We often have pet parents query this behavior for their mutts, pups & nobles. Is this a medical problem, and is it harmful? When should pet parents rush of to the vet? Unfortunately, these are questions without a simple answer.
Licking and fretting over their paws is part of normal dog’s grooming behavior. It is part of their subconscious body language, just like tapping your feet or playing with your hair. It only really becomes a problem when your fur kid does it in excess or carries it to the extreme.
Typically, when your fur kid licks and nibbles its front paws and forearms excessively, it is either to do with paw irritation or it has become a way for him or her to deal with boredom, sometimes even stress. In some mutts, pups & nobles, both factors combine to cause the actual display of behavior. It could also be as a result of puncture wounds to the toes or paw-pads, fractured claws or toes, burns, corns (common in Greyhounds), or foreign bodies that may be lodged between the toes, such as ticks, grass awns and burrs. It could also be the chemicals in your yard, your carpet cleaning products, walking on weeds, and so much more. Additionally, fur kids with diabetes and chronic arthritis can suffer from nerve damage and bone pain in their feet just like pet parents, and will lick and chew on their feet to alleviate the ache.
Dr Peter Dobias further postulate that collars also contribute to this behavior (see: 5-Step Holistic Approach to Paw Licking in Dogs, Dr Peter Dobias (Blog)). Dr. Dobias points out that a collars position on the neck can cause neck and nerve injury in dogs who pull. Retractable leashes create a constant drag that also creates stress in the cervical – neck – area of a dog. Based on Dr Dobias observations, in many cases, your fur kids might be trying to alleviate or get rid of either pain or neurological sensation in their paws. Abnormal neurological sensation is familiar to most people who have an experience with a neck or back injury. It can present as a pins and needles sensation or as itching. Dogs are not any different, but most people don’t even think of such connections in dogs.
In an article published by Dr Dobias (see: Excessive paw licking — it may not be allergies! Dr Dobias (Article)) through Animal Wellness, he states:“Based on these observations, I started addressing the injuries and tightness I found in my paw-licking patients. To my surprise, a large majority of these dogs recovered completely or at least improved significantly, depending on the severity of the injury and the chronicity of the condition.”
His recommendation? Use a front clip harness!
Time for Cluedo ..
In order for pet parents to figure out why the fretting, one need to sort out some clues. So before rushing of to the vet, you would need to create a history of the behaviour – time to play a little Elementary and observe your fur kid(s). We need to determine:
- When did the problem begin?
- When does your fur kid do it?
- Just one paw, two or four?
- A clean bill of health?
- Are there triggers?
What about the DNA?
According to Dr Ron Hines, DVM (PhD), from Texas, US, certain breeds seem to suffer from paw problems more than others (see: Why Is My Dog Licking Its Paws So Much? Dr Ron Hines (Article)). Dr Hines has observed, in his career that span over 40 years as a veterinarian, that Labrador Retrievers, Terriers of all kinds, Poodles, Chihuahuas and Maltese, are the predominant breeds that exhibit this behavior more frequently. Based on his observations, white and blond-haired breeds may not be more prone to licking, but when they do, their saliva dis-colors their paw fur and as a result, the condition becomes more apparent. He also notes that compulsiveness is often linked to individual genetics 1 .
Highly alert working breeds are more likely to relieve stress through over-grooming and paw licking. Here, breeds like Greyhounds, Dalmatians and cattle dog typically apply. Although any dog can have a paw-licking problem, Dr Hines notes that it is often more prevalent in pure-bred or two-way crosses.
What tests can your vet run to determine the cause?
Veterinarians have a myriad of sophisticated tests available to them today that make it considerably easier than it once was to diagnose pet medical problems. But when it comes to paw licking, the oldest of them all, a careful physical examination of your fur kid and a good account of your pet’s history, is still the most important of all. According to Dr Hines, that is because in over 80% of paw-licking fur kids, those sophisticated tests will be normal.
Your vet can perform blood tests, microscopic skin scrapings and perhaps even x-rays in the workup, because the 20% or so of the cases in which they reveal something are the 20% that are often the most easy to cure. Those are fur kids with sluggish thyroid glands, with certain immune disorders, with mange, fungal infections or bacterial infections. Based on Dr Hines observations, all of the most common causes, fleas, allergies, boredom and compulsive behaviours, are made on the basis of those test being normal.
So what are the most common causes for this behaviour?
Common causes could include:
- allergies, canine atopy;
- contact allergies and irritants (seasonal allergies);
- boredom and individual temperament;
- anxiety, stress and obsessive/compulsive disorder behavior;
- bacterial or fungal paw infections;
- bone joint (arthritis) or toenail problems;
- infections or abscess due to foreign items (foxtails);
- under-active thyroid (see: Dogs and Compulsive Scratching, Licking, and Chewing (WebMD));
- food allergies, often discussed, but rarely the cause;
What are my options?
Begin by making lifestyle adjustments for your fur kids, based on the causes you decide are most likely. Since flea exposure is so common with this problem, always include flea preventative measures. If the problem began after a lifestyle change, try to return things as much as possible to as they were.
- Change your fur kid’s diet. Decrease the amount per feeding but increase the number of fooding slots. Food your pet in interesting, novel and challenging ways. Consider natural, raw species appropriate pet cuisine from one of our manufacturers;
- Investigate behavior modification techniques. There are behavior specialists that can assist you with behavior modification. You will find oodles of suggestions in books and on the Internet. Some may be helpful, some probably won’t be and some are downright silly.
- If your fur kid developed paw infections, they need to be treated with antibiotics or antiseptics and socks or gloves need to be used to allow the fur kid’s feet to heal. Because those infections are the result of licking – not the cause of licking – they will return if the underlying urge to lick is not solved. Giving antibiotics for more than 14 days or repeating them frequently is not a good idea.
- If advanced age has slowed your fur kid down, consider a weight loss program and herbal solutions to relief the pain of arthritis, if x-rays confirm that problem. Anti-histamines are generally ineffective in discouraging paw licking. When they do have a positive effect, it is probably due to the general sedation (sleepiness) that they produce. Ask your veterinarian for the appropriate dose and frequency if you choice to use. Tranquillizers and sedatives will also sedate your fur kid, make it lick less and sleep more. But with time, medications of that type tend to become less effective. Probably more effective than anti-histamines is a foot-bath containing baking soda. Prepare a thick paste by using a 50/50 mix of baking soda and water. Apply to affected areas of your fur kids’ skin, leave for 20 minutes, and then rinse off. Alternatively add one cup of baking soda to your fur kids’ bath water if he is itching all over. Track your fur kid through it when you come in from a walk to removed pollen and irritants. Then pat their feet dry.
- Veterinarians dispense various human antidepressants and some approved for dogs in an attempt to reduce obsessive compulsive behaviors. Use with care if you must.
- Medicated shampoos can be helpful if the problem is itch related. If it is no more than a habit or vice, they are unlikely to be of much help. Topical sprays and ointments that contain poorly-absorbed corticosteroids can also be helpful. But these products must be thoroughly massaged into your fur kids skin or covered with a sock or bandage – if not, products left to dry on the skin are quickly licked off and swallowed. Swallowing those medications (or hydrocortisone-containing creams) can lead to steroid side effects (Cushing’s symptoms).
- Vitamin E will work on your fur kid’s dry skin just like it works on your wrinkles. Break open a capsule and rub the oil directly on my fur kid’s dry, itchy areas. Not only does the oil feel good to him or her, but also the massage action warms the muscles and helps the Vitamin E penetrate faster to problem areas.
- Chamomile tea & Herbal Tea soaks, chilled in the refrigerator, can alleviate any minor skin irritations when sprayed on sensitive, itchy spots. The chilled tea kills yeast and bacteria on the skin and relieves inflammation. Or just have your fur kid soak its paws in a small tub of the cold tea. Warm chamomile tea bags can soothe itchy, irritated eyes for both you and your fur kid. You can also try green tea and calendula.
- Epsom salt soaks and heat packs can reduce the swelling of itchy paws and inflamed sores. A bath of warm water and Epsom salt also speeds up the healing time for any small, open sores, particularly when combined with veterinary antibiotics.
- Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV) can also be used to relieve the pain of arthritis in your fur kid. ACV is added to a fur kid’s food or water. ACV is also a great solution for fleas! Make sure you use unprocessed ACV.
The Dangers Of Steroid Overuse …
When paw licking is due to itchy paws, your veterinarian can stop the problem abruptly with corticosteroids given by injection or in pill form. If we listen to Dr Hines and other integrated vets, that is rarely if ever a good idea. Corticosteroids, given in that way, affect the whole body. With time, they will cause serious side effects. The same goes for products that suppress your fur kids’ immune system.
And lastly, a friendly reminder …
We are not medical professionals. It is up to you, the concerned pet parent, to ensure that you are familiar with the solutions you select and administer. Make sure you read the fine print, and work with your integrated vet to chart of course of action.
As for ourselves, we subscribe to the concept that as with any condition, the most healthful natural diet will improve the pet’s overall health. This includes the use of non-toxic / synthetic solutions available to us to manage our fur kids.
Additional Articles and Videos
Dr Karen Becker discuss the topic
Dr Patty Khuly discuss the topic on VetStreet.
References and Research
- 1.Tang R, Noh H, Wang D, et al. Candidate genes and functional noncoding variants identified in a canine model of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Genome Biol. 2014:R25. doi:10.1186/gb-2014-15-3-r25