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Why Do Dogs Lick Their Paws?

The answer to the question “Why do dogs lick their paws?” isn’t always simple. Grass allergies, foreign bodies and parasites are all possible causes.

why do dogs lick their paws
Answering the question “Why do dogs lick their paws?” is rarely straightforward, so work with your veterinarian to find out why your dog engages in this behavior. Photo: isakarakus

“Why do dogs lick their paws?”

This ranks right up there with the top questions clients regularly ask me, a veterinarian.

But while foot licking in a dog is a common problem, getting to grips with it can be complicated.

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If your dog has brown paws from excessive licking and you’re wondering, “Why is my dog constantly licking?” then read on to understand the common reasons and what you can do about the problem.

Did you know that where the dog licks can be significant in terms of a diagnosis?

For example, a dog licking their rump probably has fleas or anal gland problems, while a paw licker is often much more complicated.

There are many reasons a dog keeps licking their paws, so let’s delve deeper into this topic.

Why Do Dogs Lick Their Paws?

When your dog is constantly licking, it’s important to find out why.

Stopping this habit often means finding and correcting the causes of itchy feet.

Yes, some dogs lick their paws out of habit, but it’s never a good idea to assume this. Often there’s a medical explanation behind the issue, and only by correcting this will the excessive licking stop.

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1. Parasites

Parasites and fleas often spring to mind.

But for paws in particular, there are other wee beasties that are likely to be problematic.

Ticks, harvest mites, sarcoptic mange mites or demodex mites like to snuggle up in the warm crevices between the toes. These itchy critters act as a source of irritation and lead to a dog constantly licking their paws.

Be sure to use a parasite preventive regularly, especially during summer.

But beware: Different products work against different parasites. Check with the veterinarian that your product is effective against the parasite that’s making your dog itch.

Why Do Dogs Lick Their Paws?
Your dog may have a grass awn (a common irritant) that makes them lick a single paw. Photo: pinger

2. Atopy

The most common cause of paw licking? Allergies (or more correctly known in dogs as atopy1).

OK, the dog has itchy feet, so they stepped in something they’re allergic to — right? Wrong!

Allergies are more complex than that. Common allergens include pollens, dust mites and molds. Take the example of a dog with a grass pollen allergy. The pollen is an allergen (something that triggers an allergic reaction). It settles on the dog’s coat and makes contact with the skin.

In simple terms, this triggers a cascade of inflammatory hormones that ends with the dog becoming itchy … especially the feet. A dog with brown paws is a giveaway of this. That’s because natural chemicals (called porphyrins) in saliva oxidize and go brown in contact with air.

Bingo! The dog licks a lot, and their saliva-soaked fur goes brown or rust-colored.

So, why is my dog constantly licking? Answer: Because allergies make their skin oh-so-itchy.

3. Infection

Have you had athlete’s foot? Itchy, isn’t it?

Athlete’s foot is caused by a fungal infection — and guess what? Dogs can suffer a similar condition.

Most commonly, it’s a type of yeast that’s the problem, called malasezzia or pityosporum (depending on which decade you went to vet school).

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Malasezzia is a normal inhabitant of dog skin. But if the skin gets moist or damaged, the yeast take advantage and breed out of control, causing an itchy infection.

This is a common complication of paw licking in a dog because the yeast thrives in the warm, damp folds between the toes.2

For more info, see my related article, “How Does a Yeast Infection Make Your Dog Itch?”

4. Irritation

Many household cleaning products can irritate delicate canine skin. Stepping in wet floor cleaner or diluted bleach is certainly going to get a reaction, such as excessive licking.

Indeed, carpet cleaners, especially of the sprinkle-and-vacuum-up sort, are public enemy No. 1 when it comes to physically inflaming skin.

Don’t use them if you have pets, unless you want a great reason to visit the vet.3

5. Foreign Body

In summer, grass awns are the devil.

Grass seeds have the aerodynamics of a dart. They wedge against the skin, pierce the surface and then migrate inside. This causes huge irritation, which leads the dog to lick, chew or scratch at the affected area.

I often hear, “My dog keeps licking one paw,” from clients when this happens.

A foreign body may be the reason for this highly focused attention. Check it out by examining the dog’s paw, looking for an angry red bump or blister between the toes.

If you see this, then a grass awn may be the problem. If it’s already migrated under the skin, then see a vet urgently. That awn needs to be found and removed before it travels even deeper and causes all manner of complications.

Why Do Dogs Lick Their Paws?
Dogs may find constant licking of their paws soothing and addictive. Photo: Live Once Live Wild

6. Pain or Discomfort

When you crack your funny bone against a door, what do you do?

If you’re like me, you rub your elbow (and curse a bit … or maybe that’s just me).

Well, in the same way, if a dog has a sore joint, they lick at it. A rhythmic massage with a warm tongue can be soothing. It’s a comfort thing. A dog licking a paw and limping may have low-grade discomfort, such as a sprain or even arthritis.

Be mindful if the repetitive licking is totally out of character for your dog. If their focus is just one spot, then it’s time for a vet check.

And remember, they may not necessarily lick directly over the painful place — they may lick somewhere else that’s easier to get to.

7. Behavioral

Much like children sucking their thumb, dogs too can get into the habit of licking. It comforts them.

But there’s hard science behind the licking — it causes an endorphin release.

Endorphins are natural morphines produced by the body as feel-good hormones. When a dog repeatedly licks, it gives them a small high. Some dogs become addicted to that feeling and just can’t give up the licking.

Often, these are highly strung, bored or anxious dogs who learn that licking is a comfort when outside their comfort zone.

Oh, and there’s no point in scolding these dogs for licking. Yes, they may stop when you’re there, but they’ll become devious and just wait until you’re gone to resume.

And there’s a distinct risk that shouting will add to their stress and make them more miserable, not less.

How Do I Stop My Dog From Licking Their Paws?

Great question!

Sadly, many “home remedies” people take for itchiness just plain don’t work for dogs. Take antihistamines as an example.

Benadryl is an antihistamine. It works well at stopping itchiness in people, but in dogs, the effect is disappointing.

Benadryl works better in dogs at preventing a flare-up than settling down an established one. So if the dog is already licking, it’s probably too late to give Benadryl and expect it to help.

Dr. Karen Becker, DVM, recommends foot soaks for dogs whose paws are exposed to irritants and allergens:

Home Remedies for When Dogs Are Constantly Licking Their Paws

Here’s what you can do at home to help:

  • Wash their paws: Rinse their paws off, especially after walks in the summer. If the dog has allergies, rinsing allergens such as grass sap from the skin decreases the exposure, which decreases the trigger for itchiness.
  • Correct secondary infections: Bacteria or yeasts that invade the damaged skin will make the dog itchier. Try bathing the paws in dilute chlorhexidine twice a day, then dry the paws well afterward. This disinfectant can help control both bacteria and yeasts.
  • Up the ante on yeast infections: How do you treat a yeast infection on your dog’s paws? Medicated shampoos — such as Curaseb — or wipes — such as chlorhexidine medicated wipes — can really help. The trick is to use them regularly enough, such as every 2 days for the shampoo and twice daily for the wipes.
  • Improve skin condition: Feed a great diet rich in antioxidants and essential fatty acids. This strengthens the skin and improves its immunity generally to reduce feet licking. Alternatively, try Allerderm for dogs, which is a spot-on treatment to condition the skin.4
  • Hypoallergenic diet: Around 10% of all allergic dogs have an allergy to food. Try feeding a hypoallergenic diet for 12 weeks. If the excessive licking stops, the dog may be allergic to something previously in their diet.
  • Alleviate boredom and soothe stress: For those “comfort lickers” with brown paws, give plenty of exercise and a pleasant distraction from anxiety.
  • “Cone of shame” … only as a last resort: Use an Elizabethan collar (commonly known as an E collar or “cone of shame”) only as a last resort if the dog’s scratching and chewing is drawing blood. This is because the itch remains, but the dog just can’t get to it, and this is potentially a low-level torture. Use the cone for only as long as it takes to get a vet appointment.
  • Plan ahead: Is your dog constantly licking their paws every summer? Then start their meds in late spring. A low dose started early keeps things under control, and it prevents secondary infections and costs from spiraling out of control.
  • Work with your veterinarian: The vet should find and correct the cause of the excessive licking. Then, treatment with pain relief, antibiotics or allergy medication should do the rest.

A dog constantly licking is a sign they need help. Don’t leave the problem hoping it will get better. Chances are it won’t, and complications will set in.

If your dog has brown paws or does excessive licking, work with your vet to ease the dog’s irritation. Act early to stop things from running out of control.

References

  1. “Atopic Dermatitis.” Willows Veterinary Centre and Referral Service. https://www.willows.uk.net/specialist-services/pet-health-information/veterinary-dermatology/atopic-dermatitis.
  2. Ward, Ernest, DVM. “Yeast Dermatitis in Dogs.” VCA Hospitals. 2009. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/yeast-dermatitis-in-dogs.
  3. “Keep Your Pets Safe From Toxic Cleaning Products.” The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals. https://www.pdsa.org.uk/taking-care-of-your-pet/looking-after-your-pet/all-pets/spring-cleaning.
  4. Jeromin, Alice M., RPh, DVM, DACD. “Helpful Hints for the Successful Treatment of Canine Atopy.” DVM360. Aug. 1, 2013. http://veterinarynews.dvm360.com/helpful-hints-successful-treatment-canine-atopy.
vet-cross60pThis pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Feb. 15, 2019.

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