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Why Do Dogs Lick Their Paws? Common Causes and Solutions

Dogs will inevitably lick their paws from time to time as part of their regular grooming routine, but if your dog is licking their paws excessively, this could indicate an underlying issue. This article explores the most common reasons for dogs to lick and chew their paws and how to stop your dog from doing this long-term.

Normal paw licking vs. excessive paw licking

Your dog will inevitably give their paws a few licks from time to time, for example, after a bath or if they've been walking on brambles or burrs that need to be picked out. However, if they've started to lick, chew, or nibble much more than usual, this probably indicates a problem. You have perhaps noticed there are times when they lie down and lick their paws compulsively, or maybe you've been woken by the sound of paw licking as you try to sleep.

You may also notice that their paw pads are inflamed, the fur on their paws seems wet at times, or the saliva is stained orange. On top of this, you might detect an unusual odor, which can sometimes smell musty, like blue cheese.

Potential causes of excessive paw licking

There is no one reason for paw licking, and there can actually be quite a few triggers. When determining what the trigger is, vets look for "clues" such as whether the dog is itchy elsewhere, what its skin looks like, and the age and breed.

Some of the more common causes include:

  • Itchiness (pruritus). This is the most common reason for continued paw licking and is often triggered by allergies. Dogs can be allergic to something in the environment (atopic dermatitis), their diet (food allergies), and fleas. Allergies tend to affect all four paws and other parts of the body.
  • Infection. Bacterial or yeast infection of the paws can also be associated with allergies and cause itchy skin and discomfort.
  • Paw injuries. A lacerated pad or broken nail can cause injury.
  • A foreign body in the pad. Check the paw for grass seeds, pieces of glass, or other small objects that can become lodged in the paw.
  • A source of chronic pain. Arthritic conditions can lead to excessive licking.
  • Anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder. If your dog is anxious or has obsessive-compulsive disorder, paw licking can be habitual.
  • Boredom. Young and energetic breeds are susceptible to restlessness and boredom.
  • Parasites such as mites. Fleas and ticks can cause paw licking, but fleas more commonly cause irritation at the rump, and ticks would be visible to the naked eye.
  • Cracked or dry skin. This can be due to an underlying disorder such as a nutritional deficiency, hormonal disorder, or autoimmune disease.
  • Irritation. Walking on hot pavement, rough surfaces, or snow and ice can cause your dog to relieve pain by licking.
  • Mass or tumor on the paw. This could be benign or cancerous.
  • Interdigital cyst. An inflamed bump between the toes, which may occur secondary to allergies or other issues.
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Diagnosing the cause

Your veterinarian will first take a medical history, confirming your dog's age and breed and asking when the issue started and if your dog is showing any other signs. They will also ask about any recent changes in diet or home life and indicators of anxiety or boredom. Finally, they'll visually inspect your dog's skin, checking for any lesions, redness, discharge, or parasites.

With persistent problems, your vet may run certain tests such as:

  • Skin swabs and cultures. This means taking a cotton swab, rubbing it on the skin, and culturing it in a lab. The vet can then determine which yeast or bacteria are growing and tailor the antibiotics or anti-fungal medicine used.
  • Skin scrapes. This test means scraping the surface of the skin with a blade while squeezing the skin. The discharge is looked at under the microscope to check for mites.
  • Allergy tests. Either a blood test or intradermal skin test can be done. Blood tests are more commonly done as they are quicker and easier. Keep in mind that allergy tests are more accurate after the age of one.

It is important to identify the cause of the paw licking early on to prevent it from becoming a chronic nuisance that reduces your dog's quality of life.

Treatment options for excessive paw licking

Unfortunately, it is not as easy as popping an Elizabethan collar on your dog and expecting the paw licking to go away in a day or two. You need to identify why your dog keeps licking or chewing their paws and follow through with a tailored treatment plan. What needs to be done is going to be dependent on the root cause. Some of the more common treatment paths will include:

  • Anti-itch medicine (such as Prednisone, Cytopoint or Apoquel) to break the itch-scratch cycle
  • Medicated washes or wipes to treat any yeast or bacterial overgrowth
  • Skin supplements to reduce dry skin in dogs and strengthen the skin barrier. Ingredients may include omega fatty acids, Biotin, and Vitamin E.
  • Antibiotics to treat underlying infections or chronic interdigital cysts
  • Surgery to remove any imbedded foreign bodies, broken claws, or tumors
  • Pain relief for those with arthritis or injuries
  • A behavioral program and environmental enrichment to reduce dog anxiety or boredom, if the issue is through to be primarily behavioral
  • Parasite treatment, which may be a spot-on (such as Fipronil) or tablet
  • Referral to a dermatologist, particularly in more longstanding and complicated cases

Managing paw licking can be a frustrating and ongoing battle, and expenses can build up over time. This is one of the many reasons why having pet insurance from puppyhood is a sound investment.

Preventing excessive paw licking

How we prevent paw licking will depend on your dog's trigger(s). It typically means avoiding allergens, staying current with parasite prevention, managing pain, treating infections early and aggressively, and keeping your dog otherwise occupied with plenty of training and exercise.

For any dog, it is a sensible idea to provide a balanced diet that is suitable for their life stage. For those who have experienced paw licking, providing skin supplements containing ingredients such as Vitamin E and fish oils also makes sense.

Groom your dog on a regular basis, keeping the fur between their toes short and ensuring their claws are not overly long. Do also check in between toes for debris, such as burrs or twigs, after each walk outside.

When allergies are a factor, do what you can to prevent your dog from encountering their allergens. This can mean things like regular wet dusting within the home, keeping windows closed when pollen counts are high, using extractor fans, and walking on paths rather than grass.

While paw licking can be an upsetting and frustrating issue, there are a range of treatment and prevention strategies available. You can work alongside your vet to make a tailored treatment plan for your dog to keep it comfortable in the long run.

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