Dogs use their tongues to clean themselves, but there's a fine line between a quick bath and compulsive licking. If your dog won't stop licking their paws, there's a reason behind it. They might be stressed, bored, or have a medical condition like allergies, arthritis, or even worms. Zero in on the cause behind why your dog licks their paws, then help them stop this compulsive behavior.
Why Does My Dog Lick His Paws?
Maybe you hear your dog licking all night long, or perhaps you've just noticed rust-colored or pink saliva staining on their feet. There are six primary reasons your dog might lick their paws.
Dogs can be allergic to a number of different things, including pollen, dust, bug bites, chemicals, or the protein source in their food. Itchy skin is one of the most common symptoms associated with allergies. Licking their paws can help relieve the itchy sensation, though many dogs also resort to chewing on the undersides of their feet, as well. Think about whether you changed your dog's food right before the licking started, or whether it only occurs seasonally. In addition to licking, dogs with allergies may experience red, watery eyes, runny noses, sneezing, scratching, and red skin.
Licking is a self-soothing technique that many dogs use to calm their nerves. The licking behavior triggers the release of endorphins, known as the "feel good" chemicals, in a dog's brain. If your dog is stressed out, whether all the time or just from isolated events, they might turn to lick their paws as a way to de-stress. Consider when your dog licks their paws and see if it coincides with stressful events. Other signs your dog is anxious include panting, pacing, whining, barking, restlessness, or hiding.
While most dog worms are transmitted by ingesting eggs, hookworm larvae can actually enter a dog's body through the skin on their paws. This can happen if your dog walks or lies on contaminated soil or grass. These burrowing larvae can make your dog's paw pads incredibly itchy, so they may lick or chew at their feet. Additional symptoms of hookworm infection include lesions on the paw pads, bloody diarrhea, weight loss, and anemia.
Just as you might feel like you want to pull out your hair from boredom, your dog might turn to licking their feet if they're bored. Dogs can become incredibly bored without the right physical and mental stimulation. Ask yourself if they are getting enough exercise. Do you regularly work on training and tricks? Do they have access to puzzle toys to keep them challenged? Other signs of boredom include digging, chewing, barking, pacing, and escaping.
Cuts, scrapes, and burns on a dog's paws can prompt them to lick at the area. Even if you don't see any obvious signs of injury on your dog's foot, it's possible a grass seed or cactus spine could be stuck under the skin. In these cases, a dog will usually just lick one foot and only the spot where it hurts. Your veterinarian may have to probe the skin with sterile instruments to find the culprit.
Arthritis is very common in dogs; it affects one in every five dogs over the age of 1-year-old and is most often seen in older and large breed dogs. Dogs often lick uncomfortable joints as a way to ease the pain, and this can include the wrists and feet. Other signs of arthritis include difficulty sitting or rising, reluctance to jump, stiff gait, yelping when touched, and limping.
Control Compulsive Licking Behavior
If your dog keeps you up at night with their smacking while they lick their paws, you're probably looking for a solution. The best way to address this problem is to determine the reason behind your dog's licking. Are they bored, arthritic, or allergic to their food? Your veterinarian can do an exam and possible testing to help you get to the bottom of it.
Once you treat the root cause, the compulsive licking should subside. In the meantime, you can try these temporary solutions:
- Dog cone. Most dogs and dog owners dread the cone of shame, but it can be incredibly helpful in preventing compulsive licking. Pop one on your dog overnight or round the clock if they keep going for their feet. The cone will act as a physical barrier to reduce irritation and inflammation of the skin, but it won't address the underlying cause.
- Redirect licking. Give your dog something else to lick, like a tactile toy with grooves on it or a Kong filled with food. Whenever your dog attempts to lick their paws, offer them or guide them toward this toy, then praise them for licking it instead.
- Bitter spray. Bitter-tasting sprays like Grannick's Bitter Apple can help deter dogs from licking or chewing on things they shouldn't. Avoid spraying it directly onto your dog's paws, and instead spray it onto a tissue, then wipe it on your dog's feet. Do not use bitter sprays if your dog has open sores or irritated skin.
- Promote calm. Minimize your dog's stress level by promoting a calm environment. Give your dog plenty of exercise and make sure they have a quiet, calm place where they can retreat. Calming treats or pheromone sprays can help, too.
Curb Your Dog's Nonstop Licking
Unfortunately, if a dog won't stop licking their paws, it can lead to chronic skin irritation. Dogs can easily develop bacterial or yeast infections of the skin as a result of licking, as well as lick granulomas. Once you get to the root cause of your dog's compulsive licking, you can help curb this behavior and make your dog comfortable again.