A Facebook friend of mine, Brett, with many FB friends of his own, recently posted a question about his dog’s constant licking of his feet. I was amazed at the more than 200 responses he got, his friends commiserating and sharing their sagas of their own itchy-footed canines.
But lots of their advice was misleading. I thought I’d take another crack at itchy pets, itchy feet in particular, and set the record straight.
My friend Brett lives in the Midwest and has been watching his Lab, Bo, lick his feet for several years now, mostly in the fall. Bo is 5, and this is Bo’s worst foot-chewing season so far.
Brett’s Friends’ Advice
1. Food Allergy
Pam’s dog, Binky, was licking her feet and had her blood tested for allergies, and thereafter diagnosed with an allergy to chicken.
When a pet has a food allergy, it is not seasonal, like Bo’s foot chewing. Food-allergic dogs will itch all the time until the source of the allergen is discovered and removed from the diet. Most food-allergic dogs are very itchy, and foot licking alone is not a hallmark of this condition.
Blood testing does not diagnose food allergy. Dogs must be put on a limited-ingredient, novel diet to be diagnosed with a food allergy. Since Bo only licks his feet seasonally, I’d take food allergy off the differential list.
Micky, with itchy dog Puddles, told Brett that Bo was suffering from sarcoptic mange. Mange is very common in the fall, said Micky, and dogs contract it from foxes or other dogs.
Micky is correct that sarcoptic mange is contagious, and although a dog can get it at any time of year, it is more prevalent in certain climates in the fall. But Bo is not exhibiting classic signs of sarcoptic mange.
Mange causes intense itching. On a scale of 1 to 10, it’s a 10. And mange does not stay on the feet. Elbows, ears, abdomen — you name it — the mange mite travels to many areas on the body, and the dog will not stop itching without specific mange treatment, usually ivermectin. Lastly, dogs itch so badly with mange they usually have an unpleasant odor.
3. Lawn Chemicals
Beverly, with pooch Chupka, asked Brett if the lawn had been sprayed recently. Those horrible chemicals hurt Chupka’s feet, she reported, and maybe that’s what’s wrong with Bo.
Exposure to a caustic agent like lawn chemicals usually triggers an acute response. The dog’s feet become inflamed, and the licking begins. But Bo has been licking his feet mildly for a few weeks, and it is progressing. This doesn’t sound like a contact allergy to lawn chemicals.
4. Foreign Body in the Foot
John wrote in about his dog, Bailey, who was licking between his toes, and the vet found a thorn embedded in Bailey’s foot. Foreign bodies certainly cause foot licking, but it’s generally 1 foot — the foot with the foreign body in it — not all 4 feet.
For that matter, your pup is usually licking in a very specific area, trying to tell you he has something stuck in his foot!
5. Grass Allergy
Marcy told Brett that Bo was definitely allergic to grass and if Brett just washed Bo’s feet every time he came in from outside, the licking would stop. Aside from too simplistic a fix, Marcy is on to something: allergies. Although wiping paws may give some relief to animals allergic to grasses, it’s not that simple.
Allergens in grass, most likely pollens, penetrate the skin and are also inhaled. Washing the point of contact is simply not enough to stop the cascade of allergic symptoms. Besides, it’s highly impractical for many people to wash 4 canine feet every time they wander outside.
These pups don’t seem to have a problem with grass:
When a dog is allergic to grasses, trees and pollens, they suffer from atopic dermatitis and itch. People allergic to these allergens usually exhibit runny eyes and noses and other respiratory symptoms. You need to reach for your allergy relief medications and antihistamines, and our dogs need medicine too.
If your dog is scratching and itching anywhere on their body for more than a week, don’t wait to see if it goes away on its own — chances are it won’t. Relieving allergy symptoms sooner than later is the key. The longer your pet keeps scratching and biting at themselves, the worse the lesions will become, and the longer it will take to relieve the symptoms.
Over-the-counter allergy medications may help your dog, but they are not as useful in pets as in humans. Consult your veterinarian about using antihistamines and anti-allergy medications.
If the foot licking or generalized itching does not improve, bring Itchy in for a fall vet visit. Prescription medications are needed. You’ll both be glad you did.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed Nov. 1, 2017.