Why Is My Dog Licking His Paws?

Golden retriever licking its paw
Getty Images/C. Karim/FOAP

It's not unusual for a dog to continuously lick its paws. It can be tricky, though, to determine the underlying cause of the problem. Is this a medical problem or a behavioral one? Is the licking causing a problem or is it helping to resolve an issue?

Anytime there is a "behavior" involved, it's important to rule out an underlying medical reason for the behavior. If all medical concerns are ruled out, then the problem can be approached as a behavioral one, and behavior modification techniques can be employed. To determine whether there is a medical concern, you'll need to answer some questions about your pet's health and behaviors over time. Having the answers on hand can help your veterinarian help you and your pet.

When and How Did the Behavior Start?

Your vet will almost certainly want to know when your dog first starting licking his feet. Is this behavior new? If not, how long has it been going on? Is it both front feet or all feet?

Are the Feet Red, Swollen, Bumpy, or Crusty/Flaky?

Red, swollen, or crusty feet could be indicative of a local irritant (such as de-icer on the ground in the winter) or inflammation/infection from bacterial, fungal and/or parasitic sources. Cysts or other growths or small abscesses can occur, causing discomfort and licking.Even if the irritating cause is no longer present, constant licking and chewing can become a self-propagating cycle of continued trauma to the skin and continued inflammation (a condition also known as pyotraumatic dermatitis).

Could It Be Caused by Allergy, Infection, or Underlying Disease?

Itchy or painful feet can be the result of food allergies or atopy (inhalant allergies), causing general itchiness. Foreign bodies, such as grass awns, are also a painful and common source of infection for animals' feet. Arthritis or other painful internal conditions causing pain in the area without visible infection on the foot could also be a cause for licking.

What If There Are No Signs that Something Is Wrong?

Foot licking can simply be a habitual behavior that occurs when the dog is relaxing, stressed, or bored. Some dogs even chew at their nails with this type of behavior.

Depending on what your veterinarian finds on examination, treatment to stop this behavior will be aimed at the underlying cause. For cases of allergy or infection, there are medications and/or dietary changes that can be made to assist with the problem. 

In situations in which pain is the underlying cause, that should be dealt with directly to alleviate the licking. Growths or abscesses are usually treated surgically. It is also important to be vigilant about environmental hazards to feet, such as de-icing compounds in the winter and hot pavement tar in the summer. For difficult cases, a visit to a veterinary dermatologist or university veterinary teaching hospital may be in order.

Tips for Managing Behavioral Modification

Behavioral modification to stop paw licking and chewing, like any behavioral modification, takes time, patience and consistency. There are several topical products that can be used to discourage this sort of behavior. Physical restraint, such as an e-collar, is also sometimes used for medical conditions to allow the foot or paw to heal and thus alleviate the urge to lick.

Distraction is also a good technique. Playing games, offering toys, and keeping your dog occupied, coupled with positive reinforcement, will help break the cycle. If additional behavior help is needed, consider working with a specialist in veterinary behavior.