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Medically Reviewed by Veterinarian Angela Dwyer, DVM on December 30, 2018
Table of Contents
Have you ever seen your dog lick or chew at their paws nonstop? It seems like every time you turn around, there they are, worrying at their feet again. They may even pull out tufts of hair, or leave their paws looking chapped and raw from all the licking. I went through this with my first Boxer, Gloria, who would occasionally tear into one of her front paws for a few months out of the year. It took me a few tries to figure out what was going on, and if her paw hadn’t swollen up, I may have just assumed that it was a strange quirk.
But unfortunately for many dogs, this behavior is not just a quirk. In fact, there are several reasons why your dog could be licking or chewing their paws excessively, and none are simply quirk or habit. Most of these reasons need some attention, and some may even require a trip to the vet. Before we talk about those seven reasons, let’s list off the things you should look for beyond the action of licking or chewing. If you see:
Red skin under the hair on the paws
Inflamed wounds on the paws
Swollen paws or toes
Stains on the fur, especially reddish or brownish stains
These are signs that your dog’s licking or chewing is getting out of hand or has already injured your dog. Now let’s get on to the reasons for this behavior.
(1) Injury or Pain in the Paw
If your dog is only licking one paw, chances are that they have some pain in that particular paw. Take a look at the paw and look for a wound, a splinter, or some other obvious injury that could be causing pain. You may also see broken nails, a common cause of pain in a dog’s paw. To avoid this common issue, keep your dog’s nails trimmed well with a pair of quality nail clippers.
If pain is the issue, you’ll usually also see your dog limping or babying that particular paw. If you aren’t able to see anything wrong, such as no thorn or cut, then you need to head to the vet. It could be that your dog’s paw is fractured or otherwise injured on the inside.
One common reason for a dog to be itchy on their paws is an allergic reaction to grass or a chemical that was sprayed onto the ground. This doesn’t have to be outside. It can also be the cleaner you used on your carpet, or something that was used inside a store where your pet walked. Try to pay attention to when your dog is licking or chewing. If it always happens after a potty break in the yard, then chances are your dog has a slight grass or weed allergy, or there is a pesticide at work. One way to avoid the chewing is to wipe your dog’s feet with a grooming wipe after every outdoor trip.
However, if you want to narrow down the actual cause, you may need to turn to your vet. They can do a blood test to see if your dog is allergic to grass or weeds, which can lead to getting an anti-histamine to give your dog for relief.
Other things that can cause allergic reactions include your dog’s food, mold in your home, pollen from blooming plants, dust mites, plastic or rubber material on their dog food or water bowl, and certain medications. Your vet can test for these, and help you figure out how to change what is causing the problem.
Sometimes a dog’s mental state is the problem, rather than anything physical. If a dog is suffering from any kind of anxiety – separation anxiety, storm anxiety, and so on – they can lick or chew on their paws as a way to work out their nervous energy. This may seem like a harmless behavior, but it can cause them to injure their own paws. It’s better to address their anxiety, whether it be helping them deal with separation anxiety, or getting them a thunder shirt to deal with storm anxiety.
Boredom can lead to major destruction, and self-harming behaviors, because a bored dog will always be looking for something to do. If your dog has also started to tear things up, or if you have to leave your dog at home alone for a long time every day, you likely have a bored dog on your hands. Here are some ways to alleviate this behavior:
Give your dog more playtime and exercise. At least half an hour every day of active play is required for most breeds. If your dog is a high-energy dog, they’ll need a lot more.
Give your dog a Kong or some other treat-filled toy to keep them busy. If they are on a diet, just put some of their daily meal in the toy.
Get your dog socializing with other dogs and people, at the dog park or with puppy play dates.
Some dogs can have hormonal imbalances that cause irritation in the coat itself. This brittle hair feels strange on the dog’s skin, so they chew or lick at it. You may also see balding which is caused by the hormonal imbalance itself, not the licking – although the licking does not help! If you see balding or red areas on other parts of your dog’s body, and they seem ill or are acting strangely in other ways, this could be the culprit. Cushing’s disease and hypothyroidism are the two main types of imbalances, and your vet will have to diagnose these. If you can’t figure out the reason for your dog’s licking or chewing, just be aware that this is a possibility your vet could find. There are ways to easily treat hormonal imbalances that will have your dog feeling like new again soon.
(5) Flea or Tick Infestations
One common reason to see a dog licking and biting their paws is that they have fleas! Flea and tick bites cause dogs to itch, and they’ll often nibble at the flea bites on their paws, hoping for some relief. You can avoid this by giving your dog a good flea medication or using a flea collar, and ensuring that your home and yard are not infested with pests.
Also keep in mind that the chemical you use to spray for fleas could also be causing an allergic reaction. If you notice your dog licking or biting right after you treat your home or yard, consider switching to a non-toxic flea-removal method in the future.
Many breeds suffer from dry skin, and dogs can have dry skin after baths if a drying shampoo is used. The first step is to be sure you’re using a moisturizing shampoo with aloe or a similar ingredient in it. You can also consider bathing your dog in colloidal oatmeal in addition to their shampoo.
But if you have a breed that commonly suffers from dry skin, particularly hairless dogs like the Chinese Crested and the Xolo, consider using a dog lotion to protect their skin. If dry skin is the problem, you should also see your dog scratching a lot, or rolling around to scratch their back on the carpet or the ground.
It is very common to see dogs licking or biting their paws in the winter, and that’s because the cold weather can impact your dog’s paws in many ways. Snow and ice can often get caught in the fur between your dog’s toes, and if it freezes there, it can be very painful when it pulls on the hair. Wiping down your dog’s feet, or putting them in snow boots, can help them stay comfortable.
Another problem is de-icing salt, which can actually cause chemical burns on the bottom of a dog’s feet. Walking around these areas, or wiping your dog’s feet down immediately with warm water after a walk, helps prevent this problem.
Those are the seven most common reasons for paw licking and chewing, but there are some other things that you can consider if the reason just can’t be found. The first is that your dog may have some compulsive disorder that causes them to constantly lick or chew their paws. This is very rare, and very difficult to control if that’s the case.
Another problem may be that your dog has a bacterial infection, such as a yeast infection. If paws have cracks or sores, and get wet, this is a possibility. You can get antibacterial medications from your vet, but keeping your dog’s paws clean and dry will help prevent this in the first place.
Types of Treatments
So, if you know the reason why your dog is licking his paws, what can you do about it? For most of these cases, keeping your dog’s feet clean, dry, and free of pests is the best way to stop the excessive licking and chewing. However, some other at-home remedies you can try include:
Putting more humidity back into your home if the problem is dry skin. Dogs without fur, or dogs that have dry skin, suffer from very dry climates. Use a vaporizer or humidifier to add some moisture back into the air. Be sure that you are changing the filter in your humidifier frequently to avoid mold, which can make allergic reactions worse.
Soak your dog’s paws in warm water and Epsom salt, or warm water and povidine iodine. After these soaks, add a natural moisturizer like olive oil to the pads of the feet to prevent cracking.
If your dog does not have open wounds, spray on some apple cider vinegar. Or give your dog a fish oil supplement.
If you are thinking it’s time to head to the vet, then there are many other treatments that will be available. Some of the things the vet may suggest include:
Sedatives to prevent and treat anxiety
Anti-histamines for allergies
Hormone supplements for imbalances
Allergy shots for extreme cases of allergies
Changing your dog’s diet for allergies
Any of these, or a combination of these, may be the answer to stopping your dog from injuring their paws further.
Chewing or licking on the paws may not cause any lasting damage for your dog, but the thing is that they don’t have to be doing this. They could be having a fun, playful life as a dog instead of obsessively worrying their paws over something that is preventable. So even if you don’t see a lot of painful redness or swelling, you should still investigate what is causing your dog to do this behavior.
The easiest way to start to figure out what is causing this behavior is to watch the timing. If your dog always licks his paws after a trip outside, the grass or pollen outdoors may be the problem. If the licking always occurs a short while after eating, they could be allergic to their food. If it happens during storms, anxiety could be to blame. By paying attention to the timing, you’ll narrow down what could be the culprit.
The next step is to start making small changes to see if the behavior stops. For example, start washing your dog’s bedding more often to see if dust mites are the problem, or start using dog lotion on their paws for a while to see if dry skin is the problem. If you can’t solve the issue yourself, then a trip to the vet is most likely in order.
Once you’ve uncovered the issue, you’ll be able to help your dog live a more normal, comfortable life without all the painful worrying of his paws. And if there was an injury or allergy, you’ll be improving his overall health by getting to the bottom of a seemingly small behavioral quirk.