Why Does My Dog Always Lick Her Paws?
And how to make it stop 😩
It can be frustrating if your dog licks his paws a lot, especially since you’re probably worried that something could be wrong with her.
According to Dr. Rusty Muse, medical director at Animal Dermatology Group in California, dogs usually lick their paws because their paws are itchy due to an external or internal trigger.
“Paw licking is an action that dogs can exhibit for a number of reasons,” Dr. Muse told The Dodo. “Whatever the initial underlying trigger is, dogs likely feel a sensation that would best be described as an ‘itch’ and they are responding in a way much like humans would to ‘scratch’ the itch. However the easiest way for dogs to attempt to allay the sensation is through licking.”
The most common reasons for itchy dog paws include “metabolic issues such as allergic skin disease, secondary bacterial or yeast overgrowth and neurologic sensations,” Dr. Muse said.
Here are some specific conditions or situations that might cause paw licking in dogs — and how to tell when it’s time to see a veterinarian.
“Allergic skin disease is the most common primary trigger for paw licking in dogs,” Dr. Muse said, and the most common allergy triggers in dogs are environmental allergens, like pollen.
If your dog has environmental allergies, you might notice that she’s itching his armpit area in addition to her paws, and she might only have symptoms at certain times of the year.
“Clinically, pollen or environmental allergies are the most common allergy that we recognize,” Dr. Muse said. “This is usually manifested as pruritus (itching or licking) to the paws, face, ears or axillary (armpit) areas, and may be seasonal or nonseasonal.”
Food allergies are another cause of allergies in dogs, though they’re a bit less common.
“Food allergies (although much less common than the general public often believes) can also cause similar changes,” Dr. Muse said. “These cutaneous adverse food reactions result in similar cascades of inflammation that can be perceived as itchy paws, stimulating ... increased paw licking.”
Dogs with allergies are born with an abnormal immune response, which makes them more susceptible to developing allergic reactions that can get pretty severe.
When a dog with an abnormal immune response is exposed to a trigger, their immune system “produces an overabundance of various substances called cytokines,” Dr. Muse said. “These cytokines lead to numerous immunological processes and result in increased inflammation in the skin that is then perceived as an itchy sensation in the dog that in turn results in the desire to scratch (or lick).”
Basically, this means that if an allergic dog is exposed to an allergy trigger, her body will flood with substances that make her super itchy from the inside out!
Dogs with environmental allergies (or atopic dermatitis) may also have a damaged skin barrier, making them extra vulnerable to any allergens in their surroundings.
“In addition, allergic patients have an abnormal cutaneous [skin] barrier that leads to increased exposure of environmental allergens, allowing these to penetrate the skin more readily and initiate this allergic reaction,” Dr. Muse said.
That means a dog with environmental allergies has skin that isn’t good at protecting her from substances in her environment — so if she gets an allergy trigger on her skin, it can actually enter her skin and make her really itchy.
That might all sound a bit complicated, but the takeaway is if you suspect your pet has allergies, plan a visit with your vet for a diagnosis and treatment plan.
Bacteria and yeast infections
Your dog might be licking her paws because there are a ton of bacteria or yeast growing there, which is usually due to an underlying medical issue, like a hormone imbalance or allergies.
Veterinarians typically prescribe topical antifungal creams to treat secondary skin infections, or they might recommend an oral antifungal medication in more severe cases.
Dogs might also lick their paws more if there’s arthritis in those areas. And most of the time, if a pup is licking one paw over another, arthritis is the cause.
“Most of the time when paw licking is associated with arthritic changes, the paw licking is localized to one paw more commonly than generalized paw licking,” Dr. Muse said. “I generally suspect arthritic issues when dogs are focused on one paw. This is in contrast to dogs that have more generalized paw licking, which is more commonly associated with allergy, infection, etc.”
Reaction to medication
If your dog is taking a new medication, whether oral or topical, it’s possible that she’s sensitive to it, and it’s causing her paws to itch.
If your dog is licking her paws excessively, and you suspect it’s a reaction to a medication (especially if it’s new), definitely take your dog to the vet for a diagnostic test.
If there’s a parasite, or an infestation of parasites (like with fleas), on your dog, it’s possible it’s causing your dog to itch.
Not only is the saliva of external parasites itchy, but some pets can be allergic to these parasites, which basically just makes them extra itchy in areas like their paws.
It’s super important to keep your dog on a reliable flea and tick preventative to prevent external parasites from infesting or latching on to your pup and causing her to itch.
If your dog’s paws are irritated from a toxic substance she’s come into contact with, it might also cause her to lick her paws.
“Topical irritants or contact reactions to environmental contaminants are all things that can present as paw licking in dogs,” Dr. Muse said.
Keep your dog away from any potentially harmful substances, like cleaning solutions, and bring your dog to the veterinarian if your dog is licking her paws obsessively or if she shows any other abnormal behaviors that might indicate toxicity.
Dogs might lick their paws out of boredom, but this is usually not the only cause if your dog’s paw licking behavior becomes excessive.
“While behavioral issues and abnormalities are commonly suspected by owners, this is quite uncommon,” Dr. Muse said. “Certainly some dogs can do casual licking to the paws if they have no other stimulus present to distract them. However, there is almost always an underlying medical trigger when the licking is pronounced or protracted.”
If you suspect that anxiety is causing your dog to lick her paws, your vet can likely diagnose this, but only through a process of elimination in order to rule out any other physical medical issues first.
“There are breeds of dogs that can be more prone to anxiety, which may be manifested as behavioral idiosyncrasies and exhibiting stereotypical behaviors and in those individuals — paw licking could be a manifestation of that,” Dr. Muse said. “But these are generally diagnoses of exclusion, meaning you have to eliminate medical issues first before trying to attribute these behaviors to anxiety or nonphysical stimuli.”
Signs of excessive paw licking in dogs
Paw licking is considered a problem when it is repetitive, disruptive and destructive, according to Dr. Muse.
It’s totally OK if your dog licks her paws every once in a while, though. “Intermittent paw licking can be normal,” Dr. Muse said. “We all scratch at times.”
Here are the signs of excessive paw licking in dogs:
- Stopping normal behaviors (eating, playing) to scratch
- Scratching or licking the same areas on an intermittent or constant basis
- Licking enough to cause tissue damage (inflammation, hair loss, oozing from eroded skin, etc.)
If you notice any of the above signs of excessive paw licking, you should take your dog to the veterinarian for a diagnosis.
How can you control paw licking?
The best way to control your dog’s paw licking behavior is by addressing the underlying medical issue that’s causing the behavior.
If environmental allergies are the culprit, you can try to reduce your dog’s exposure to those allergens by bathing your dog regularly and wiping her paws after going outside.
“The best method to help to reduce pollen exposure is to reduce contact from the skin,” Dr. Muse said. “Routine bathing of allergic dogs is very important in removing pollen and allergen exposure.”
Dr. Muse recommends bathing dogs who have environmental allergies with a gentle veterinary shampoo once to twice weekly, and sometimes more often, “to help remove the offending agents and prevent prolonged exposure to the skin.”
“Bathing with the correct shampoos and products ... that help to repair the lipid barrier on the surface of the skin can help to moisturize the skin and help provide a more strengthened barrier to prevent moisture loss and allergen absorption,” Dr. Muse said. “Even simply wiping a pet's paws after outside exposure to remove allergens can be helpful.”
If you can’t reduce your dog’s exposure to an environmental allergen, and medications that treat the symptoms don’t work, you can try immunotherapy.
Immunotherapy involves actually changing your dog’s immune response to an allergen so she’s no longer triggered by it. This process entails allergy testing to identify the exact allergen(s) causing the reactions, and then creating a solution that includes the allergen, which is injected into your dog or given in the form of a pill intermittently to desensitize her immune system.
“There are multiple different oral and topical approaches that are important in helping to manage symptoms of allergies short term, but long-term allergy testing and successful immunotherapy (hyposensitization with options such as subcutaneous allergen-specific immunotherapy, sublingual immunotherapy or other forms) is one of the safest ways to try and control the symptoms of allergic skin disease,” Dr. Muse said.
If food allergies are causing your dog to lick her paws, the best form of treatment is to identify the allergen through food trials, and then eliminate that food from her diet.
“Changing diets to either completely novel protein diets (proteins to which the patient has never eaten) or hydrolyzed protein diets (in which the proteins are manipulated to a very small amino acid component, rendering them less likely to stimulate an immune response) are the best ways to document the presence of food allergies,” Dr. Muse said.
If secondary infections from bacteria or yeast overgrowth are the cause, it’s super important you go to your vet to get it under control.
“Using topical therapies designed to control secondary bacterial and yeast organisms is critical,” Dr. Muse said. “These can be either oral or anti-yeast medications or topical therapies that are commonly available from your veterinarian or online.”
If your dog is licking her paws excessively, going to the vet is super important so they can figure out what’s wrong and provide the best options for treating the underlying issue and ultimately controlling the behavior. Which means your dog can be healthy and happy while her paws stay nice and dry.
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