Many people have a bad bodily habit or two. Whether it’s biting your nails, picking your nose, popping spots or picking scabs, we’ve all been guilty in the past. So it’s not really a surprise when our closest friends, dogs, have a few naughty habits too. One of the most common is licking their paws. Why do dogs do this? What can we do to stop it? Why is it even a bad habit?

Why Can Paw Licking Become a Problem?

Most habits start innocently enough, and rarely cause issue. But when they become compulsive, that’s when the problems start. 

Skin is the body’s biggest organ. Healthy skin is a barrier to irritation and infection, protecting the delicate structures underneath. By and large it does a good job of this, and the occasional lick won’t harm the skin. However, dog’s tongues are rough, and their mouths are full of bacteria. Repeatedly licking a single area starts to strip away the skin’s protection. This leaves the skin open to bacterial or fungal colonisation, resulting in infection. Infection leads to the body responding with inflammation. Inflammation is itchy, making the dog lick more, creating more infection, and so on in a vicious cycle. We call this acral lick dermatitis or a lick granuloma. In extreme cases the skin can become infected deep down, or the microbes can even start to travel in the bloodstream and cause problems body-wide. 

So remember, regardless of the cause, compulsive licking (of any area, not just the feet) can lead to skin irritation and infection, so should be addressed.

What Are the Causes?

Let’s get into specific reasons why dogs lick their paws, and how you can treat and prevent them.

Cleaning

Probably the least problematic reason why dogs lick their paws is to clean them! Lacking opposable thumbs, hand soap and flannels, dogs rely on their tongues to clean themselves. If your dog thinks they have trodden in something dirty, their paws are wet or they just fancy a wash, they will often sit and lick themselves clean.

Generally, if your dog just does this for a few moments until satisfied their feet are clean, it isn’t an issue, so don’t worry. The issues start if they are constantly licking at invisible dirt. These are the clues that a habit is developing and there may be a problem. Washing the paws after every walk can sometimes help dogs on the border between cleaning and habit.

Boredom, Anxiety and Stress

In much the same way as nervous people sometimes bite their nails, dogs that are stressed or just bored can start to chew their feet. It is more common in large working breeds, such as Labradors, German Shepherds and Dobermanns. As above, it initially starts innocently enough, but once the skin gets broken, infection and irritation can set in.

Determining if your dog is licking their feet for behavioural reasons will often be a case of ruling out other causes first (more on this later), though there can be clues such as noticing they do it at certain times. Treatment again depends on the cause but can include interacting with your bored dog more, providing more toys to play with (these dogs often like to destroy things, so cardboard boxes can be good!), unpleasant tasting lotion on the paws to discourage licking, calming diffusers or even anxiety-relieving medication. Extreme cases may require behavioural therapy.

Vetster option 01 (Blog)

Pain

Showing pain isn’t always barking and yelping – sometimes it can be very subtle. One common presentation is licking in the painful area. If your dog licks their feet, could they be painful?

There are many reasons why your dog may have painful feet. Inflammation and infection can become painful over time. So if they caused this via licking the problem may start to get worse. Primary causes of pain can include damaged nails or claws, damage to their pads, soft tissue injuries like tendon or ligament damage, joint pain, foreign bodies stuck in the paws (grass seeds stuck between the toes are very common in summer!) and more. In older dogs, licking the paws can be a sign of underlying arthritis that may need to be treated with pain relief, or even some forms of cancer.

Once problems in the skin have been ruled out, investigation may involve x-rays or ultrasound of the feet, blood testing for certain diseases, and advanced imaging such as CT or MRI. Pain is, of course, treated with pain relief.

Itching

Here we come to the big one – itching. Likely the most common reason why dogs, especially those under 3 years old, lick their paws, is because they are itchy. Itching happens for a variety of reasons. As we discussed above, it can be secondary to infection caused by licking for another reason, such as boredom. But it can also be primary.

Dry skin can be very itchy 

Of the many problems that cause dry skin some, such as parasites, are listed elsewhere in this article, so will be addressed there. Some dogs are prone to dry skin for other reasons, such as breed predispositions, over bathing (avoid washing your dog too much, particularly with harsh shampoos), cold or dry weather, and sunburn. Dry skin can be soothed with moisturisers.

One of the easiest causes to rule out for itchy feet is parasites. Two in particular, Demodex and harvest mites, are commonly found in the feet; though others such as fleas or scabies can affect feet too. Demodex is common in young and old dogs or those with weak immune systems, while harvest mites are more common in dogs walked outdoors in autumn. We can diagnose these mites via scraping the skin and looking at it under a microscope, though harvest mites can sometimes be seen with the naked eye as little red or orange dots. Treatment involves spot-on or oral anti-parasite treatments. Regular treatment is essential to prevent these infections.

Skin infection, as mentioned above, can cause irritation and itching

It can be secondary to licking, but also occur for other reasons, such a foreign body wound, cuts on the paws, or primary infections, such as with ringworm. Diagnosis may involve sampling the skin and looking at it under a microscope, while treatment is via oral or topical antibiotics or antifungals, depending on the cause. 

We usually start by ruling out parasites and skin infection first, which once ruled out generally leaves us with…

Allergies or hypersensitivities – common causes of itching

There are many different kinds of allergies, and dogs can be sensitive to many things in the environment and in their food (food intolerance is common, but true food allergies are rare in dogs). Some dogs don’t have actual allergies, but are hypersensitive to certain substances, such as road salt, tree sap or pollen – these are easier to manage by washing the sensitive areas and applying moisturisers. Dogs with true allergies tend to be itchy elsewhere, such as their bellies, ears and eyes – some breeds, like Frenchies, are especially prone to this. 

Diagnosis is difficult, but may involve blood sampling, testing areas of skin for allergies, and trialling a prescription hypoallergenic diet. Treatment is usually with powerful anti-itching drugs, advanced immunotherapy (basically a personalised allergy vaccine) and staying on hypoallergenic food. Other treatments, like washing the paws regularly, applying creams, adding certain nutrients to the diet, and avoiding certain areas, can help too. Allergies are often unable to be fully treated, but must be managed seasonally or lifelong.

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Other rarer skin diseases, such as pemphigus, lupus or certain skin cancers, as well as non-skin diseases that cause skin problems (such as Cushing’s or hypothyroidism) can cause irritation and itching too. We can identify these via skin biopsies. As these diseases are more chronic, treatment is usually more extensive, with immunosuppressive drugs, chemotherapy or surgery. Luckily, they are rarer than the other causes above.

Habit

Unfortunately, treating an underlying problem causing licking doesn’t always fix the issue. Even once we are sure there is no more irritation or reasons for a dog to lick, they continue to do so. This is likely because licking has become a habit. Continuing the habit opens their skin up to being re-damaged and having to start treatment again. This is understandably frustrating for both owners and vets. 

Treatment at this stage is difficult, as the problem is located in the dog’s mind. It may involve distraction techniques, using the unpleasant tasting lotion, or behavioural therapy. With time and effort, your dog can break the habit.

Abdominal Upset

This rather unusual cause of licking was identified in a 2012 study – they looked at a number dogs with abdominal disease and noted that a significant proportion (14 out of 19) started to lick compulsively. The dogs had a wide range of GI issues, including pancreatitis, foreign body blockage, infection with parasites, IBD and gastric stasis. The study also tried to rule out sickness and neurological reasons for licking.

However, there are two issues with the study. One is its size – although almost three quarters of the dogs with GI disease also licked, the sample size was still very small. We cannot assume that three quarters of all dogs with GI disease will lick. The second issue is with what the dogs licked – all the dogs licked objects, rather than themselves. None licked their feet. So there is as of yet no evidence that a dog with GI disease will lick their feet, but perhaps if GI upset can cause licking of objects, it might cause feet licking too. It’s unlikely that your dog is licking their feet because their tummy hurts, but it might be worth investigating if they show other signs, like vomiting or diarrhoea.

Treatment for Acral Lick Dermatitis

Noticing your dog has a licking problem early is the best way to prevent skin damage and infection. But sometimes the problem comes on quickly or doesn’t get noticed until it is too late. What do we do then?

As always, it is important to identify the cause of licking and treat this first, whether it be parasites, pain, allergies, boredom and so on. Once we know the cause (or sometimes if we cannot identify an obvious cause), we often treat symptomatically as well. This may involve anti-inflammatories, anti-itching drugs, antibiotics if there is infection, topical creams, putting a buster collar on your dog until the skin has healed and potentially even advanced surgery to remove seriously infected tissue. Skin can take a long time to heal, so you may have to visit your vet multiple times until we are satisfied the problem has gone away.

And remember to keep a close eye on your dog afterwards, in case the problem has become a habit. The last thing we want is to be back at square one. 

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