One of the most common symptoms vets see in dogs is licking or chewing at the paws. Sometimes, it’s hard to find a specific cause, and other times it is obvious as soon as the paw is examined. If you’ve just noticed your dog licking their paws, you might be interested in finding out the top reasons why dogs feel the need to lick and chew.
Although you might be here because you have seen your dog licking his feet more than usual, you may be unsure what constitutes an abnormal amount of licking and when to worry. Most dogs clean their feet no more than once a day or after each trip outside if they get particularly dirty. Any more than this, and you may have a dog that’s paying more attention to their feet than they should.
You may also notice your dog nibbling at his paws or rubbing them on the carpet. The feet may be wet more often than you’d expect, or, in longer-coated dogs, you may notice crusting of the fur where they’ve dried with saliva on. Another common sign is a change in the color of your dog’s fur from white/cream to pink.
10 Reasons Dogs Lick Their Paws
In my experience, pet parents don’t always realize that licking and chewing is a problem. When I’ve commented on their dog’s saliva-stained feet, I’ve had people say, ‘Oh yeah, he likes to chew his toenails!’. But there’s usually a reason dogs are licking their feet this much, and it’s not normal.
While there are many reasons dogs may lick their paws, there are 10 reasons specifically that most paw-lickers start taking on this behavior. Below we talk through the top 10 reasons you’ll likely see as to why your pup is licking, and you’ll also find out when it’s time actually to go and see a vet.
Of course, licking at the paws is a normal part of a dog’s cleaning routine. Despite not being as obsessed with cleanliness as cats, dogs still spend some time grooming themselves, especially when it comes to somewhere like the paws, which are particularly prone to getting dirty.
If you’ve just come in from a wet or muddy walk, or you’ve been over icy or gritted roads, it’s likely that your dog is licking his paws to remove all traces of dirt and irritant from between his pads under his nails, and on the tops of his feet. You can help your dog to feel more comfortable after a walk by washing his feet. Solar showers provide some free-of-charge warm water, or filling a deep tray such as a garden tray with warm, soapy water and asking them to walk through it can help, too.
Thanks to diseases like Alabama Rot and to concerns over road grit causing salt poisoning, it’s a good idea to get in the habit of cleaning your dog’s feet for them and then examining them for anything concerning. You could also consider purchasing dog boots if your dog finds mud and dirt on their feet a problem.
In my experience, the most common reason for a dog to be licking his feet an abnormal amount is due to an allergic reaction. This could be a contact allergy (such as to carpet shampoo), a food allergy (such as to beef), a flea allergy, or, most commonly, an environmental allergy (such as to pollens). It’s often something that doesn’t concern the owners too much, or they thought they have to live with – and when I start questioning them and asking about symptoms, they realize their dog has a problem.
The allergy causes dogs to feel an itch in their paws through a complex pathway. First, immune cells are on the lookout for bacteria, and foreign bodies recognize the allergen and release a messenger protein called IL-31. This is picked up by a specialized receptor and starts a chain reaction that triggers nerves to transfer the message to the brain.
The brain then tells the dog to scratch the itch. Or, in this case, lick the itch. The problem is, the more they lick, the more the skin is damaged, allowing more of the allergen into the body, where it starts the chain reaction again. Using a shampoo that’s formulated for sensitive skin can often help resolve common itching problems.
Dogs with allergies often also have ear infections and may have symptoms that come and go depending on the season or symptoms that are constant if the allergy is to something in their food. Other symptoms may include itching at other body parts, recurrent skin infections, and on-off soft stool.
Allergies can be really complicated to diagnose, and there are lots of different tests and treatment options out there, so it can take a while to get to the bottom of what is bothering your dog. If you suspect allergies may be affecting your dog, you should discuss this with your vet so you can work out the best approach. Certain breeds are more prone to skin issues, like English Bulldogs or different types of pitbull breed dogs.
Getting a foreign object stuck in the foot is another common reason dogs lick at their feet. This type of licking normally comes on suddenly and will usually be restricted to one foot, although may be in more than one if your dog has been really unlucky. The foot may also be swollen or red, and your dog may have a limp. Common locations for a foreign body are between the toes (especially for grass seeds at the end of summer) or between the pads (in the case of thorns that have been trodden on). I’ve also seen cases where ticks attach between the toes, causing licking and lameness.
If not removed, foreign bodies can travel deep into the foot or even elsewhere in the body, spreading infection wherever they go. Although they may respond initially to antibiotics, until the foreign body is removed, they will continue to lick at the area once the antibiotics are stopped.
It’s possible that your dog is licking his feet due to arthritis. Although less common than some of the other causes of foot-licking, licking at sore joints is a known symptom of arthritis. Arthritis affects one in five adult dogs and is much more likely in your pooch if they’ve had a previous injury to the joint or are overweight.
Other signs of arthritis may include limping, a change in gait, stiffness after rest, or a change in behavior, so if you think you see any of these signs, you should consider a trip to the vet. It can be hard to diagnose arthritic pain. Your vet may want to do an x-ray or may suggest a pain relief trial to see whether there’s any improvement in your dog’s licking when they’re on pain relief.
Like humans, dogs can get anxious. And like us, they sometimes engage in repetitive, soothing behaviors to help them cope.
If you notice your dog is licking their feet in stressful situations, such as when other dogs are present, when strangers come to the house, or in a thunderstorm, anxiety could be why they’re licking so much. Of course, it’s very hard to diagnose anxiety in dogs accurately. Still, if they respond well to anti-anxiety medications, then it’s likely this was the cause of the foot-licking.
Boredom And Habit
Dogs get bored, too. A bored dog can turn to repetitive behaviors like an anxious dog, and a common repetitive behavior is excessive licking of the paws.
If you’ve noticed your dog has started licking their paws since a change at home, especially if that has resulted in less attention, fewer walks, or you being out more often- it could be down to boredom.
Try providing them with puzzle feeders and games they can play independently and see whether the licking stops. If not, it’s possible that it’s developed into a habit, which is much harder to stop. Bitter sprays may be necessary to break the habit, but should only be used after the other causes here have been ruled out by a vet.
Growth Or Cyst
Interdigital cysts are little lumps that appear between the toes of middle-aged to older dogs. Other growths can appear on the toes and pads. All of these may cause discomfort and therefore licking of the area. Interdigital cysts start due to a combination of factors causing inflammation of the paw and pad. A secondary infection starts up, and little ‘cysts’ appear. These are swollen, red areas, usually between the toes, and cause repeated licking of the affected area.
Histiocytomas are fairly common benign tumors of younger dogs, but they can be irritating, especially if they appear on the feet. They appear as red, raised, circular lumps and usually go away of their own accord. They shouldn’t be confused with mast cell tumors, however, so it’s best to get them tested by a vet.
Mast cell tumors also commonly appear on the feet. These nasty lumps can cause major problems, and they look very similar to histiocytomas. They are often a bit itchy and may explain why your dog is licking at their paws.
It’s not uncommon for dogs to injure their claws, especially if they’re too long. Sudden paw licking may occur with a ripped nail – this is very painful, so take care when examining your dog’s feet. You may notice that the claw is at an abnormal angle or there is blood in your dog’s fur. They should be taken to the vet for the claw to be trimmed and may need antibiotics, especially if they’ve already been licking at it for a while.
It’s often common that newer dog owners will injure their dog’s claws when clipping them for the first time because they happen to nick the quick of the nail. For this reason, we recommend using a nail grinder instead to limit the possibility of claw injury.
If your dog’s claws seem prone to injury, they may be suffering from a disease called Symmetric Lupoid Onychodystrophy (SLO), which is an auto-immune disease affecting the claws. Affected dogs have recurrently painful claws that are prone to snapping and breaking. They’re very sore to the touch, so take care when examining your pet’s paws if you suspect SLO could be a problem for your dog. You should discuss your concerns with your vet if you’re worried about SLO, as it requires treatment to reduce the pain.
Yeast Or Bacterial Infection
The claws, toes, and pads come into contact with all sorts of bacteria and yeasts daily. In fact, they have a ‘normal’ number of bacteria and yeast that live on the skin and do no harm. However, if the immune system is compromised (perhaps due to another disease or an endocrine disorder like Cushing’s), the normal flora can grow out of control and cause disease. The same can happen if tiny scratches in your dog’s skin let the infection in. Just as with allergies, the more your dog licks the area, the more they’ll damage the skin surface, allowing the infection to spread.
Whilst a one-off foot infection may be treated with antibiotics or antifungal washes, repeated infections should be investigated to find the underlying cause.
Demodex canis is a mite that lives inside the hair follicles of dogs. Whilst many dogs will never show signs of Demodex, it actually lives on the skin of most dogs in small amounts. Like a bacterial or yeast infection, problems with Demodex arise when the immune system is compromised.
This may be because of drugs or disease, although Demodex is most common in young animals that haven’t yet matured their immune system. It’s passed from mother to pups through contact, and the dogs will usually show signs before 12 months of age. Most dogs with demodex aren’t too itchy and instead have hair loss. However, if Demodex spreads, it can become more and more irritating, and it’s not uncommon to find dogs with severe demodectic mange on their feet.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why Are My Dog’s Feet Pink?
If you have a white or pale-coated dog, you might have noticed that their feet are a pale pink or orange-brown color. This is called ‘saliva staining’ and indicates a dog has spent a lot of time licking at his paws. The color change is caused by a substance called porphyrin, which is naturally present in saliva and tears. When dogs repeatedly lick at their paws, the substance is left on the fur, leaving feet. If you’ve noticed your dog’s feet changing color, it’s time to take your dog to the vet to get to the bottom of the reason why.
Should I Be Worried?
Lots of the reasons that dogs may lick their paws are either painful or itchy, meaning that ignoring it could be causing distress to your dog. In addition, licking causes damage to the skin, both due to the abrasiveness of the tongue and to the excess moisture at the skin level, both of which can cause bacterial or fungal overgrowth and infection. The more your dog licks, the more damage they’ll do, and the worse the problem is.
When Should I Go To The Vet?
If you think your dog is licking their paws too much, you should take them to the vet to get checked out. If your dog is showing other symptoms, such as bleeding or limping, it’s a good idea to take them as soon as possible- ideally within 8 hours of noticing the problem. When your dog is licking all the paws and doesn’t seem to have any other symptoms, the appointment can wait for a day or two for a mutually suitable time.
I Can’t Get To the Vet today. What Should I Do?
If your dog is bothering his foot excessively, you should prevent them from doing so. Applying a buster collar is the best method of doing this. You should not try to bandage the foot, as incorrectly applied bandages can do more harm than good.
You should then call your vet for advice. They may be able to recommend that you wash the foot in a dilute salt water solution to keep it clean until you’re able to get to the vet.
Unfortunately, only your vet can help you to work out which of these is causing your dog to lick his paws. They may be able to work it out quickly after a discussion with you and a check of your dog’s feet. We recommend that you book a visit with your vet to go through your concerns.