Sophie Jackson is a dog lover and trainer living in the UK. She competes in agility and obedience with her four dogs.
All dogs at some point will lick their paws, commonly this is for the purpose of cleaning them, especially if they have been on a wet or muddy walk. However, sometimes paw licking or chewing can become an obsessive behaviour, it can even lead to self-harming. When this occurs, the underlying cause for the behaviour needs to be found to stop the problem.
Obsessive or destructive paw licking can result from a number of causes, not all of them obvious or easy to determine. Allergies, pain and even stress can trigger paw licking.
When Should You Consider Paw Licking a Problem?
The first thing to note is when the dog is licking its paws. If it is immediately after a walk, they may simply be cleaning them. Or it may be in the evening at a regular time, and this is the point in the day when they groom themselves. However, the process should only last a few minutes, not longer than half an hour. Nor should your dog be repeatedly licking its paws through the day. If you notice a change in your dog's paw licking habits, that is a sign there could be a problem.
The length of time your dog licks their paws is an indication of whether there is a problem or not. Dogs that constantly lick paws for an hour or more likely have a problem. Nor should a dog lick its paws to the extent that they are completely soaked with saliva.
Some dogs will not be able to leave their paws alone. Whenever they are not distracted by playing or food, they start to fuss their paws. This might be very noticeable at night, with the dog unable to sleep because they are chewing at their feet.
Licking the feet too much can result in sores on the paw pads. Of course, a cut or wound to the pad can also begin the licking process, so it is important to determine which came first - the licking or the sore. If your dog is fussing its feet a lot, check for any sores, grazes, thorns or other damage.
Saliva will stain pale fur and turn it a reddish colour. This is very noticeable in dogs that are over-licking their feet and usually improves when the root cause of the licking is discovered.
Lameness or a sensitivity to having their feet touched can be another indication there is a paw problem - again, sometimes it is hard to know if the paw licking has caused the lameness/sensitivity or whether it is a consequence of an existing pain issue.
What Causes Paw Licking?
Paw licking can be a result of direct pain (a thorn in the paw or split toenail) or indirect pain (issues with the neck or back, for instance). It can also be due to irritation rather than pain, such as that caused by allergies. Some dogs may also lick their paws as a means to self-soothe themselves when stressed.
Since paw licking can be a symptom of a problem elsewhere in the body, this can make it even trickier to work out the precise cause.
When trying to discover what is causing your dog to excessively paw lick, there are a few things that are important:
- Keep a note of the times when the paw licking occurs, or is at its worst - this may help you to link it back to a certain event, such as going for a walk on grass.
- If you can, thoroughly examine the paws for any signs of injury, infection or a foreign object stuck inside. Certain things, like grass seeds, can become stuck in a paw for weeks and cause ongoing discomfort.
- Note any other indications of pain or stiffness in your dog's movement.
Listed below are various causes of paw licking. You may need to explore and rule out several of these before finding the true cause. Remember, obsessive paw licking is a sign that something is wrong and your dog is unhappy. It is a commonly overlooked problem, but discovering its origin can really transform your dog's life.
#1 Something Stuck In The Paw
If your dog suddenly begins fussing its paws, especially shortly after a walk, there is a possibility it may have something stuck in the paw. Thorns and grass seeds are common offenders, digging into the fleshy pads and causing discomfort. A dog may be lame when this occurs, or refuse to put its foot down.
A dog that has picked up a thorn or other object in its paw will usually only fuss the injured foot, making it easier to pinpoint the cause.
It is important to remove the object as soon as you can and wash the wound thoroughly to prevent infection. Grass seeds are particularly notorious for travelling deep into a paw if not removed swiftly. They can end up progressing up the leg, resulting in long-term lameness and possibly requiring an operation to remove the seed.
To prevent this, get into the habit of checking your dog's paws after a walk, especially if they have walked through grass or woodland.
#2 Chemical Burns
Dogs' feet are very vulnerable to damage when chemicals have been recently used on a surface. These could be chemical sprays to kill weeds or fertilise soil in the park or garden. Disinfectants used on the floors in homes. Products used to melt ice on roads and paths, or things such as bleach and industrial chemicals.
When dogs walk over these products, the skin of their feet will be burned and they will likely become lame and begin to fuss their feet. Normally all four paws will be affected.
It is important, if your think your dog has come into contact with a chemical substance, that they are not allowed to lick their paws and ingest any residue. Wash the paws thoroughly to remove any traces and apply a soothing cream. If the paws are badly burned, your dog will need to see a vet to ensure they are correctly bandaged up to prevent infection.
#3 Nasty Plants
Certain plants that are found naturally in the environment can cause burns to a dog's paws. These include:
Stinging Nettles - Particularly young nettles. Some dogs become extremely agitated after walking over nettles and will chew their paws.
Giant Hogweed - This rather unpleasant plant is found across Europe and some parts of the United States. Even just brushing past it can result in burns and blisters to dogs and humans.
Poison Ivy - Though dogs are less commonly affected by this plant than people, it can still cause a rash on exposed skin, such as the paws.
Other popular garden plants can cause mild skin irritation, but is very unlikely.
Allergies are often the first thing people blame for a dog fussing its feet. Unfortunately, allergies are also one of the trickiest problems to resolve, they are also becoming much more prevalent in dogs, though it is not clear why.
An allergy can cause foot licking directly or indirectly. For instance, some dogs will suffer an immediate allergy reaction on their feet after walking in fields or grassland, resulting in them fussing their paws. Alternatively, dogs may develop itchy feet because of something in the food they eat, in which case the allergy is an indirect cause for the problem.
Many dogs with allergies will be triggered by more than one thing, this could be an environmental pollutant, such as chemicals, naturally occurring pollen, insect bites or elements in their diet. Often it is impossible to eliminate all allergen triggers from your dog's life.
Keeping a diary of when your dog fusses their paws may help, especially if your dog's allergies are seasonal, such as with human hay-fever. You may notice your dog fusses its paws after walking in a certain place, or at a certain time of day. By altering your walking times and locations you may be able to remove the problem by avoiding whatever is triggering the allergy.
Allergy tests are also available for dogs, these can be done through your vet or as a DNA test, but are pricey. They also may not pick up all the causes of your dog's allergies.
For dogs with mild allergies, giving an antihistamine daily may solve the problem. Dogs can take Piriton which contains the active ingredient Chlorphenamine Maleate, or Clarityn, which contains the active ingredient Loratadine. Piriteze (also known as Zyrtec) is frequently reported as dangerous to dogs. The active ingredient in Piriteze is Cetirizine Hydrochloride, which is a safe antihistamine for dogs. However, some versions of Piriteze also contain pseudoephedrine, a decongestant that is toxic to dogs. If you intend to give any antihistamine, ensure it does not contain pseudoephedrine.
#5 Mites and Bites
During the summer and autumn certain insects can cause a nuisance to our dogs. Ticks can latch onto the fur between a dog's toes or around the paw pad and attach themselves to the skin. As they feed, they swell and irritate the dog.
If you walk your dog in woodland or areas where deer frequent, it is a good idea to regularly check them for ticks. Tick removers are inexpensive and easy to use, and the best way to ensure you get rid of the pest. If the head of the tick is left embedded in the foot it can lead to an infection.
Mites are tiny little creatures that burrow into a dog's skin and cause irritation. They cause itchiness, inflammation and fur loss. A mild mite infestation may be treated with an anti-parasitic shampoo, but a severe infestation needs treatment by a vet to determine what type of mite is responsible. Mites can pass to other dogs in a household, and to people, so getting them treated promptly is essential.
Bees, wasps and ants can sting or bite a dog, if this happens on the foot then the dog will start to instantly chew at its paw. Severe allergic reactions to insect stings and bites are possible in dogs, though not common. If you can still see the sting in the foot, remove it. Soaking the foot may ease the discomfort and an antihistamine can be given.
#6 Weather Extremes
It might sound odd that the weather can result in foot problems, but this is one of the most commonly overlooked causes of paw trouble.
In hot weather, certain surfaces (concrete, tarmac) will heat up and can reach a temperature where they will burn a dog's paws if they walk across them. Such burns need to be treated immediately and the paws bandaged to prevent infection. Avoid walking on pavements and roads at the hottest parts of the day to prevent burns from occurring.
In freezing weather, dogs can suffer from frostbite, a serious condition that can lead to loss of toes or worse. Ice burns, where a dog's foot sticks to a frozen surface, can also be painful. If you experience very icy weather, you can assist your dog by having them wear doggy booties to protect their feet. Many armed forces and police services use these on their dogs to protect their paws.
#7 Toenail Trouble
Toenail issues can be a big cause of paw licking. Toenails can break or rip off, leaving the quick exposed and causing the dog to fuss it. Or they can be left to grow too long and curve into the foot, or a nail bed infection can develop, causing inflammation and pain.
Most of these problems can be avoided by making sure your pet's toenails are kept trimmed. Nails that are too long get snagged and break.
Nail bed infections can sometimes be due to something cutting into the toe (for instance, a grass seed), a fungal infection or may have no obvious cause. In some dogs repeated nail bed infections are a sign of an underlying immune system problem, such dogs may also suffer from brittle nails.
Another issue that can occur with toes is they can be sprained or broken. Though breaks are less common than sprains, they do happen. Some have suggested that dogs without dewclaws are more prone to these types of injury.
#8 Pad Problems
Dry or cracked paw pads are more common in dogs than many people realise. They can be the result of walking a great deal on hard surfaces (police and army dogs can suffer cracked pads for this reason), or from exposure to chemicals. Extremely hot or cold conditions can also cause cracked or dried out paws, similar to the way we can suffer from dry or sore hands.
To alleviate the problem, you can try using a barrier cream designed for dogs. These are usually applied before walks, but for very sore paws you could also apply a soothing cream repeatedly throughout the day. Musher's Secret Paw Wax is one favoured barrier cream which is used on working dogs. Another alternative is Udder Cream, which has been used in the farming industry for decades. It is designed to protect and sooth a cow's udder from chapping and can equally be used on dogs' paws.
#9 Lumps and Bumps
As dogs age they can develop lumps and bumps, most of which are harmless, but ones that develop between the toes can cause irritation. They may push a toe out of place or simply rub and make the foot sore.
Often these lumps are harmless cysts that are easily removed by a vet. On occasion, they may be a tumour, and if the cancer has spread into a toe or foot, then more drastic surgery may be required.
If you see a lump between your dog's toes, and especially if it is causing your dog discomfort, see a vet straight away.
#10 General Pain
Occasionally paw licking is a sign of pain not in the feet, but elsewhere in the body. Paw licking can be a soothing activity for a dog that hurts, a way to comfort themselves during pain. They may also lick their paws if they cannot reach the area that is actually troubling them. For instance, neck or shoulder pain can cause a dog to lick their front feet.
Determining if paw licking is actually a sign of pain elsewhere in the body is very tricky, and the problem may initial be misdiagnosed as allergies or stress. Often it is only when the real problem is discovered and corrected, that the paw licking is recognised as a symptom because it simply stops.
If you have ruled out problems with your dog's feet as a cause of paw licking, you may want to explore the possibility of pain elsewhere in the body as a cause. Dogs may lick their front or hind feet dependent on where they hurt.
Licking the front paws could be a sign of:
- Neck pain
- Shoulder injury
- Elbow dysplasia
Licking the hind paws could be a sign of:
- Hip dysplasia
- Luxating patella (loose kneecaps)
- Cruciate tear
- Back pain
Your vet is best placed to diagnose physical problems and may need to take x-rays to determine the extent of the problem. Some issues may be treatable without surgery, using physiotherapy and hydrotherapy, while others may require an operation to reduce a dog's pain.
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 Sophie Jackson