When examining why dogs lick their paws, the important question pet owners should ask is, does my dog lick his paws too much? Dogs do this for a lot of different reasons. Paw licking can be a short daily activity, an obsession, or a sign of injury or illness. Take note of how often your dog licks its paws, and the circumstances around the behavior, to help you decide whether or not it is a normal behavior.
The main reason dogs lick their paws is simple grooming and cleanliness. Some dogs lick their paws to recall the day’s activities through scent. But maybe you have noticed that your dog seems focused on licking a certain paw, and that is an opportunity to narrow the problem down and examine that paw in particular. Is the dog limping, or treading very gingerly on that particular paw? Does your dog seem afraid to let you examine it? Check for redness, pus, and swelling between the toes, and rule out any injury to the paw pad. Check the toenails, make sure one has not been ripped off at or below the quick. Look for any splitting and cracking on the pads and toenails. Always keep your dogs’ nails trimmed to an appropriate length; nails that are too long can incite excessive licking, not to mention increase the chances of a nail injury. If you have never trimmed a dog’s nails before, read up on the subject, be sure to use only clippers intended for dogs, or better yet, have your vet show you how it is done.
Fleas can be the reason for paw licking, even if you cannot find the fleas, and there are no fleas on the actual paws themselves (fleas usually live on the torso, not the feet). Getting bitten by bugs can give you a general feeling of all-over itchiness. Humans know this well after a few mosquito bites- it feels as if the whole body is affected and must be scratched at.
If the foot seems uninjured, try to remember how long you may have passively observed your dog licking that particular paw. If that paw has been injured in the past, licking it has possibly become a habit to the dog. Many dogs pay attention to an area of their body or perform a grooming behavior like paw licking out of routine, or mild boredom. Much like humans will chew their nails or twirl a strand of hair, dogs can develop a kind of tic or propensity to fidget that includes licking their paws.
Human groomers can make a dog’s skin itch, causing an abnormal amount of paw licking. Make sure the shampoo used to bathe the dog isn’t full of irritants, and speak to the groomer, if your dog goes to a professional. The dog may not have been rinsed well enough, and not only is the leftover soap irritating the skin, but the dog is ingesting it when they lick. If your dog has been clipped closely or shaved down, this could be the culprit as well. The sensation of air hitting skin on a dog that was previously very furry or matted can make them want to lick areas of themselves. Also, dogs do get razor burn. Compare all of the dog’s feet to see if the one they are licking is shaved a bit more closely than the others.
Many veterinarians contend that dogs like their paws due to inhalant or food allergies. This may not be as common as some vets think, but a dietary change may be necessary, to relieve their discomfort and make sure that they do not get a secondary infection from the obsessive licking. Allergies may be the cause if you see other behaviors concurrent with paw licking, such as licking of the abdomen, or if your dog frequently rubs its face on furniture, carpets, and bedding.
Neck or back injury
Another unexpected reason, albeit a more disturbing one, that a dog may lick its paws too much is due to a neck or back injury. This can cause unusual nerve sensations in the feet, provoking the dog to like their paws. If this has been sufficiently diagnosed as the cause, it is time to walk your dog with a harnessed leash, rather than one attached to the collar. Avoid having your dog participate in strenuous activities that involve a lot of jumping or launching, and scale back on rough play where the dog pulls at objects with their mouth, like tug-of-war with a rope or frisbee. If your dog is healthy and can heal well by themselves, you should notice less paw licking in approximately a month.
Reduce the licking
So, if you have figured out why your dog licks their paws, and they are not injured and have no disease or allergy, you can take steps to reduce the licking, for good behavioral health and to prevent an infection. Diverting attention is the gold standard in remedying this behavior. When you notice your dog getting carried away with the paw licking, gently tap underneath their chin so they look up. It’s possible that the dog didn’t even realize what they were doing. Repeat as necessary to remind the dog that they don’t need to be licking their paws so much.
Interactive food toys
Interactive food toys that require concentration are another great distraction to keep your dog from obsessively licking their paws. As soon as your dog becomes absorbed in their paws, offer a chew toy like a KONG, or other toy that contains a small treat. The dog has to work on the toy to get any of the food inside. Food is the most satisfying reward for dogs, so if extenuating health issues are not the reason why they lick their paws, the treat hidden in the toy will win their attention.
Finally, more of your attention can help. Include your dog in more activities and exercise, talk to them, and spend a little more time one-on-one. It may be all they need to break the obsession.