Paw licking: It is something that all dogs will do from time to time. But for some, this occasional behavior turns into a constant habit that can quickly become distressing, both for you and your pup.
So why do some dogs lick and chew at their paws obsessively? And is there anything you can do to stop this annoying, and sometimes even harmful, habit?
Luckily, the different causes behind paw licking are fairly well known. And, even better, most are relatively simple to address. We'll talk about how to determine what is causing your dog's discomfort and what you can do to get them back to their normal, happy, less-licky selves.
Causes of Dog Paw Licking
There are many reasons a dog may suddenly or frequently lick and chew at their feet. Some have a physical origin and have to do with pain or itching, while others have more to do with a dog's emotional state.
Here are a few of the most common causes behind paw licking, chewing, and biting.
Injury or Growth
If your dog is targeting a single paw during their foot chewing and biting episodes, odds are pretty high that you are dealing with an injury, such as a sliver, cactus needle, or cut, or some kind of painful growth. It is also possible that the cause may be a less visible injury such as a fracture or sprain.
Some dogs will engage in foot licking as a reaction to spinal inflammation or injury. These kinds of injuries can affect the nerves that feed the paws, causing abnormal neurological sensation. Oftentimes, dogs with lower cervical, or neck injuries, will obsessively lick their front feet, while dogs with injuries to the lumbar spine may lick their hind paws.
If your dog's paw biting is focused on just one foot, or only the front or back paws, it is a good idea to take them to the vet for a physical examination to identify the underlying pain. The sooner this is done, the better to avoid the injury becoming worse or getting infected.
When it comes to indiscriminate licking and chewing of both front paws or all four paws, allergies are the most common cause.
Because the epidermis of dogs carries such a high load of mast cells–the immune cells that react during an allergic reaction–it is very common for dogs to develop itchy, inflamed skin as a symptom of both food and topical allergies.
If your dog has symptoms like itching elsewhere on their body, dry or inflamed skin, hotspots, or frequent ear infections in addition to paw chewing and licking, then it is likely they are suffering from dermatitis caused by allergies.
Unfortunately, both topical and dietary allergies cause very similar symptoms, which can make it hard to address the exact cause of your dog's foot licking. To learn how to identify and discern between different types of allergies, as well as to find out what you can do to reduce your dog's symptoms, including foot chewing, check out our article on natural allergy remedies.
Once you know what your dog is allergic to, you can take steps to reduce their discomfort and, by extension, their foot chewing.
One of the most common causes of foot licking that has nothing to do with pain or itchiness is anxiety.
When dogs lick, endorphins are released into their brains that make them feel calmer and happier. This is true whether they are licking their newborn puppies, their owner's face, or their own paws.
Common stress-driven paw licking triggers include moving houses, boredom, a new housemate, phobias, and living with an overstressed owner. In some cases, this coping mechanism may continue long after the original stressor has been removed.
If you believe your dog is paw chewing due to anxiety, your first course of action should be to remove the source of that stress as much as possible.
In addition to helping make your dog's life less stressful, it can also be beneficial to increase their activity.
Exercise also releases calming endorphins and will help to tire your dog out, leaving less energy to be put toward foot chewing. Time spent with you, especially while engaging in an activity they like, such as petting, trick training, or playing fetch, will also increase feelings of positive wellbeing.
If your dog still engages in foot licking, you should try to replace the object of their focus–their paws–with something a little more appropriate, such as a kong full of frozen peanut butter. While this won't stop the licking behavior itself, it is a more acceptable outlet for endorphin-inducing licking and is less likely to cause injury to themselves.
Some dogs engage in paw licking compulsively, with or without stressful triggers. In cases like this, paw biting and licking would be considered a true obsessive behavior.
There are many different kinds of obsessive behaviors seen in dogs, including tail chasing, leg sucking, and, of course, paw chewing. Often, obsessive behaviors become, in themselves, distressing and act both as the cure for the dog's anxiety and the cause of it.
Obsessive behaviors are more common in certain breeds, such as Doberman Pinchers, and in dogs that have experienced some type of trauma. If you believe your dog's paw licking is a true obsessive behavior, it would be in their best interest to contact a veterinary behaviorist for help.
These vets specialize in canine behavioral issues and are much better equipped to help your OCD doggy than a traditional vet or a certified dog trainer.
How to Stop Your Dog From Licking Their Paws
When it comes to putting an end to paw licking, there really is no one remedy. That's because there are multiple causes behind this behavior, and stopping it relies solely on addressing the root cause for your particular dog's paw obsession.
Address the Cause
Once you have identified which of the causes of paw licking is likely responsible for your dog's habit, then you will need to take the steps outlined in each section to address the problem driving the behavior.
Keep in mind, it may take time to identify allergens and for those substances to make their way out of your dog's system. Similarly, wounds may take time to heal before your dog stops bugging them. Using a cone, basket muzzle, or another barrier to prevent licking will give your dog's skin, paws, or injury time to heal without them making things worse.
If your dog suffers from anxiety or OCD driven paw licking, then you also shouldn't expect the problem to go away overnight. It will take some trial and error to find out what changes to your dog's routine will help the issue and which will make it worse.
Care for Secondary Infections
One more thing you may have to address before your dog's paw chewing will go away for good, is treating any secondary infections that have arisen.
Moisture buildup from excess licking, especially between the toes, can quickly lead to bacterial and yeast infections. This is true no matter what the original cause of the behavior was.
These secondary infections can cause additional discomfort that may also drive licking behavior and can pose a major problem to getting rid of the habit once and for all.
If you notice your dog's paw fur has a red tinge or a strange smell to it, a trip to the vet or some topical home skin treatments may be needed to clear up this secondary issue.
Whatever the cause of your dog's paw licking, know that there is relief out there, so long as you are willing to do the detective work to determine the true root cause of the issue and find a better way to soothe your dog's discomfort.
Peter Dobias, DMV. “Excessive Paw Licking in Dogs – It May Not Be Allergies.” ivcjournal.com. 27 May 2014.
Nicholas H. Dodman, et al. “Genomic Risk for Severe Canine Compulsive Disorder, a Dog Model of Human OCD.” International Journal of Applied Research in Veterinary Medicine. Vol. 14, No. 1, 2016.
Karen A. Moriello. “Itching (Pruritus) in Dogs” merckvetmanual.com.
Sara Seitz worked in the pet industry for over a decade. In addition to being a certified dog trainer, Sara gained experience working as the general manager of a dog daycare and boarding facility, as the creator and manager of a pet sitting company, as a groomer, and as a dog behavior evaluator. She also has a bachelors in animal behavior from CSU. Currently, Sara works as a freelance writer specializing in blog, article and content writing.