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Why is my dog is licking his paws?

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Paws of an American Staffordshire by Sarah Basford on Flickr

Paws of an American Staffordshire

© Sarah Basford on Flickr
Question: Why is my dog is licking his paws?
Dogs licking their paws is a common complaint. Is this a medical problem or a behavioral one? Why won't they stop licking? Is this harmful? Learn the answers to these questions and more in this FAQ.
Answer: This is a question without a simple answer. Anytime there is a "behavior" involved, it is most important to first rule out an underlying medical reason for the behavior. If all medical concerns are ruled out, then the problem can be approached as a behavioral one, and behavior modification techniques can be employed.

Some questions to consider: is this a new behavior? Is it both front feet or all feet? Are there any other conditions present such as limping or swelling in the foot? A foot licking problem can start out as a medical one and later become a habit or compulsive behavior.

Your veterinarian will be the only one to fully determine what is going on with your dog's feet, but here are some things your veterinarian will want to know and will be looking for on examination:

Are the feet red, swollen, or crusty/flaky?
This could be indicative of a local irritant (such as deicer) or inflammation/infection from bacterial, fungal and/or parasitic sources. Even if the inciting cause is no longer present, constant licking and chewing can become a self-propagating cycle of continued trauma to the skin and continued inflammation. (Also known as pyotraumatic dermatitis.)

Is licking present in the absence of any noticeable pathology of the feet or toes?
This could be from food allergies or atopy (inhalant allergies), causing general itchiness.

Foreign bodies, such as grass awns, are painful and a common source of infection for the feet.

Arthritis or other painful internal conditions causing pain in the area without visible infection, etc. on the foot could also be a cause for licking.

Are there any irregular lumps or bumps deep between the toes or foot pads?
Cysts or other growths or small abscesses can occur, causing discomfort and licking.

My dog is just licking without any visible signs of something wrong on the foot!
Foot licking can be simply a habit behavior as well; seen when the dog is relaxing, stressed, or bored. Some dogs even chew at their nails with this type of behavior.

Depending on what your veterinarian finds on examination, treatment to stop this behavior will be aimed at the underlying cause. For cases of allergy or infection, there are medications and/or dietary changes that can be made to assist with the problem. Learn more about food allergies and atopy (inhalant allergies).

In situations where pain is the underlying cause, that should be dealt with directly to alleviate the licking. Growths or abscesses are usually treated surgically.

It is important to be vigilant about environmental hazards to feet; such as deicing compounds in the winter and hot pavement tar in the summer.

For difficult cases, a visit to a veterinary dermatologist or university veterinary teaching hospital may be in order.

Behavioral modification to stop paw licking and chewing, like any behavioral modification, takes time, patience and consistency. There are several topical products that can be used to discourage this behavior (bitter, hot taste, etc.). Physical restraint, such as an e-collar is often used for medical conditions to allow the foot or paw to heal and thus take away the inciting cause to lick.

Distraction is also a good technique: playing games, offering other toys and incentives to keep your dog occupied coupled with positive reinforcement will help break the cycle. If additional behavior help is needed, consider working with a specialist in veterinary behavior (Click on "Diplomates" to find a veterinary specialist in your area).

Additional Reading
Skin Disease, Hair Loss and Scratching in Dogs and Cats
Frequently Asked Question: Swollen paw -- should I wait and see, or call my vet?

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