:   Socks need to “breath” and be changed frequently so your dog’s paws do not stay damp or contaminated. If your dog will not keep them on, don’t feel guilty about using a comfortable, well-fitting plastic muzzle when your dog is left alone. A muzzle similar to this one:  I believe that physical deterrents like these, used primarily during flare-ups , are much more humane than methods that rely on punishment or powerful mind-altering medications.

6. If your pet has developed paw infections, they need to be treated with antibiotics or antiseptics and socks or gloves need to be used to allow the pet’s feet to heal. Because those infections are the result of licking – not the cause of licking, they will return if the underlying urge to lick is not solved or lessened. Giving antibiotics for more than 14 days or repeating them frequently is not a good idea as eventually the bacteria will become resistant to them – a danger to your pet’s health and your health.

7. If advanced age has slowed your pet down, consider a weight loss program for overweight dogs and/or one of the newer dog-specific NSAIDs to combat the pain of arthritis. Be sure that x-rays confirm that problem. You can read more about the management of older dogs with these problem here and here

8. Antihistamines like  Benadryl® or cyproheptadine are generally ineffective in discouraging paw licking. When they do have a positive effect, it is probably just due to the general sedation (sleepiness) that these drugs and others like them produce. Ask your veterinarian for the appropriate dose and frequency if you decide to give them a try. Tranquilizers and sedatives such as acepromazine will sedate your dog, make it lick less and sleep more. But with time, these type of medications tend to become less effective. Probably more effective than antihistamines is a foot bath containing baking soda. Track your dog through it when you come in from a walk to removed pollen and irritants. Then pat its feet dry.

9. Veterinarians dispense various human antidepressants and some approved for dogs in an attempt to reduce obsessive compulsive behaviors. The most common ones used are clomipramine (Clomacalm®) and fluoxetine (Prozac®, Reconcile®).

10. Medicated shampoos can be helpful if the problem is itch-related. If it is no more than a habit or vice, they are unlikely to be of much help. Topical sprays and ointments that contain poorly-absorbed corticosteroids (beclomethasone etc. ) can also be helpful. But these products must be thoroughly massaged into the pets skin or covered with a sock or bandage. These products are designed to act locally to suppress itching. If they are left uncovered on the surface they are quickly licked off and swallowed where their effect is lost or causes body-wide effects. Swallowing those medications (or hydrocortisone-containing creams) can lead to steroid side effects ( Cushing’s-like symptoms ). 

11. Bitters sprays. I have never found them to be effective.

The Dangers Of Steroid Overuse

When paw licking is due to itchy paws, your veterinarian can stop the problem abruptly with corticosteroids given by injection or in pill form. That is rarely if ever a good idea. Corticosteroids, given in that way, affect the whole body. With time, they will cause serious side effects.

The same goes for products, like Atopica®, that suppress your pet’s immune system.

Things That Never Work:

Remedies sold without a prescription on Internet Websites – Particularly with testimonials (even when seen in ads on this website)
Bitters sprays
Alcohol containing products
Hot sauce
Nutritional supplements
Elizabethan collars
Punishment or a scolding voice
Shock collars

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