Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
Why Do Dogs Lick Their Paws and Legs?
A dog constantly licking its front legs can be a frustrating ordeal to handle. It can be hard to miss, especially if your dog makes loud licking sounds, and you are trying to finally get some sleep after a long day at work.
Perhaps you might think that a dog licking his front legs is a normal occurrence, but unlike their feline counterparts, they may not be licking to get clean. Sure, dogs do like to engage in self-grooming at times, but if your dog is constantly licking his front legs, something may be amiss.
Before just ignoring the behavior or thinking it isn’t something to be concerned about because "all dogs do it,” let’s consider a few possible reasons behind the licking.
1. A Case of Allergies
Like humans, dogs are susceptible to allergies, too. They might occasionally sneeze (hey, their sniffer is much more attuned than ours), but more than likely, if something has irritated their system, they’re not going to be reaching for the Kleenex or rubbing at itchy eyes. They’re instead going to be licking those paws and front legs.
In dogs, excessive front leg licking can arise as a result of atopy (intolerance to environmental allergens such as pollens, molds, dust, and dust mites).
Think about if you went walking around barefoot everywhere, you’d pick up some weird things on your feet and the lower parts of the legs, too (especially if you walk in tall grass). That’s essentially what dogs do every time they leave the house. They get great smells and sights, but they also bring home whatever they’ve walked through on the day’s jaunt.
On top of being allergic to things in their environment, many dogs who are constantly licking their front legs may also be allergic to ingredients in their foods.
Solution: A trip to your vet for evaluation can give your dog some much-needed relief and a rest from having to hear your dog going at his front legs and paws non-stop.
It might be that a pill or an injection is needed to relieve the irritation on their legs and in the grand scheme of things, that’s a minor price to pay to ensure your fur baby is happy and healthy.
You don’t want to let it go on too long though because their saliva isn’t the best thing to be constantly rubbing on those legs. Especially in lighter-colored breeds, this excessive licking can lead to unsightly rusty stains on their legs.
In the worst-case scenario, some dogs may develop what's known as an "acral lick granuloma" which is quite frustrating to get under control.
2. The Pain Game
If you’ve ruled out allergies, there may be a more painful reason your pup can’t quit licking those paws. Try to take a peek at those legs and see if you can find what might be bothering them. It could be a simple fix like a broken nail, or they picked up something that got stuck in their skin on their latest walk. Check for swellings, bug bites, lumps and bumps, or foreign objects embedded.
If after examination your pup is still not giving up on licking and chewing those front legs, they may have a more severe condition.
In dogs, pain in other parts of the body can manifest in the feet or legs, causing the dog to try and lick the nerve endings that are sparking to try and ease the pain. If this is the case, making a trip to your vet is a wise move.
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Solution: Carefully examine your dog's front legs for signs of scrapes, bug bites or thorns. If you find nothing, your veterinarian should be able to evaluate more thoroughly and figure out if pain or discomfort is localized to the legs or somewhere else in the body such as the spine or even in the dog's mouth.
3. A Matter of Nausea
Sometimes, dogs that engage in excessive licking may be suffering from nausea, especially if such dogs are smacking their lips and drooling.
Licking may involve floors, carpets, furniture, and of course, even the dog's front legs may be involved, especially considering that they come in handy when the dog is lying down with his legs readily in front of him.
"This licking may occur often, but because it seems harmless and may only be somewhat annoying, many owners accept this unusual behavior or simply ignore it. However, some owners will inquire about it during a routine checkup and ask for advice," says board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Valerie Tynes in an article for DVM360.
Solution: Have your dog see your vet to rule out nausea or other underlying problems such as allergies. Be ready to answer questions about your dog's diet and any other treats or medications your dog takes.
Dogs, like humans, are capable of developing compulsive behaviors and leg licking can, unfortunately, turn into one such behavior.
If they’ve been licking because of a painful bug bite or because of untreated allergies, even after those conditions have been remedied, they may have conditioned themselves to keep licking and licking and licking. Seeing a behavior specialist might be a good move if you notice your pup’s continued behavior.
4. A Case of Boredom
You want to make sure your fur baby isn’t bored. Dogs do all kinds of things to relieve boredom from jumping on furniture and scratching where they shouldn’t to, yes, licking those front legs repeatedly.
Dogs need daily exercise, play, mental stimulation, and training. If your dog is closed all day in the yard or in a room with nothing better to do, he may find his own forms of entertainment and this may involve licking their front legs excessively.
Solution: Ensure your pup has adequate exercise and engagement throughout the day. Boredom fosters undesirable behaviors and those bad actions can snowball into even bigger problems if left unaddressed.
5. A Case of Anxiety/Stress
Anxiety and stress may play a role too. Exposure to frightening interactions with people or other animals may lead to excessive front-leg licking as a way for the dog to self-soothe himself.
Many things in our daily lives can cause anxiety and stress in dogs. From noises to changes in their environment (a baby, new pet, guests, people working in the apartment), they sure can play a number in their lives.
Solution: Make sure that your dog feels safe so provide him with an environment that is as stress-free as possible. There are a variety of calming aids for dogs that can be found over the counter. Severe cases may require prescription medications from your vet.
6. A Matter of Frustration
Frustration can cause licking too and licking those front legs may be a way the dog copes with it. The last dog I had over for boarding and training was licking her front legs over and over. The owner thought it was normal, just a little odd quirk.
A closer evaluation revealed that she often did this when a toy she was playing with on the couch fell to the ground. She also did it when she wanted something and couldn't have it, such as treats being in my treat bag or a toy being placed on a shelf. Specialized training helped this dog out and the leg licking dramatically improved.
Solution: Implement impulse control dog training and teach your dog to better cope with frustration.
7. A Compulsive Disorder
Some dogs take licking their legs to a higher level. In these dogs, the licking may have started from an itchy condition or stress and it put roots to the point of becoming very ingrained.
Solution: Seek out a behavioral specialist if after trying everything else, your pup just won’t quit licking. They may have developed a compulsion around the behavior that needs to be corrected with behavior modification.
8. Attention-Seeking Behavior
Sometimes, dogs who love to receive attention may perform behaviors that they feel garner attention. So for instance, if your dog wants attention from you when you come home from work and you ignore him, but then when he licks his front paws, you look at him and tell him to stop, your dog may find this behavior reinforcing, so he'll continue to perform it.
Solution: Ignore the leg licking behavior and work on reinforcing other more desirable behaviors.
Steps to an Easier Diagnosis
It goes without saying that dogs can engage in some extra grooming, although maybe not to the extent as in cats. Some dogs seem to enjoy licking their front legs after eating as if they are removing some debris from their mouths and then enjoying licking the concoction from their legs.
This form of licking tends to be for the most part innocent, however, constant licking of the dog's front legs is more likely to be indicative of a problem that warrants a veterinary visit, considering that it is likely affecting the dog's well being. This is true, especially in the case where the behavior is difficult to interrupt.
Sometimes though, the underlying cause of front-leg licking in dogs may be difficult to find. A video can be worth 1,000 words. Make sure to record your dog's leg-licking behavior and show it to your vet, dog trainer or dog behavior professional.
Record also what happens when you try to distract your dog, considering that the behavior is more problematic when it is difficult to interrupt.
Remember: Excessive licking can lead to not only infection by wearing down the fur and skin in those spots, but cosmetic discoloration of the fur and surrounding areas in light-colored breeds. In severe cases, it may even lead to wounds that are difficult to treat due to excessive licking.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2020 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 08, 2020:
Linda, allergy meds for dogs may vary. They may go from light stuff like plain diphenhydramine to hydroxyzine, and then apoquel and steroid shots for the more severe cases. Please consult with your vet for the most appropriate treatment for your dog based on diagnosis.
Linda Thomas on September 07, 2020:
Great article, thanks. Wondering just what drug would the vet would use in the injection or pill you mention. Also wonder if just washing the dog's legs when coming in after a walk, would help.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 11, 2020:
Licking paws can be troublesome too. I has a dog who licked a wound on his paw and it took forever to heal. Licking front legs might be a little bit better since the legs aren't in contact with the ground as paws are, but it can be frustrating to deal with nevertheless.
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on May 27, 2020:
I have not had a dog licking its wounds but often she licked her paws. Thank you for another informative hub. Dogs are amazing and you know how to make a dog's life feel perfect.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 27, 2020:
It's horrible to deal with wounds caused in dogs from licking excessively their front legs and paws. I once boarded a dog that had an acral lick granuloma on his leg. I had to medicate it every day and since the dog was with me for a little over a week, I wanted to return him to the owner with the wound looking better. It took me sleeping on the couch with a flashlight to make sure he wasn't licking and distracting him if he tried to remove his sock off. The wound dried up and the owner said she never saw it looking that good.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 27, 2020:
Skin problems are so frustrating to deal with, for both dogs and owners! A new study has come out about how skin allergies affect dogs from also from an emotional standpoint often causing behavior changes.
I am glad to hear your dog's front leg licking episodes are being controlled well with meds. I hope it keeps working for you. Best,
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on May 25, 2020:
Our golden boy was having horrible front leg licking episodes, to the point where it was getting infected. Then he'd have to be on steroids, ointments, and wear the cone of shame. Our vet suspected allergies since it seemed to be worse at certain times of the year. It was also accompanied by ear infections.
We started him on Cytopoint injections (an immunotherapy) which worked really well. But because they're broad spectrum, we weren't really sure exactly what was causing these episodes.
So our vet then recommended a newer approach by doing an allergy panel test, similar to what doctors do for humans, to see what was really causing the problem. Figures he allergic to a variety of grasses (which he loves to eat and roll around in) and trees, fungi, and cockroaches (what???). But he's also allergic to soybeans, rice, and white potatoes--all of which are in his food that he's been on since he was a pup. Changed that stat! Just can't do anything about nature though.
Now he's on a custom allergy injection blend that we give him at home. About a half year in, and going through spring, so far, so good. The real test will be in August.
More great info, as always! Thanks!
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 25, 2020:
Excessive licking can be problematic for all the reasons you listed. It can also cause open wounds if the licking is done in one particular spot, and as you mentioned, those wounds can be challenging to treat.
stella vadakin from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619 on May 24, 2020:
My little dog licks his feet all the time. I have a hard time trying to cut his toenails, maybe that is the problem.
peachy from Home Sweet Home on May 23, 2020:
maybe doggie paw is itchy