Paw licking can be a normal part of a dog’s grooming process, but what if the paw licking is excessive? There are a variety of reasons dogs might lick their paws, and each of those reasons may have their own medical or behavioral causes. If your dog’s paw-licking is noticeable or otherwise interfering with your daily life and theirs, it’s worth figuring out why they do it.
In This Article
So, why do dogs lick their paws?
The reasons are many, and variable in severity. A lot of dogs lick their paws as part of a normal grooming routine, but the behavior can also be linked to stress/anxiety, boredom, uncomfortable skin, and pain.
Normal grooming is commonly observed when the dog’s feet are visibly dirty, or they’ve just stepped in something or come in from being outdoors. If your dog’s paw-licking is noticeable and excessive, though, it’s probably not just grooming.
Anxiety and Stress
Anxiety and stress in dogs can be hard to narrow down, and it’s even harder to figure out Why they’re feeling it. Paw-licking is a self-soothing behavior, much like thumb sucking in infants, and younger or even older children. It’s an easy, repetitive behavior that doesn’t require mental effort, and can temporarily take their mind off of whatever’s bothering them.
Figuring out the cause can be challenging- when you see the behavior starting, think about everything that led up to it. Did a stranger come to visit? Was there an argument in the house that the dog seemed sensitive to? Are there storms coming, or did one just pass through?
Dogs with stress and anxiety disorders often need behavioral intervention of some kind- talk to your veterinarian about options to manage it with supplements or medications, but also work with a veterinary behaviorist, or a professional dog trainer who uses positive, reward-based training methods. It can also be helpful to reduce the frequency of stress-inducing events whenever possible.
Bored, Bored, Bored, Bored, Bored
Boredom is a common plague for the average dog, because they often spend the day alone while their human housemates are away at work or school or social events. That’s 8-10 hours home alone to do except entertain themselves. When dogs get bored, and their usual toys aren’t stimulating enough, they’ll switch to that easy, repetitive, minimal effort self-soothing behavior to mentally “check out” for a while.
If your dog is licking their feet because they’re bored, they’ll usually display other boredom behaviors too. Begging for attention (which some might mistake for food begging), chewing on things they shouldn’t (because getting yelled at is still attention!), barking or whining, and even physically pestering you.
To solve the boredom bug, get their brain engaged! This can happen while you’re away from home, with food dispensing toys and rotating out their cast of toys regularly (instead of leaving them all out all the time.) When you’re home, take them for a walk but let them meander and sniff along the way. Play games that make them use their brain, do things they get genuinely excited about. Bring out the food dispensing toys again (consider using them for every meal!)
Allergies, Skin Infections, and Other Irritants
Uncomfortable skin is an Extremely common cause of paw licking. Skin that is itchy, red, or inflamed needs to be soothed or counter-stimulated in some way (think scratching a mosquito bite), and since dogs can’t use their toes to scratch their fingers, they use their teeth and their tongues instead. Paw licking due to skin discomfort is often accompanied by chewing as well.
Skin discomfort can be attributed to local allergic responses, contact reactions (chemicals, stinging nettles, etc), and skin infections. Paw licking under these circumstances is a different kind of self soothing. Dogs can’t apply Benadryl cream or give themselves a dose of steroid or antibiotic, but they can lick which might make the soreness feel better. What they don’t know is that the relief is Only Temporary. Despite the widespread wives tale, dog saliva can’t cure or heal skin conditions.
To reduce the problem of allergies or contact irritation, you can try gently wiping the dog’s paws with a pet or child safe wipe, or rinsing them in water. If this isn’t enough to give them lasting comfort, make an appointment with your vet. A veterinary visit is imperative if skin infection is present. It’s not safe to give non-veterinary antibiotics to dogs, and it’s important for your veterinarian to choose an antibiotic specific to your pet’s condition.
A Pain in the Foot
Dogs will lick their paws when they’re painful too. They can’t say “ouch my toe hurts” or “my feet are achy today, can I get a foot rub?” So instead, they try to soothe the pain themselves. While we can’t blame them (it’s not like they have any other choice) licking their paws won’t take the pain away- and that’s where we come in!
One of the most common reasons for toe pain in dogs involves their nails, whether they’re broken, torn, or even if they’re too long! If nails grow too long, they start to affect the way toes touch the ground. Extra long nails can even twist toes sideways! If your dogs nails are long, get them cut as soon as possible (whether you do it yourself, take them to a groomer, or go in for a vet visit.)
Pain can also be caused by injuries, bone fractures or dislocations, or even arthritis. If there’s an obvious injury, fracture or dislocation, a visit to a veterinarian is necessary and an emergency visit may be warranted. Arthritis can be a little harder to narrow down, but you’ll see a definite up-tick in licking when weather gets cold, after vigorous exercise or longer walks, and all of these especially so in older dogs or dogs with a history of athleticism.
If your dog has an injury, bone fracture, or dislocation, your veterinarian will treat them based on what caused it, and how long it’ll take to recover. Arthritis can be managed with supplements and medications meant to provide relief from pain and inflammation.
The most important thing to remember when your dog licks their paws, is that there is some reason for it, and it’s your job as their owner to look into it. Please don’t just put foot covers on them- While it might mitigate your perception of the symptom, it doesn’t solve the actual root cause, and if your dog is still uncomfortable, they might rip the foot covers off. Covering the feet could also make their condition worse- trapping in moisture, encouraging infection, and leading to even more problems.
If your dog is licking their paws, observe the rest of their behavior too, and consider making a visit to your veterinarian for help!