All dogs will lick their paws, just as they will lick most body parts. It’s a very natural and soothing behavior. However, paw licking can become excessive, and if you notice your dog’s licking their paws a lot, it can be a sign of a more serious issue.
Health issues such as dry and itchy skin, or stress and anxiety, are some of the leading causes of compulsive paw-licking in dogs. Like other unwanted behaviors, paw licking should be investigated before it escalates into more severe health issues like secondary infections.
Below are several reasons why dogs lick their paws and what you can do to minimize this behavior to keep your pup happy and healthy.
Causes of Paw Licking in Dogs
Usually, dogs licking their paws is perfectly normal and is just a part of their grooming process. For example, if your dog was out walking on sandy ground, they might instinctively lick their paws to eliminate any particles stuck between their paw pads.
However, like many things canine, paw-licking has more than one meaning. For example, along with licking their lips, yawning, or heavy panting, licking paws can be a sign of stress and anxiety. These are common signals that many owners miss because they can seem so innocuous.
Because the licking is soothing (think of a mother licking her pups), it helps your dog settle down. Like anything that feels good, it can become addictive and compulsive. This is often the hidden reason behind dogs who endlessly lick their paws.
If you don’t think it’s stress or anxiety related, here are 7 other common causes of excessive paw licking in dogs:
Dogs lick their wounds to numb pain, as licking releases feel-good neurotransmitters like endorphins or oxytocin. It may also be instinctive to clean the wound the only way they can. So if you notice your dog has suddenly started to lick one paw in particular, they may be injured. This is especially true if it is accompanied by any limping.
When you identify abnormal paw licking and suspect your pup might be injured, the first step is to examine the paws for injuries. Your dog might have a cut or a splinter.
Walking on hot or salted sidewalks may also be the culprit. Unlike humans who have the privilege of walking in shoes, dogs walk on their bare feet, making them vulnerable to burns and stinging salt. Always hold your hand on the road for 15 seconds to check that it isn't too hot for your dog to walk on.
Torn nails or thorns and other foreign objects stuck between the pads cause discomfort to your dog, which causes them to lick their paws. Most of these injuries can be treated using first-aid but other injuries are more severe and need veterinary assistance for pain medication or antibiotics.
Thoroughly examine your pup's paws. Feel for heat, bumps, lumps, or redness and inflammation. If they yelp or even start licking their lips, or show signs of pain, there is likely an injury.
If your dog is chewing their feet, read our article here.
2. Skin infections or dermatitis
If the skin between your dog's toes is itchy and becomes red and inflamed, they might start licking and even gnawing on their toes. This is usually because of allergies (atopic or contact dermatitis). 90% of allergies are to something in the dog's environment, such as pollen, lawn fertilizer, dust mites, or grass.
About 10% of allergies are to something in your dog's food, usually a common protein such as chicken or beef.
However, a range of skin infections can take root between the paw pads. Dogs with short bristly hairs can develop ingrown hairs and abscesses called furuncles. A lot of webbing between the toes seen in many water-loving breeds also makes a great environment for bacterial infections. Yeast infections can also be a problem for paws.
Tip: wiping your dog's paws dry after they come back home on a rainy day goes a long way in preventing your pup from contracting fungal and bacterial infections.
3. Pain or sickness elsewhere in the body
Licking is often a coping mechanism for dogs experiencing discomfort and pain that isn't necessarily in their paws. Unfortunately, your furry best friend cannot tell you when something is wrong. Stress behaviors like excessive paw licking could be a telling sign that you should be on the lookout for any issues present.
Osteoarthritis is a common cause of pain, especially in large and senior dogs. Even if it's generally higher up in joints, your dog may lick the paws to help cope with the pain. However, since paw-licking is a stress-related behavior, the cause of the stress could be any discomfort in their body.
This is one reason it's vital to have a complete medical check-up to rule out underlying medical problems if your dog obsessively licks their paws.
Paws are the first points of contact when your pup goes out on an exploring spree. They're also an ideal spot for a tick to get lodged. Paws are also vulnerable to mites and fleas, so you may also see some scratching if this is the issue. Keep your pet up-to-date with tick and flea treatments to avoid parasite-borne diseases like Lyme disease.
5. Overgrown nails
An often overlooked cause of paw licking is overgrown toenails. Nails that have grown past the paw pad press the dog's toes up at an unnatural angle. This can cause pain in their paws, as the bones, joints, and ligaments are strained. Just like wearing shoes that are too small all day and squish your foot into an unnatural position, overgrown nails can cause a lot of pain in the paws. This can definitely cause licking.
6. Matted fur and burs
There can be an issue of matting for long-haired breeds with a lot of hair between their toes. Burs and debris can also get stuck in the tangles, causing discomfort. Always keep the hair around the toes carefully trimmed to prevent matting and anything tangled in the excess fur.
7. Behavioral problems, stress, and paw licking
Up until now, we’ve looked at the physical issues that could cause excessive licking. There are also psychological issues that could drive your pooch to it. It’s a stress-related behavior, so whether it’s a physical pain or if your dog is mentally stressed, they may start to lick their paws.
Just as anxious humans engage in repetitive actions like fidgeting to cope with anxiety and stress, a nervous dog could lick its paws to deal with an overwhelming feeling of anxiety.
The licking is also a way to self-soothe. This coping mechanism may quickly become compulsive in dogs that can't resolve the source of their stress.
You can read more about how to help an anxious dog here.
Boredom is another leading cause of unwanted behaviors like paw licking in dogs. Suppose your pup is not stimulated enough mentally or getting enough exercise. In that case, they may lick and chew on their paws out of frustration. Boredom can cause other unwanted behaviors like barking and digging.
Dogs with cognitive issues like doggy dementia in older dogs can also cause them to lick their paws.
Note: Excessive paw licking must be addressed as soon as possible. The moisture your dog adds to his paw pads makes the perfect environment for yeast and bacteria to grow. If your dog's paws smell or show signs of infection, it's definitely time to see the vet.
How to stop excessive paw licking in your dog
Now that you have deduced a possible paw licking problem in your dog, the next step is to resolve the issue.
Step one: Address the underlying causes (a vet visit)
Paw licking hardly ever exists in isolation. Finding out what’s wrong with your pet will help minimize this behavior and alleviate the other symptoms. So, it's always best to rule out any medical issues causing your dog pain, discomfort, or anxiety.
Most of the underlying physical issues that cause paw licking, from allergies to arthritis, can reduce your dog's quality of life. Get a complete evaluation, as the problem could be challenging to spot, such as increased anxiety from hypothyroidism or cognitive decline. It does not have to be in the paws.
Step 2: Consider dietary and environmental changes
If your dog has a history of allergies, a change in diet would be beneficial. Using an elimination diet or ELISA testing can help you pinpoint precisely what your dog is allergic to. The most common food allergies are to chicken, beef, eggs, lamb, soy, wheat, or dairy.
However, your dog is more likely to suffer from allergies caused by something they are exposed to. Take note of your dog's environment. Use air purifiers to remove dust mites, and be aware if they start licking their paws during spring, when pollen may be the cause. Grass and fertilizers are also common causes, and you may need to restrict your dog's access to the lawn.
Step 3: Engage your dog mentally and physically
Exercise is key to reducing stress and frustration. The first thing to do whenever your dog shows signs of stress and boredom is to step up their exercise. A tired dog has less energy to spend on compulsive behaviors like licking their paws and is a happier dog in general.
Mental stimulation is required if your dog’s licking their paws due to boredom. Safe chew toys and doggie puzzles are an excellent way to keep your dog distracted and engaged. Your pup would rather play with a toy or a game than engage in paw licking.
Dogs are active animals, and a lifestyle that meets these energy-filled needs will go a long way in keeping your dog happy and busy. Consider more puppy playdates or a good doggy daycare if they are alone for long periods.
Frequent, positive training sessions are also a great way to bond with your dog and engage their brains, giving them more mental stimulation. Adding sports like agility to obedience training is also a fantastic way to channel their energy, provide them with a stimulating challenge, and decrease stress and anxiety.
Step 4: Groom your dog regularly
Keep the fur on your dog's paws trimmed to avoid picking up foreign objects that could lead to irritation. If your dog shows signs of an allergic reaction like swelling and licks their paws every time you take them outside, clean and dry the paws once you get back in the house.
Also, make sure to keep those nails trimmed!
Consider using hypoallergenic, fragrance-free products whenever you bathe your pup if you suspect he has skin irritation.
Step 5: Invest in protective footwear
Harsh environmental conditions such as snow and salt on the roads could irritate your dog's paws leading to licking. Hot pavements could burn your puppy's paws, causing them to lick in an attempt to get some relief. Cover their feet with doggy booties to prevent irritation if you have to leave the house with your dog on a snowy or hot day. You can also use these for contact allergies.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why do dogs lick their paws before bed?
Some dogs lick their paws at night to relax and soothe themselves to sleep. In moderation, paw licking at night is not a cause for concern, but you may want to contact your vet if it’s excessive. Anxious dogs typically lick their paws at night to unwind from the day's activities that could have caused stress.
Why do dogs lick their paws after eating?
Paw licking after meals could be an indication of food allergies. If you notice your pup licking his paws after eating several times in a row, and if there are signs of dermatitis, like red and itchy skin, it may be time to start a dietary elimination trial to see if your dog has food allergies. However, sometimes dogs may lick their paws after eating simply because they are satisfied and settling down for a nap.
Why do dogs lick their paws excessively?
Dogs lick their paws excessively when they feel pain or discomfort, either due to stress or medical reasons. Licking releases endorphins that give them relief from pain and anxiety. Since it is a way to self-soothe, it can become a compulsive coping mechanism that leads to infections between the paw pads. Therefore, it’s vital to take note of unusual paw licking and address possible causes early on.
It is completely normal for dogs to lick their paws as part of the grooming process. However, moderation is key, and if your dog licks their paws excessively, there might be a problem. Common causes of excessive paw licking include anxiety, boredom, allergies, injuries, parasites, and pain.
Get your dog checked by the vet if you suspect that your dog's paw licking is unusual to catch any underlying ailments early enough for treatment.