Why Do Dogs Lick Their Paws? (And What to Do About It)

Written By: Gemma Johnstone | Last Updated: July 24, 2020

Dog licking his paw

Dogs often lick their paws as part of a self-grooming routine, but it can also signal a behavioral or medical issue. Read on to learn why your dog might lick her paws and what to do about it.

The occasional paw lick is probably nothing to worry about. It might not seem hygienic by human standards, but licking is a natural behavior that dogs use for self-grooming and cleaning.

Repeated or excessive licking is often a sign of an underlying problem though. There are many potential causes, so diagnosing the issue often requires professional help. Examples can include pain, injuries, medical conditions, anxiety, and psychological issues.

If you notice your dog is licking his paws a lot, you should contact a vet as soon as possible. Allowing it to continue could lead to further problems and even risk a secondary bacterial infection. Over time, licking can also become an obsessive behavior if it isn’t addressed.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the most common reasons for excessive paw licking. We’ve also provided some tips for relieving the problem, depending on what’s causing it.

Why Do Dogs Lick Their Paws?

Most dogs lick their paws a little now and then in an effort to keep clean. Unlike cats, however, dogs don’t tend to be fastidious self-groomers. This means that lengthy paw licking or gnawing is usually a sign that there’s something wrong.

Although there are many reasons why your dog may be licking their paws a lot, they typically fall into one of the following categories:

  • Pain or irritation
  • Anxiety or stress
  • Illness

By licking their paws, dogs are often trying to relieve itching, reduce discomfort, or distract themselves from stress or pain. Treatment varies a lot depending on the underlying reason, so it’s important to get an accurate diagnosis.

Why is Excessive Licking Something to Worry About?

For something seemingly so innocuous, frequent paw licking can greatly impact the quality of your dog’s life.

That’s why it’s always a good idea to consult with a vet about excessive licking. This is especially true if it starts suddenly and is accompanied by other symptoms. Things like swelling of the paw, limping or itching are tell-tale signs that something’s not right.

If allowed to continue, licking can lead to hair loss, stained fur (due to proteins in the dog’s saliva), hot spots, and irritation.  

The dog may also develop painful and fast-growing lesions – referred to as “lick granulomas”. Once established, these take a long time to heal and treatment can be tricky.

Another problem is that licking can become a vicious cycle. The bacteria in your dog’s mouth and open skin can lead to skin infections, and this can make your dog lick their paws even more. In some cases, the act of licking can also become a self-reinforcing habit.

For these reasons, you should never ignore excessive licking. The sooner you seek professional help, the faster you can resolve any stress, pain, or discomfort your dog is experiencing.

Temporarily Limit Licking to Prevent Further Irritation

While you find out why your dog is licking, it’s important to minimise any further damage. Some examples of management strategies can include:

  • Inflatable Buster or Elizabethan collar. When properly fitted, these can be the most effective method for preventing your dog from licking their paw. For stressed dogs, however, these collars may heighten anxiety. You will need to spend time getting your dog relaxed when wearing one.
  • Bandages/boots or socks.  Although these can be a good alternative if your dog won’t accept an Elizabethan or inflatable collar, they aren’t suitable in all circumstances. If your dog is licking a wounded area or one that has an open sore, this type of cover won’t allow for adequate healing, especially if it’s tightly fitted. It’s also important to keep bandages from becoming wet and changing them if they get grubby. Determined dogs, when left alone, will be able to remove a bandage.
  • Anti-lick strip. These can have mixed success, as some dogs aren’t repelled by the taste and will lick regardless. They should never be placed over any wound.
  • Distraction and enrichment. For some dogs, especially if the licking is behavior-related, it can be enough to keep them occupied with other things. Offering treat toys, extra training, and even rewarding them when they stop licking are all worth trying.

Be aware that the “right” management strategy depends on the reason for licking and your dog’s temperament. Don’t forget that these are only meant to be temporary tools.

10 Reasons Your Dog May Lick His Paws

Cute dog licking his paw

Sometimes it’s obvious why your dog is licking. If she has a cut on the paw or matted fur, for example, it’s often easy to identify the issue.

This isn’t always the case though. Many reasons for excessive paw licking are subtle or difficult to spot. The issue may not even be related to paw itself, which makes identification even more tricky. 

To help you uncover the problem, here are some of the most common reasons for excessive paw licking. This article isn’t meant to replace investigation by a vet or qualified dog behaviorist though.

1. Environmental Allergies

Airborne allergies are thought to be the most common cause of excessive paw licking in dogs.  Seasonal allergies from pollen and grass are the most frequent offenders. Dust, mould, and fungi can also be culprits, along with cleaning products and laundry detergents.

Your dog may feel itchy all over, but it’s usually the ears, bottom, and between toes that are most aggravated. Some allergies are seasonal, while others are triggered throughout the year.

Human allergies are commonly triggered by inhalation, but dogs tend to have flare-ups when the allergens are absorbed through the skin and paws. Grass and pollen, which often come into contact with the paws, are probably the most likely to cause paw licking.

Even so, an allergen doesn’t necessarily need to touch the paws to cause itching, discomfort, and ultimately paw licking.

Note: Some breeds are genetically predisposed to allergens in their environment. Examples include Golden or Labrador Retrievers, Boston Terriers, Boxers, Bulldogs, and West Highland Terriers.

Tips for Relieving Environmental Allergies

As there are many potential allergens, the first step is to do a little detective work. Does the allergy get worse in certain seasons? Do you notice flare ups after walking? Have you recently started using a new cleaning product in the home? Or have you washed their bedding in a new laundry detergent? These types of questions can help your vet diagnose the allergy.

Once you’ve identified what’s causing the allergen, the goal is to minimise your dog’s contact to reduce the chance of a reaction.

However, for dogs who are allergic to pollen or grass, it can be tricky to keep your pet away from triggering allergens. You can try to change your walking route to avoid fields with lots of pollen-heavy flowers. It’s also a good idea to avoid walking during the middle of the day when the pollen count is at its highest.

Cleaning your dog’s paws after a walk can also help to remove any allergens lingering on the fur between their toes. 

Although you don’t want to bathe your dog too often, you can try using an anti-itch shampoo to moisturize dry skin and soothe inflammation.

For severe flare-ups, you should speak with your vet to discuss whether antihistamines, topical solutions, or other medication may be beneficial for your dog.

2. Food Allergies

Food allergies aren’t as common in dogs as environmental allergies, but they’re still a possible cause of paw licking.

Along with itchy, inflamed skin that can cause dogs to lick and gnaw at their paws, food allergies can also cause gastrointestinal symptoms.

The most frequently reported foods that cause reactions in dogs include beef, dairy products, wheat and chicken. Of course, this could be because these are all common dog food ingredients.

Tips for Relieving Food Allergies

Diagnosing an Adverse Food Reaction (ADF) can be tricky, and simply swapping to a “hypoallergenic” food will rarely be a solution. While many of these foods contain a simpler list of ingredients, your dog could still be allergic to any of them.

Allergy testing is often viewed as a simple solution. However, hair and saliva allergy tests for dogs have been proven to be largely inaccurate and not the best means of identifying the allergen. 

Carrying out an elimination diet is widely recognized as the only reliable way to diagnose a specific food allergy in dogs. It’s time-consuming, and you need to be strict, but, in the long term, it could be worth it.

An elimination diet is highly restrictive, so should only be done with the assistance of a vet. This process involves removing all food sources and putting your dog onto a limited ingredient diet. This diet will consist of a novel protein and carbohydrate source that they haven’t had before. 

In many cases, your dog will eat a veterinary prescribed hydrolyzed single protein diet. Alternatively, you can prepare a carefully selected minimal ingredient home-cooked option. 

The dog should be on this diet for at least eight to twelve weeks. It can take several weeks for the effects of the previous food to leave their system. Food types are then slowly re-introduced, one by one, until the offending allergen is found.

While on an elimination diet, being strict is essential. If your dog gets an occasional treat or snaffles something while out on a walk, this can impact on the results. All your hard work and weeks of patience can be wasted if this happens.

3. Pain

Pain is a common reason for paw licking. Sometimes the pain is localized to the paw itself, but licking can also be a way to distract from pain elsewhere in the body.

If your dog is always licking just one paw, it’s unlikely to be related to allergies or other systemic problems. Instead, there is probably an issue with that specific paw.

Some common causes of pain in a single paw can include:

  • A fractured dewclaw
  • Corns
  • A cut pad
  • Excessively long nails
  • Cracked pads

Paw licking can be caused by pain in other areas of the body, although this often results in licking of both paws. Even problems such as sore joints can cause your dog to lick their paw in an effort to soothe or distract from the pain.

Dogs suffering from arthritis, for example, lick their paw and the bottom of their leg more frequently. If your dog is experiencing dental pain, they may also lick to relieve the pain in their mouth.

Less commonly, autoimmune diseases and interdigital cysts or growths can result in your dog licking their paws.

4. Anxiety

Studies have shown that the act of licking can be stress-relieving for dogs. This is because licking releases a group of hormones called endorphins, which help your dog feel happier. 

To establish if your dog is feeling anxious, you should watch their body language and check for other changes in their behavior.  Some common signs of stress include:

  • Excessive panting
  • Pacing
  • Drooling
  • Anxiety signals like yawning, shaking, sneezing or lip licking (including licking the air)
  • Changes in mood
  • Stomach upsets
  • Destructive behavior

If you notice stress signals, try to identify the trigger. Are there visitors in the house? Can your dog hear unusual noises? Have there been any changes in circumstance, such as a new pet, baby, or house? Once you’ve identified the trigger, removing it can help to reduce paw licking.

It’s not just acute stress that can cause paw licking though. Long term stress in dogs can lead to obsessive-compulsive behaviors, including paw licking.

In extreme cases like this, it’s essential to discuss a behavior modification programme with a qualified behaviorist. This will sometimes be combined with medication from a vet.

Tips for Reducing Anxiety

Once you identify the trigger for your dog’s anxieties, the best option is to remove it. If this isn’t possible, gentle counterconditioning and desensitization techniques can reduce anxiety.

Some other tips for reducing anxiety include:

  • Try to stick to a consistent routine. This helps many dogs to feel relaxed and settled.
  • Make sure your dog always has access to a comfortable “safe space”, such as a crate or bed. Make sure everyone in the house respects your dog’s space, especially when he’s eating and sleeping
  • Complementary therapies like flower essences, body wraps and dog appeasing pheromone plug-ins can sometimes reduce anxiety.
  • Slow and “sniffy” walks can help make your dog feel more relaxed and positive.

Licking can also be caused by a lack of exercise or mental stimulation. Some dogs use licking as a way to relieve boredom, which can also become a habit.

Making sure your dog gets plenty of physical activity and in-house enrichment is vital. If you’re struggling for inspiration, check out our articles for indoor activities for your dog and some more general fun things you can do with your dog.

5. Displacement Behavior

Dogs will offer displacement behaviors when they’re struggling with internal conflict, frustration or anxiety. These occur when a dog suppresses the urge to follow through with a particular behavior.  

Displacement behaviors are usually normal behaviors in an out-of-context situation – and paw licking is a common example.

A dog feeling trapped by a child, for example, may have the urge to move away. Instead, they start to lick their paws as a displacement behavior. Your dog may also do this if they are feeling nervous about strangers in the house, or if you’re trying to teach a command and they aren’t sure what you expect.

Displacement behaviors are often accompanied by other symptoms of stress. These can include scratching, yawning, lip licking, and looking away. As these behaviors are a sign that your dog is anxious or uncomfortable, they shouldn’t be ignored.

6. Matted Fur

Some breeds have long hair that grows between their toes. It’s tricky to brush this out, so it can often be accidentally neglected when grooming, leading to matting.

As these mats become thicker, they get tighter and can pull uncomfortably on the skin. In extreme cases, they can cause the skin to open up, and infections can develop.

Your dog may begin to lick around their paws more as these mats develop, in an effort to relieve the discomfort it’s causing.

For long-haired dogs, it’s always a good idea to check between their toes as part of your grooming routine to make sure knots aren’t forming.

7. Parasites (Fleas, Mites or Ticks)

A variety of dog parasites can cause uncomfortably itchy skin. This can lead to licking and nibbling across the body, but the paws are often an area of focus.  

Flea allergy dermatitis is the most common parasitic cause of itchiness for dogs. Although it often causes itchiness around the tail region, the paws can sometimes be uncomfortable too. 

Some of the other types of parasites that can result in itchy paws include:

  • Sarcoptic mange. This is caused by a contagious skin mite that burrows into the skin. It’s also referred to as scabies, and extreme itchiness, scabs, and hair loss are common with this condition. The mites have a preference for hairless skin, so the ears, elbows and tummy are often worst affected, but it can still cause your dog to lick their paws.
  • Demodectic mange. All dogs carry a small number of demodex mites in their hair follicles. These can spread rapidly in young dogs, or those with compromised immune systems. Cases can be localised or across the body. While demodectic mange doesn’t cause the itchiness that is common with sarcoptic mange, sores, crusting and swelling are common. This discomfort can compel your dog to lick the affected areas. 
  • Ticks. Ticks can tuck themselves away between your dog’s toes or pads. This could cause discomfort and result in the dog licking their paws more than normal. Swift and careful tick removal will minimize the risk of a tick-borne disease, like lymes, being transmitted.

Identifying what kind of parasite is causing a problem for your dog often requires assistance from a vet. Prompt treatment is advised, and other pets in the household and also the immediate environment may need to be treated.

Making sure you keep up with regular antiparasitic treatments can help minimize the risk of ticks and fleas.

8. Grass Seeds

A grass seed in a dog's paw

You may be surprised to learn that something as innocuous as a little grass seed can be a serious health hazard for your dog if left untreated. These little pods can burrow into the skin and migrate to other parts of the body, leading to a number of scary health problems.

One of the most common places for grass seeds to get stuck is the delicate skin between the toes. This can cause intense discomfort once the seed starts to burrow into the skin, leading to almost obsessive licking in an attempt to relieve the pain.

The problem might not be noticeable until your dog starts to lick the area. Look out for redness, swelling, or a small lump, as these could be signs that the seed has begun to burrow into the skin.

It’s a good idea to check your dog after a walk in an area with tall grass, especially during the summer months. Pay particularly attention to the toes and behind the ears.

Seeds that are caught in the coat should be swiftly removed. If you find a seed that is already partway into the skin, or you suspect it has already travelled further in, don’t try to remove it yourself. Make an appointment at the vet immediately.

9. Puncture Wounds

Adventurous dogs can suffer from cuts, scrapes and punctures on their paws. Common culprits include thorns, splinters, jagged rocks, glass, and dog or insect bites.  

Sometimes you might not even realize your dog has an injury until you see them licking their paw.  

A little licking isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This natural behavior can help to stimulate blood flow, and studies have shown that dog saliva has some antibacterial properties.

Too much licking, however, can open the wound and result in dirt or bacteria getting in.

For minor puncture wounds, ask your vet how to clean the affected area. You’ll then need to ensure your dog isn’t able to keep licking to ensure it heals. If your dog has a deep puncture or one that looks inflamed or swollen, visit your vet immediately.

10. Nausea or Gastrointestinal Issues

A study has shown that excessive licking of surfaces could be attributed to underlying gastrointestinal issues. It’s thought the behavior occurs in an effort to control the nausea or discomfort.

Although the studies focus on licking surfaces, it’s reasonable to assume that dogs could also lick their paws for the same reason. 

If your dog is displaying signs of tummy discomfort, diarrhea, vomiting or excess salivation alongside their paw licking, a trip to the vet is recommended.

A Vet Checkup is Essential for Excessive Paw Biting or Licking

Excessive paw licking isn’t something that should be ignored. Not only can it lead to skin irritation, discomfort and possible infection, but it can be a symptom of a more serious underlying problem.

The sooner you get your dog to the vet for assessment, the better. Your vet will thoroughly examine the paw to rule out any foreign body or injury as the cause. They may also need to prescribe medication if a secondary infection has developed.

If there’s no obvious underlying condition or cause, your vet may recommend running some tests. They may also ask you to monitor specific aspects of your dog’s behavior.

While tests are being run or a course of meds is being administered, your vet may recommend that you use a Buster Collar or similar. This will help to prevent your dog from doing further damage.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why Does My Dog Lick His Paws After Eating?

Dogs often groom themselves after eating a meal, and sometimes they’ll focus on licking their paws. It can be seen as a ritualistic behavior, or sometimes they may be trying to remove excess food from around their mouth.  

There are no studies to confirm why this is such a common behavior. However, if this is the only time your dog is licking their paws and it isn’t excessive, it shouldn’t be something to worry about.

Why Can Licking Change a Dog’s Fur Color?

If your dog is regularly licking their paws, it isn’t unusual for the fur to become stained. Usually, this takes on a brown, orange or pink shade. Staining is often more obvious on white dogs or those with lighter colored coats.

Staining is caused by organic compounds found in dog saliva called porphyrins. The staining itself is harmless. But, if your dog is licking their paws enough for this to happen, it’s a good indication that there could be a more problematic underlying cause.

What is Lick Granuloma?

Also known as acral lick dermatitis, a lick granuloma is when obsessive licking causes a nasty skin lesion. Commonly found on the lower leg, they can also be found on a dog’s paws.

These lesions often start as a small injury or irritated area on the dog’s skin. The dog licks it, and the wound gets bigger. This creates a vicious cycle of obsessive behavior that leads to a difficult to treat, typically moist and oozing open sore.

The reason that lick granulomas develop will vary from dog to dog. Sometimes it can start after they have had an injury or allergy, sometimes it can relate to stress or boredom.

Studies have also shown that certain large breeds are more commonly affected. These include Dobermans, Golden Retrievers, Great Danes and Weimaraners, although the reason for this isn’t clear.

Treatment can be varied and tricky. It may involve cortisone creams or injections, long-course antibiotics, or even laser treatment.

Prompt action will increase the chances of a better outcome. Don’t try to treat a lick granuloma at home.

Summary

Paw licking is a normal self-grooming behavior. When it becomes excessive, however, it can be a sign of pain, stress, or injury.

Excessive paw licking isn’t something that should be ignored. You may need to work with your vet to understand what’s causing your dog to lick so much, especially if there are no obvious signs of injury.

Licking can also be caused by a behavioral issue, such as stress or anxiety. For obsessive or complex issues, you should discuss a behavior modification plan with a qualified dog behaviorist.

While uncovering the cause of paw licking, it’s a good idea to take temporary steps to prevent your dog from continuing to lick the area. This reduces the chance of it becoming a habit, protects the skin and fur, and reduces the risk of a secondary infection.

About the Author

Gemma is a freelance writer and official dog nut. With 15 years of experience in the pet industry, she is a passionate animal welfare advocate. She has worked for the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, ran her own specialist dog shop for ten years, has volunteered for her local rescue shelter, and is studying towards completing an Advanced Diploma in Canine Behaviour. Gemma is currently travelling around Europe with her wonderful rescue dog, Annie.