It’s normal for dogs to lick their paws. Dogs don’t lick to groom themselves as much as cats do, but self-grooming (including paw licking) is typical behavior, especially after a bath or walking outside. What you want to look out for is obsessive paw licking that leaves the paws raw or red. That’s a sign your dog needs help with a physical or mental health issue.
Paw licking and chewing can have different causes, so we’ll cover the most common reasons why dogs lick their paws, as well as tips for how pet parents can help their pup if paw licking gets problematic.
Injury or Irritation
The first thing you want to check is if your dog has an injury – especially when they’re licking or chewing just one paw. If your dog will let you examine their paws, look for things like cuts, scrapes, bug bites or stings, a torn nail, or something wedged between the paw pads.
A growth (like a cyst or tumor) can also cause irritation and lead to paw licking. Salted sidewalks in winter and hot sidewalks in summer can cause burns, blisters or dryness and cracking. You might be able to remove the irritant or sanitize a small cut on your own, but if you’re not sure what caused the injury (or if it looks serious) you should get it checked out by your veterinarian.
Dogs that are in pain may lick their paws as a coping strategy. The pain could be from arthritis in the feet and legs, or it could be referred pain from somewhere else in their body. If you sense your dog is in pain but don’t see an obvious cause, it’s best to get a medical opinion.
Dermatitis is a general term for skin inflammation caused by infection, allergy, or food sensitivity. Skin conditions like dermatitis can also be triggered by lawn and garden chemicals, deicers, some types of weeds and grass, or even environmental allergies.
Contact dermatitis is often a delayed reaction that shows up 2-3 days after exposure to the irritating substance. It can show up the first time your dog comes in contact with the allergen, or it can develop slowly over time and seem to suddenly appear.
If you notice your dog has swollen, red or itchy paws, it could be dermatitis. There’s usually hair loss in the affected area, and there could be bumps, lesions or dry scaly patches as well. You can try washing off your dog’s paws when they come in from outside to see if that helps – just use water and a washcloth (soap can contribute to dry, irritated skin).
There are several types of external parasites that can make dogs itchy, including fleas, ticks, hookworm, lice and the parasitic mites that cause mange.
Signs your dog may have an external parasitic infection include skin redness, bumps, hair loss and excessive licking or scratching. If you suspect your dog’s paw licking stems from a parasitic infection, you’ll need a diagnosis and treatment from your vet.
Food Allergies & Sensitivities
In dogs, a food allergy can cause itchy paws (as well as itchy ears, or itchy skin in general). Food intolerances in dogs can also include symptoms like digestive upset (vomiting or diarrhea), hives, or swelling around your dog’s mouth, eyes or ears. Food intolerance is more common than a food allergy in dogs, but food sensitivities can produce equally uncomfortable symptoms including itchy paws and skin.
It can be tricky figuring out which food or ingredient your dog is allergic or sensitive to. Your veterinarian may recommend a specific type of food, or an elimination diet. Any food can potentially cause sensitivity or an allergic reaction, but the most common food allergens for dogs are beef, dairy, chicken, eggs, soy, and gluten.
Additives like artificial flavors, preservatives and dyes are also a common trigger, which is why you won’t find any of them in any Stella & Chewy’s recipes. Our dog food is minimally processed and includes natural oils (with inflammation-calming omega-3 fatty acids), which can help provide relief to dogs dealing with itchy paws caused by sensitivities. We also offer beef-free and poultry-free single-source animal proteins. Learn more about our food options for dogs with allergies and sensitivities.
If your dog licks their paws after eating, they might just be cleaning food particles off their paws and front legs. Some dogs lick their paws after eating to ease temporary discomfort, the way a person might stretch or rub their stomach after eating a big meal.
Other common self-grooming behaviors in dogs include licking their paws and wiping their face, and licking their paws after scratching their ears. On the other hand, persistent ear scratching and paw licking could signal an ear infection.
You know your dog best, so observe them closely to figure out if they’re licking their paws from irritation, or to groom and settle themselves.
Sometimes dogs lick their paws as a self-soothing mechanism when they’re feeling stressed or bored. When dogs lick their paws and skin it releases endorphins that help your dog feel calm and secure. Another theory is that self-licking in dogs reminds them of being groomed and cared for by their mother, which helps them relax.
Making sure your dog gets plenty of exercise each day is a great way to reduce stress, and it will help them live their best life, too! Giving your dog affection and attention every day is also important for their mental health, as are enrichment activities that can help stave off boredom when you can’t be home.
Chronic anxiety in dogs can lead to compulsive behaviors, including excessive paw licking. If your dog suffers from separation anxiety or has a fear of loud noises, finding healthy ways to manage their anxiety can help.
Similar to paw licking for stress relief, many dogs lick their paws at night because it helps them relax before they go to sleep.
If your dog sleeps with you and you’re bothered by their nighttime paw-licking routine, make sure you’re not unconsciously perpetuating the situation. Even negative attention (like telling your dog to stop) rewards and reinforces the behavior. In that case, you might consider training your dog to sleep somewhere else.
If you have a senior dog that started licking their paws compulsively as they got older, it could be a sign of canine dementia or a neurological condition—any of which require diagnosis and treatment from a veterinarian.
Of course, you should first rule out other causes like pain, irritation, food sensitivity and stress, which can cause paw licking in dogs of all ages.
Should I Be Worried?
If your dog licks their paws routinely and otherwise seems fine, you can probably chalk it up to normal (or quirky!) dog behavior.
When paw licking is constant, intense, or causes injury, then you need to take action. If your dog licks their paws a lot, monitor for warning signs like redness, hair loss and broken skin. Get medical treatment if your dog’s paws are licked raw. Too much licking leaves the paw area moist, which opens the door for bacterial and fungal infections.
Ways to Discourage Excessive Paw Licking
Here’s a summary of steps you can take to prevent problematic paw licking:
- Make sure your dog is getting enough physical activity, affection and mental enrichment each day
- Be aware of your dog’s mental health and proactively manage their anxiety
- Avoid foods and ingredients that cause an allergic reaction or sensitivity in your dog
- Protect your dog’s paws with booties if they’re sensitive to salt, deicers or other irritants found outside the home (or wash your dog’s paws when they come back inside)
- Ask your vet about preventive treatments for dog ticks and other parasites
- Ask your vet about topical treatments to deter paw licking
Keep reading: learn five all-natural ways to promote dog wellness so you can enjoy more quality time with your pup!
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