Q:Why does my dog keep licking his paws? I’ve searched his feet and there are no cuts on his paw pads or anything stuck between his toes. Is this normal?
A: There are several reasons why dogs may lick their paws—ranging from itchy paws caused by allergies to normal grooming to behavioral issues or other health concerns. Most of the time, it’s pretty normal, especially if it’s only occasional licking. However, if you notice that there’s excessive paw licking or your dog seems to be in pain, you should take them in for a checkup to determine the underlying cause of this behavior.
Reasons Dogs Lick Their Paws or Feet
If you notice your pup chew their paws or lick their feet, experts say there are several common reasons for this behavior:
If your pooch is only occasionally licking their paws, “it can be normal grooming behavior,” according to Ana Clara Muñoz, DVM, a veterinarian on the San Francisco SPCA’s behavior specialty team. This form of self-grooming is how your pup keeps itself clean, so there’s no need to worry!
Dogs may groom or lick themselves—or objects like furniture and bedding—to help them relax. This may happen before a nap or as a way to decompress from over-stimulation, says Jolene Short, CDBC, CPDT-KA, CSAT, FFCP, a trainer at Homeward Bound Animal Behavior & Training in Pardeeville, Wisconsin. (Sort of like the way fidget spinners work.)
Pretty normal stuff, however Short cautions that excessive or injurious amounts of licking may be a sign that your dog is struggling with a more significant level of anxiety. “Anxiety-related over-grooming is a symptom of a larger problem and requires a deeper dive into the dog’s emotional health,” she says. Learn more about anxiety in dogs.
If your four-legged friend steps on a sharp rock or a sticker bush in the yard, it can cause skin irritation or pain. Ditto for an infection of the nail bed or paw pad, so make sure to give your dog’s paw a once-over if they’re suddenly licking it. This isn’t the time to break out the first-aid kit and play doctor; have your dog’s vet remove any foreign objects or hangnails ASAP.
Dogs can suffer from allergies just like humans, causing itchy skin, which in turn causes them to lick. “Usually chronic ongoing licking is not behavioral, but an outward symptom of chronic established allergies,” says Amy Tate, DVM, co-owner and managing partner of Riverview Animal Clinic in Birmingham, Alabama.
Common dog allergies include environmental allergies (such as seasonal allergies), flea allergies and food allergies. Learn more about allergies in dogs and whether your dog might be having an allergic reaction.
Both yeast and staph bacteria are normally present on your dog’s skin, but they can “increase greatly when the skin is chronically wet and the skin cells are disrupted, allowing the bacteria and yeast to replicate,” says Dr. Tate.
Translation? If your dog has allergies and constantly licks themselves because they’re itchy, that saliva can create a damp environment on the skin which can cause yeast infections or bacterial infections, referred to as moist dermatitis. These secondary infections can make your poor pup’s paws itch even more, creating a vicious cycle and potentially leading to other health problems.
Other Health Issues
The vets we spoke to said there could be other underlying health reasons your dog is constantly licking their paws, such as joint pain, skin mites, tummy troubles or another source of discomfort. Remember, constant paw-licking can be a soothing mechanism for dogs, so this behavior can be a sign of something not even related to their feet—and is worth bringing up with your vet.
When Should You Be Concerned About Paw Licking
Paw licking usually isn’t a major cause for concern, but it’s always better to be on the safe side for the sake of your pet’s health. Sarah Wooten, DVM, CVJ, says if you notice any of these things, you should bring your pup in for a veterinary exam:
- Your dog is licking their paws more than usual and/or it’s disrupting their daily life
- Their paws are stained brown from licking
- There are wounds, broken toenails, swelling, hot spots, blisters or growths
- Their paws have a strong smell
- Your dog is limping
How to Stop Dog Paw Licking
This will depend on the reason why your dog is licking their paws in the first place and how best to treat that underlying cause. Treatments vary and may include:
- Allergy shots
- Antifungal shampoo
- Behavior modification
- Anti-anxiety medication
An e-collar can provide a temporary solution while your vet determines appropriate treatment.
If your dog is licking their paws a mild or moderate amount, Short recommends redirecting them to an alternate form of calming enrichment as a replacement, and ideally one that still involves the licking behavior “so we can meet the need that they’re telling us helps them feel good.” For example, try introducing the following:
- Lick mats: Licking mats, like this one from LickiMat, make your dog work extra hard for their food. Spread wet dog food or peanut butter into the crevices for a soothing treat.
- KONG Classic toy: Place a tasty treat inside a KONG toy like peanut butter or one of KONG’s spray treats to keep your dog busy. (Psst, freezing the treats inside make it extra challenging.)
Some other ways pet parents can try to lower their pup’s anxiety include: