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Why is my dog excessively licking their paws?

Though paw licking is a common behaviour in dogs, excessive licking could be an indication of a more serious problem. Your dog might simply be grooming themselves, but unusual paw chewing could indicate something more. Constant licking can also cause a secondary infection from bacteria or yeast due to the extra moisture.

“While humans with allergies often have sniffling and sneezing, animals with environmental allergies often show signs through their skin,” says vet Dr. Kristi Flynn.

Why do dogs lick in the first place?

Dogs are excellent at grooming themselves, this is the primary reason they lick themselves. You’ve probably noticed your dog licking their paws before snoozing on the sofa, which is normal. When the behaviour intensifies, it could be an issue, and the cause is often environmental.

“The most common cause of paw licking is generally environmental allergies, also called atopic dermatitis,” explains Dr. Flynn. “Other causes of licking paws can include ectopic parasites such as fleas or mites or referred pain from arthritis (licking the feet or limbs since they can’t reach the painful joint).”

The good news is that many of the causes of a dog’s paw licking can be resolved at home, and those that can’t are generally treatable with the help of allergy medications prescribed by your vet.

Common causes for paw licking

  1. Environmental allergies
  2. Flea allergies
  3. Food allergies
  4. Dry skin
  5. Injury or illness
  6. Obsessive or anxious behaviour
  7. Boredom.

1. Environmental allergies

Allergies like atopic dermatitis are common reactions to environmental factors like grass, mould spores, dust mites, and plant pollens; if your dog suffers from an allergy, ear-scratching and foot-licking will be likely. 

If you find your dog licking excessively and more frequently after trips to the park or walking around your local area, they likely have an environmental allergy. “Fortunately [there are] excellent treatment options for this, but an easy first step is to rinse the pollens and other allergens off the feet. This can also help remove bacteria and yeast, which can be involved in secondary infections,” notes Dr. Flynn. Symptoms of environmental allergies in dogs can include itchy skin and ears, paw licking, rashes and sometimes running eyes.

2. Flea allergies

When a dog’s immune system overreacts to flea saliva, they have flea allergy dermatitis (FAD). This allergic reaction irritates the skin, resulting in a highly itchy sensation for your furry pal. Dogs will typically scratch and lick their paws and bottom to soothe the itch caused by flea allergies. Fur loss, thickened skin, redness and hot spots are common symptoms of flea allergy dermatitis.

3. Food allergies 

Food allergies occur when your dog’s immune system overreacts to something in the ingested food. An important note is that a food allergy differs from a food sensitivity in that allergies will cause an immediate immune reaction rather than only digestive irritation. “Food allergies are rare in dogs and generally manifest as itching rather than facial swelling as we see in people,” adds Dr. Flynn. The most common foods that cause allergies in dogs include beef, dairy, wheat, egg, and chicken - symptoms to watch out for include itchy skin, chewing, hot spots, diarrhoea and vomiting.

You can get a personalised food recommendation using our handy tool.

4. Dry skin

Dry skin causes a dog’s skin to become irritated, cracked, and flaky. Many factors can cause flaky skin, including excessive bathing, which removes a dog’s natural oils, dry air, or the allergies mentioned above. It’s important to follow a good grooming schedule to ensure your dog’s coat stays healthy. If your dog has dry skin, you may notice overall itchiness, redness and dandruff. If you are concerned about your dog, always contact your vet for advice.

5. Injury or illness

Excessive licking could indicate an injury to the paw itself. In the summer, pet parents should watch out for more than just allergies as potential culprits. “There are also seasonal causes of paw licking such as a blown pad - where the surface is blistered or abraded off - caused by a dog running on hot [ground] or a rough surface like a tennis court,” says Dr. Flynn. “And in the winter, road salt can be very irritating and cause dogs to lick their paws.” While uncommon, Dr. Flynn notes there are more serious causes for concern with paw chewing, including deep soft tissue infections, toe fractures, nail bed disease, auto-immune disease, and even cancer.

6. Obsessive & anxious behaviour

It’s important to rule out any medical conditions before looking at behavioural issues, cautions Dr. Flynn. Dogs, like people, often seek ways to comfort themselves in times of stress. “This behaviour can be a form of self-soothing for pain, or in some cases anxiety,” says Dr. Flynn. Is there a change in environment (noises, routine, new pets, or people) that may have caused your dog to seek this form of stress relief? In addition to stress, some dogs have canine compulsive disorder, which is a form of OCD. Common compulsive behaviours for dogs with CCD include paw licking, toy/blanket sucking, tail licking and tail chasing. Try to identify the causes of your dog’s stressful and anxious behaviour and use redirection and exercise to relieve it.

7. Boredom

While any breed can experience boredom, it most typically affects working breeds, including but are not limited to: German Shepherds, German Shorthaired Pointers, Golden Retrievers, Great Danes, Irish Setters, Labrador Retrievers, and Pointers. When boredom sets in, dogs may distract themselves by licking.

How to prevent paw licking

Hot spots, lick dermatitis, and infections are secondary effects of excessive licking. If you think your dog is licking or chewing too much, you must prevent further licking and contact your vet for an evaluation.

“A dog will make a mountain out of a molehill and can do a lot of damage in a short amount of time,” Dr. Flynn cautions. “Rinsing the foot with lukewarm water then drying it thoroughly may help make the area more comfortable in the meantime.” While you are waiting to be seen by your vet, consider using a cone or basket muzzle to prevent injury.

You know your dog better than anyone else. To help identify an abnormal situation, you must first understand what is normal for your dog. Changes in health are often subtle or gradual, making the identification of problems more difficult.

When diagnosing your dog’s issue, your vet will need to know a detailed history of the problem, so keep a record. “Diagnosis is based on signalment (age and breed of dog), history (itch before rash or rash before itching), distribution of itching as well as diagnostic testing such as cytology or treatment trials,” says Dr. Flynn. “Pet parents should watch for itching that is more than what a normal dog would do - a few times a day, swelling or skin sores or lesions. Any of these warrants a visit to your vet.”

As always, if you have any concerns whatsoever - especially if the paw chewing is sudden, excessive, and persists for long periods - it is best to have your vet assess your dog.

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Written by:
Daniela Lopez
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