Lacking hands and opposable thumbs, dogs are well known for using their mouths for everything, from eating to carrying toys to saying ‘hello’ with a big lick! Dogs also like to bite things, for better or worse. You may have noticed your dog biting their paws occasionally. What does this mean? Is it a problem? What can you do?
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Is Biting Paws a Problem?
If your dog has a quick nibble now and then, probably not. In fact, this is probably normal. Dogs use their mouths to clean themselves. So a little lick and nibble is likely just them getting their paws nice and clean. If it is infrequent and they stop once satisfied their paws are tidy again, there is little to worry about.
However, excessive biting can indicate an underlying problem – we will go into these in a moment. Excessive biting leaves the skin moist, weakened and sensitive. This makes it more vulnerable to damage, as well as encouraging your dog to keep biting to soothe the sore skin, creating a vicious cycle. If prolonged, excessive biting can break the skin’s protective barriers, allowing harmful bacteria or fungi to infect the skin, causing pain, inflammation and further biting. Deep skin infections can lead to severe tissue damage and infection of other parts of the body. You certainly don’t want to leave sore paws without treatment.
So Why Might My Dog Be Biting?
There are plenty of reasons why your dog will bite their paws, and this list is by no means exhaustive. But here are some of the most common.
Demodex are microscopic mites that live in the hair follicles and sebaceous glands of skin. In actual fact, most dogs have Demodex but they cause no disease. They often only become a problem if your dog has a weak immune system, such as if they are a very young puppy, very old or have a chronic disease. Demodex also tends to infect the skin on the face too. It can be difficult to diagnose, but luckily is treatable.
Harvest mites are a mite that tends to be seen… around harvest-time, in autumn! They look like tiny orange dots crawling in the fur, causing intense itching and biting, particularly between the toes (as well as the ears and belly). Spotting them is a clear sign your dog is infected, meaning we can treat them with a wide variety of anti-parasiticides.
Hookworms are nasty little creatures that infect dogs (as well as people) by burrowing through the skin! This means it is very common for young puppies to get them in their feet, most commonly from dirty environments such as poorly run shelters or puppy farms. As well as sore and swollen feet, the worms can migrate to the intestines and cause diarrhoea. Treatment involves worming tablets and thorough cleaning of the environment.
Contact dermatitis describes damage to the skin as a result of chemicals or other substances. It can present in many ways, from emergency burns, to bleeding and ulceration, to just irritation, depending on the substance. Milder contact dermatitis is more likely to lead to biting the feet.
There is an endless list of products causing contact dermatitis. Some common examples include: bleach; oil and grease; glue; detergents; road salt; swimming pool chlorine; acids; fertilizers; and more. In an ideal situation, we need to know what is causing irritation to your dog’s feet, but this isn’t often possible. Washing the paws regularly and being careful with household chemicals can reduce the risk of contact dermatitis.
Allergies and Atopy
Rather than a chemical that causes irritation to all skin, some dogs can be allergic to specific things found in their diet or the environment, which causes itchy feet and constant biting. Allergies differ from contact dermatitis in that the dog’s own body is the source of irritation – an allergic dog’s immune system will react excessively to contact with certain substances, producing an inflammatory reaction seen as redness and itching. This is actually a normal reaction but taken to extremes with substances that it shouldn’t react to.
Depending on the allergen (the substance causing allergies), a dog may only be itchy on their feet, or they may itch elsewhere – ears, bellies, eyes and tail are common sites. Some dogs will also have mild stomach upset, with vomiting or diarrhoea, if the allergen is in their food. Certain breeds, like French bulldogs and West Highland White Terriers, are more prone to allergies, and a predisposition to allergies tends to be a hereditary trait, meaning “allergies” can be passed on to puppies. Allergies tend to first present around a year old, although it may take longer to get a firm diagnosis.
Allergies are difficult to diagnose, often requiring other reasons for biting feet to have been ruled out first. Certain blood and skin tests can be performed to identify allergies and the specific allergens. The other option is to try a diet trial on prescription hypoallergenic hydrolysed food, to determine if there is a food allergy.
Foreign bodies stuck in the paws are a common cause of your dog biting their paws, especially in Summer. A dog’s paws come into contact with a lot of things, and being hairy they tend to trap substances. In some cases, sharp objects can penetrate into the skin, especially between the toes. This leads to irritation, pain, infection and subsequent over-biting and licking. In extreme cases, foreign bodies can migrate up the leg and to other parts of the body.
Common foreign bodies are stones, thorns and grass seeds (these especially in Summer!). We can sometimes see the puncture holes in the paws, but if they have healed over it can be difficult to diagnose foreign bodies. Removal may be as simple as using our fingers or some forceps, or as complex as requiring surgery. Avoidance is better than removing foreign bodies, so be wary of where you walk your dog, and check their paws after every walk for damage.
Pain and Discomfort
This one should be obvious by now that if your dog’s paws are painful, due to irritation, infection, parasites or foreign bodies, your dog may bite them. But sometimes the problem lies deeper than that.
In older dogs, arthritis in the toe joints is a very common cause of biting paws, as are more sinister conditions such as cancers. In younger dogs, especially bouncy puppies, sudden biting of the paws may indicate some bruising, tissue damage or even a broken bone from an accident. Some of these can be diagnosed with x-rays. When combined with lameness, biting paws should always raise alarm bells that your dog could have painful paws. If these sorts of pain are the causes, pain relief can help soothe the symptoms.
Boredom, Anxiety and Stress
Humans sometimes bite their nails or chew their fingers when nervous or stressed. Dogs sometimes do the same with biting their paws. It tends to be more common in larger, highly-energetic working dogs like German Shepherds and Labradors, but we are also starting to see it in other breeds as a consequence of lockdown puppies not used to being alone.
Of course, the occasional lick is not a problem, but as we already know, when it becomes a habit it can cause damage to the skin. Furthermore, it indicates that your dog is not in a good state of mind, and you should be making changes, such as increasing their exercise, leaving the radio or TV on when you are out, or getting a dog-sitter.
Diagnosing behaviour as a cause of paw biting can be difficult, and will need long chats about your daily routine, when your dog bites their paws, and so on. As before, we must rule out other medical issues first, before addressing the behavioural component. This must be done promptly, before it becomes a habit. Treatment can be difficult, and may require behavioural therapy and changes to your lifestyle.
What Can I Do About It?
Treatment for biting paws really depends on the cause. As always, we must try and diagnose the cause, or rule out as many causes, first, to ensure treatment is appropriate. This will involve a full history and clinical exam, close investigation of the paws and skin, possibly testing the skin itself, blood tests, and even imaging like x-rays.
Parasites can be treated with tablets, washes, or spot-on anti-parasiticides. Skin infections require antibiotics and pain relief to treat – skin infections can sometimes take a long time to heal. Allergies are more complex to manage – we have powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-itching drugs, both systemic and topical, that can treat the signs. True treatment can only be done with immunotherapy, which involves regular injections with a tailored ‘vaccine’ for your dog against specific allergens – some dogs respond very well to these if other options fail. Keeping your dog’s paws clean and dry can also help, as well as avoiding allergens if you know what they are. Pain, of course, requires pain relief, as well as investigation into the underlying cause. You can also try and prevent your dog biting their paws with a buster collar or pet shirt, as well as foul-tasting creams to put them off biting.
But as always, prevention is better than cure, so we encourage regular use of anti-parasite drugs, regularly checking your dog’s paws for injury and disease, keeping their paws clean, and letting us know as soon as possible if your dog seems to be excessively biting. Remember, the sooner we can fix the issue, the easier it is to avoid more serious skin infection and damage.