Why Do Dogs Lick Their Paws? Excessive Paw Licking & How to Treat It

Are you asking yourself, “Why is my dog licking her paws?” If so, you’re not alone. Excessive paw licking is a common problem for dog owners. It can happen anywhere a dog can reach, but most often, it’s dogs licking their paws.

Injured Dog Paw from Licking

Excessive paw licking can be a minor issue, but it can also be severe. In some cases, dogs can lick and chew their front paws until they bleed. Dogs licking their paws and legs can create severe wounds that can lead to amputation.

In this article, we will discuss why dogs lick their paws excessively, why you must not ignore it, and how to treat a dog that’s licking its paws.

Watch Video of Shih Tzu Licking Paws Constantly

You can see from the owner's reaction this is definitely cause for concern. Such behavior cannot be healthy, and whether pathological or psychological it must be eliminated for the well-being of your pet.

So, how do you stop dogs from licking their paws? To answer this question, we need to start with finding the cause.

Why Do Dogs Lick Their Paws?

Paw licking may not seem like a big deal, but finding the cause of your dog’s excessive paw licking is essential. Paw and leg licking can result in an acute infection that can lead to amputation.

It can also be a sign of a psychological problem that can have a devastating effect on a dog’s quality of life.

Whether the cause is medical or psychological, early intervention is the key to a successful outcome for your dog.

Broadly, there are two possible reasons why your dog is licking her paws all the time. Dogs can constantly lick their paws for medical reasons. Or they can lick their paws for psychological/behavioral reasons.

The first step to diagnosing your dog’s specific problem is to inspect your dog’s feet yourself.

Wounds

If your dog is licking only one paw, take a close look at it. Does she have a cut on a paw pad? Are the pads cracked? Look for an embedded stone or thorn, and check for broken or cracked nails. If you find a wound or a foreign body, call your vet.

Interdigital Cysts

Is your dog limping? Look for swelling between your dog’s toes. She could have an interdigital (between the toes) cyst. A cyst is a bump that’s caused by a plugged or dilated hair follicle and is filled with blood or pus. It can be very painful and cause your dog to limp.

Breeds with wider paws may be more susceptible to these cysts than other dogs. Those breeds include:

Breeds with short, coarse coats are also more prone to interdigital cysts. These include:

A cyst also warrants a call to your vet.

Acral Lick Granuloma

An acral lick granuloma is also called acral lick dermatitis or simply acral lick. It's a red, irritated, inflamed, and hairless lesion that usually starts with an itchy or painful spot that the dog licks for relief.

Acral licks can be challenging to treat because they often have an underlying psychological cause. Treatment usually involves both medical care and behavior modification.

Other Medical Causes of Dog Paw Licking

  • Pain. Your dog could be suffering from arthritis or an injury that is not visible to you. When a dog experiences pain or itching, it will often lick the area for relief. The licking releases endorphins, which are the body’s natural pain killers, to help soothe the pain.
  • Hunger or dehydration. For a well-cared-for pet, these most often occur with illness or extreme heat.
  • Dementia in an older dog. If you’re noticing that your old dog licks her paws, know that excessive paw licking is not uncommon for dogs with age-related cognitive disabilities.
  • Parasites. Your dog could be responding to fleas or ticks or their bites.
  • Bacterial or yeast infection. If your dog has an open wound or her paws are cracked, bacteria and yeast could get into the wound and cause pain, inflammation, and itching.
  • Allergies. Your dog’s paw licking may be due to skin or food allergies. Any dog can develop allergies, but the following breeds are more prone than most to allergies or skin sensitivity:

Psychological Causes of Dog Paw Licking

If your vet can’t find a medical cause as to why your dog licks her paws, he may bring up the possibility of a psychological/behavioral cause.

Even if your dog has an obvious medical issue (such as a lesion or injury), the cause could still be psychological. Your vet may suspect obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Obsessive-compulsive disorder causes dogs to perform compulsive behaviors for no apparent reason (e.g., snapping at imaginary flies or spinning in circles).

Excessive paw licking is one of the more common OCD behaviors.

Common causes of OCD (including paw licking) in dogs include:

OCD behaviors can be mild, moderate, or severe. In the most severe cases, OCD can lead to significant self-injury and poor quality of life.

Breed Predisposition

No breed appears to have a predisposition to OCD. However, there are a few breeds that are more susceptible to excessive paw licking than other forms of OCD.

According to VCA Hospitals, compulsive paw licking is most common in large breeds. They specifically mention:

We can’t emphasize enough that early intervention is vital if you want your dog to have the best chance of recovery. The psychological condition that's causing the excessive paw licking will typically get worse.

In severe cases, the dog completely loses control over the behavior and can’t be distracted from it.

Note:

In extreme cases, OCD symptoms can be so severe that dogs stop interacting with their families, can’t function normally, and have no quality of life. Many times when it reaches this stage, owners choose to euthanize.

For a complete discussion of obsessive-compulsive disorder in dogs, please see Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in Dogs.

What Does a Dog’s Excessive Paw Licking Look Like?

You can see from the video that the owner is appropriately concerned. This behavior isn’t healthy. Whether the cause is medical or psychological, it must be controlled for the well-being of your dog.

How is Excessive Dog Paw Licking Diagnosed?

As soon as you notice signs of your dog licking herself excessively, make an appointment with your vet.

They will visually assess the affected area looking for an external cause. Then they are likely to palpate (press gently) to narrow the possibilities. For example, itchiness is less likely than pain to elicit a reaction from your dog.

The next step may involve an x-ray and possibly blood tests. These will help distinguish between a lesion affecting the bone and one that is only within the surrounding tissue.

Your vet may not determine the cause during your first visit. He may request that you return in a few weeks. If the underlying cause is medical, the lesion may have grown enough by then to make diagnosis possible.

Alternatively, he may recommend a dermatologic evaluation. A dermatologic veterinarian may take photographs, skin scrapings, and skin biopsies with a local anesthetic.

Your vet may also want to test for allergies. Your dog could be allergic to topical agents, specific foods, or environmental allergens.

Treatment—How Can I Stop My Dog from Licking?

Medical Treatment for Dogs That Lick Their Paws

Wounds and Other Injuries

If your dog is licking only one paw, she probably has a sore or injury. Wound licking is normal behavior for dogs, as their saliva has antibacterial properties that help with healing.

If she has a cut on her foot or cracked paw pads, your vet will treat the area and may bandage the paw to allow the wound to heal.

If your dog has a foreign body lodged between her paw pads (such as a grass seed or a thorn), the vet may have to sedate your dog to remove it. The same is true for the removal or trimming of a torn toenail.

Infection

Yeast or bacterial infections often develop following a wounded paw. Your vet may prescribe an anti-fungal or antibiotic.

Interdigital Cyst

You must get an interdigital cyst seen by a vet. They can take six to eight weeks to treat. Sometimes they become infected and need antibiotics and anti-inflammatories. Occasionally, they require surgery.

Don’t ignore an interdigital cyst. They are painful and could result in your dog having difficulty walking.

Acral Lick Granuloma

As discussed above, because it typically has a behavioral component, treating acral lick usually requires both medical care and a behavior modification program.

As with any paw licking, the first step is to visit the vet. They will want to investigate if there is an underlying medical condition such as a deep infection or a food allergy (two common culprits).

Even if the underlying condition is medical, by the time the granuloma forms, the dog has usually developed a compulsion to lick. By the time the granuloma is treated, the dog usually needs behavior modification as well as medical care.

Your vet will treat the medical condition first. Treatment may be complicated by pain, extreme itching, and secondary infections in addition to the underlying cause of the discomfort.

The vet may prescribe antibiotics or anti-inflammatory medication to heal the lesion. They may recommend covering it with bandages. They may also order an Elizabethan collar so your dog can’t continue to lick the wound.

However, because your dog may have underlying anxiety, Debra Horwitz, DVM, suggests weighing carefully the benefit of bandages and collar. They may increase your dog’s anxiety.

Dr. Horwitz adds that if you can resolve the issues that caused the anxiety that resulted in the acral lick, your dog’s skin issues may not recur.

But she does indicate that your dog will likely need behavioral therapy and that, in severe cases, treatment might include the psychotropic drugs mentioned above.

Allergies

If skin or food allergies are the cause of your dog's paw licking, treatment could get complicated.

Allergy symptoms in dogs, just as in people, can have many causes. Your dog could have skin, food, or environmental allergies.

You will need to work with your vet to determine the specific allergen that’s causing your dog’s issues.

Because of the large number of possibilities, it may take months to determine which allergens are triggering your dog’s reaction. Dietary trials alone take up to twelve weeks. And, since the process is one of elimination, it can be slow and tedious.

In the meantime, there are things you can do at home to make her more comfortable. Try anti-itch shampoos and ask your vet about topicals and antihistamines to help control her symptoms.

Pain

Arthritis. Arthritis is one of the most common pain generators for dogs. Though your dog may be licking her paws, the pain she feels could be somewhere else—somewhere she can't reach, according to Megan Kelly, DVM.

If she has pain in her hip, for example, she may lick her leg because it’s the closest she can get to the painful area.

Your vet may order x-rays to confirm an arthritis diagnosis. He may prescribe pain medication and anti-inflammatories for the condition.

Natural remedies might make your dog more comfortable. For example, Whole Dog Journal recommends glucosamine supplements and an anti-inflammatory diet.

Neurological pain. Another consideration is that your dog could be experiencing neurological pain. A pinched nerve in the back or neck, for example, could cause shooting, burning pain down your dog’s legs.

Your vet may want to get x-rays and possibly an MRI to confirm this diagnosis. They may prescribe pain medicine for this condition as well.

Dr. Kelly adds that acupuncture can also be an effective treatment for pain in dogs.

She is also a proponent of hydrotherapy as a gentle way for dogs with painful conditions to exercise. If your dog has a chronic pain issue like arthritis, swimming is an excellent way to soothe her pain and see that she gets the exercise she needs.

Psychological Treatment for Dogs That Lick Their Paws

If your dog’s licking turns out to have a behavioral rather than medical cause, the earlier you act, the better the chances of success. A delay in treatment can result in your dog getting conditioned to licking.

In this case, conditioning occurs when the dog discovers that licking the area creates relief, which releases endorphins and feels good. Even when the itch or pain is gone, she may be conditioned to lick for the same reason—her mind now associates licking with feeling good.

If this goes on too long, it could result in further self-injury and development of a compulsive behavior (like acral licking) and potential OCD. When the behavior gets to that point, it is much more challenging to treat.

Treatment for Mild Compulsive Paw Licking

For a dog that is showing mild or early symptoms of compulsive licking, there are things you can try at home to resolve the problem.

Your dog may respond to one or more of the following:

Positive reinforcement. Keep a very close eye on your dog. When you see her licking her paws, ask her to “leave it” and reward her when she does. This approach can be very effective in mild cases and when the reward is valuable enough to your dog.

Cider vinegar. Try spraying a 50:50 mixture of apple cider vinegar and water on your dog's paws as a deterrent to licking. You might even try letting her soak her feet in the solution for a few minutes.

You should check with your vet first, however, to be sure the vinegar won’t cause further skin irritation.

Dog-appeasing pheromone products. If your vet feels that your dog is licking because of anxiety, there are natural calming products you might try. These include dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP) products. DAP is available in many forms, including chews, tablets, supplements, sprays, diffusers, and collars.

Studies show that DAP products can help calm anxious dogs by imitating the pheromones their mothers produced when they were nursing.

Environmental modifications. Pet MD suggests that creating a low-stress environment can be very helpful for dogs with anxiety-based compulsions. They recommend a quiet environment with low lighting and slow movements.

Distraction. Try to get your dog interested in an activity that is incompatible with licking. Redirect her attention by giving her something else to do—maybe a game of fetch or a favorite puzzle toy.

A Longer-term Solution

For a more long-term solution, the AKC suggests that trick training is a great activity to distract your dog from licking. They recommend starting with a sit, then reward when they stop licking and sit.

They advise that next, you could try sitting pretty, leg weaving, or Army crawling. Again, be generous with the rewards.

Most dogs enjoy trick training. If yours does, try scheduling time for this into each day.

These training sessions would be an excellent long-term way to deal with anxiety lickers. The mental stimulation combined with bonding time with mom or dad could make a significant difference in your dog’s psychological well-being.

If your dog especially enjoys trick training activities, the AKC suggests participating in organized Trick Dog trials. This is an excellent idea, particularly for those dogs whose licking is related to insufficient exercise or boredom.

If Trick Dog is not your thing (or your dog’s), there are many other organized canine activities available. Some possibilities are obedience, rally, Earth Dog, herding trials, agility, and more.

If this idea interests you, you can search directories on the AKC’s web site to find an activity near you.

Treatment for Moderate to Severe Compulsive Paw Licking

Vet check. As above, a vet check should be your first move to rule out a potential medical cause.

Behavior modification. For a dog with more severe OCD symptoms, medical measures will probably not be enough. Treating full-blown OCD usually requires the help of a dog behaviorist.

The key to dealing with OCD is to identify and remove the source of conflict if possible. In many cases, this could be any combination of boredom, inadequate exercise, and lack of mental stimulation, all of which can contribute to anxiety.

For this reason, your vet or behaviorist will probably advise you to increase your dog’s level of activity through a regimen of daily exercise, playtime, mental stimulation, and training.

Any behavior modification plan will likely contain these elements. Keeping your dog’s mind and body busy can go a long way toward reducing anxiety and OCD symptoms.

Avoid punishment! Punishment is not only ineffective, but it also exacerbates the problem. Punishing your dog would only add to the anxiety that helped bring about the compulsive behavior in the first place.

Punishment is not recommended for treating any form of OCD.

Medication. In the most extreme cases, behaviorists may recommend medication.

Fluoxetine (Prozac) and clomipramine (Anafranil) are the two medications that vets typically used for severe OCD cases. These are the same drugs that doctors prescribe to humans as antidepressant or anti-anxiety medications.

Like all drugs, these medications have side effects. Dogs can’t let us know when something doesn’t feel right, so consider medication very carefully.

But if your dog’s OCD is severely impacting her quality of life, medication may be the best choice for your situation.

Find more information about treatment of OCD in dogs here.

Breeds That May Be Prone to Paw Licking

Again, there is no evidence that any breeds are more prone to OCD than any others. However, there are breeds that, if they suffer from OCD, are more prone to paw licking than to other forms of the disorder.

These breeds include:

Where to Find Help

If your dog has mild to moderate paw licking and you’re catching it early, a certified dog trainer may be all you need. You can find directories that can help you find one near you at the sites below.

The International Association of Canine Professionals.

The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers.

However, if you and your vet agree that your dog’s issues are psychological and prolonged, a veterinary behaviorist should be your next step. Find directories at the following sites:

Conclusion

Licking is a normal behavior for dogs. But there are times when self-licking becomes excessive and a cause for concern.

When dogs lick their paws excessively, you must find out why as quickly as possible. Early intervention is critical to prevent compulsive licking from developing into obsessive-compulsive disorder.

If you can’t figure out why your dog is licking her paws and remedy it on your own, ask for help ASAP. Your dog’s well-being—both physical and emotional—may depend on it.

References and Further Reading

  1. Grant, David, DVM. Veterinary Practice. Acral lick dermatitis. December 1, 2016.
  2. Grzyb, Katie. Pet MD. Why dogs lick and when to worry. June 20, 2016.
  3. Horwitz, Debra, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM. VCA Hospitals. Compulsive disorders in dogs.
  4. Kelly, Megan. Doggie Bootcamp, Onlinepethealth Academy. Ten causes of paw licking. March 5, 2018.
  5. Kelly, Megan. Doggie Bootcamp, Onlinepethealth Academy. Swimming in water. February 17, 2018.
  6. Kim YM, Lee JK, Abd el-aty AM, Hwang SH, Lee JH, Lee SM. Efficacy of dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP) for ameliorating separation-related behavioral signs in hospitalized dogs. Can Vet J. 2010;51(4):380–384.
  7. Robins, Mary. AKC. Why is my dog licking me? October 21, 2019.
  8. Straus, Mary. Whole Dog Journal. Natural dog arthritis treatments. Updated June 19, 2019.