Why Do Dogs Lick Their Paws? 7 Common Reasons—and How to Stop It
Most dogs can be spotted licking or even chewing their feet. Why do dogs lick their paws, exactly? And is it a cause for concern? Here's everything you need to know.
If pet parents know anything, it’s this: Dogs do a lot of weird stuff. A prime example is head tilting. And why do dogs eat grass or poop, anyway? Another common perplexing canine behavior is a paw licking. “When a dog licks their paws constantly or concentrates on licking just the paw area, it may be a sign that something is wrong,” cautions veterinarian RuthAnn Lobos, DVM. Here are seven explanations that can help answer the question “Why do dogs lick their paws?” Once you’ve figured out the probable cause, the next step is to answer the question “How can I get my dog to stop licking his paws?” We have information that can help there as well.
Get Reader’s Digest’s Read Up newsletter for more pet insights, humor, cleaning, travel, tech and fun facts all week long.
First things first. Why do dogs lick their paws? They may just be grooming themselves with their preferred paw, which is totally normal. Occasional paw licking, a few minutes a day, is far from unusual. While not as fastidious as cats, dogs do make some effort to keep themselves, particularly their paws, clean. It’s common for a dog to lick his paws briefly after coming in from a walk, especially if he might have gotten sand or dirt on them. If you’re wondering “Should I stop my dog from licking his paws?” and the behavior fits that description, then no. If your dog seems to be constantly licking his paws, however, read on.
Why do dogs excessively chew or lick their paws?
If your dog is chewing his paws, it may be a sign that he’s hurt. Stepping on glass or a thorn, breaking a claw, being stung by a bee or getting burned on hot asphalt are just a few things that may be causing this behavior. “For example, on the West Coast, there are little plants called foxtails,” says veterinarian Gary Richter, DVM, owner of Holistic Veterinary Care. “The seeds can actually burrow into the skin in between a dog’s toes.”
A boo-boo is especially likely to be the culprit if the licking starts out of nowhere. Take a good look at each nail, in between your dog’s toes and pads, and the top of his feet. Depending on what’s wrong, you may be able to take care of it yourself with a good canine first-aid kit. If you have any doubt, though, check in with your vet.
As a pet parent, you’ve probably noticed that dogs can come up with inventive ways to communicate. So you may be wondering what they’re trying to warn you about when they lick their paws. Dogs that are continuously licking their paws may be experiencing pain—but not necessarily in the paw. Many dogs feeling pain anywhere in their body will lick a front paw as a means of coping with it.
It may take a while to figure this out, since dogs, like many animals, attempt to conceal their pain. Of all the potential answers to the question “Why do dogs lick their paws?” this possibility may be the most upsetting. If nothing else seems to make sense, contact your veterinarian to get to the bottom of your pup’s discomfort.
Fleas, ticks and mange can irritate and itch like crazy anywhere on your dog’s body, including, of course, his feet. Especially during the summer months, parasites could be the cause of your dog licking his paws. Numerous treatment options are available for canine parasites, and your veterinarian can help you decide which is the best one for your dog’s particular situation. If your pet has a flea infestation, these home remedies for fleas are worth checking out.
A food allergy
It may not be intuitive, but food allergies are known to cause itchy paws in dogs. While it’s unclear exactly why the paws specifically seem to be affected, this is among the first things vets look to in cases of a dog constantly licking his paws.
What foods cause dogs to lick their paws? The answer isn’t the same for every dog and every situation. “In these cases, you should talk with your veterinarian about which type of food might be best for your dog,” advises Dr. Lobos. “Some pet parents find that a complete and balanced diet that is made with fewer ingredients or a single source of animal protein can help.” Here are the foods vets buy for their own dogs.
You may think that itchy paws would be the obvious reason behind a dog’s biting and licking. Indeed, if you notice that your dog won’t stop licking his paws during only one season or weather pattern, dermatitis may be the cause. Dermatitis in dogs can be triggered by an allergic reaction to something in their environment.
For a dog, biting paws may be a sign that substances like lawn chemicals, rock salt and other de-icing products or weeds and plants are bothering him. “Dogs can be affected by pollens, grasses and molds just like we are,” notes Dr. Lobos. The dog-chewing-paws remedy may be as simple as cleaning his feet with a paw cleaner after every walk. “Regular bathing with an appropriate dog shampoo can also be very, very helpful,” adds Dr. Richter.
As boredom or anxiety takes hold in a dog, excessive licking can follow. Don’t go by appearances here. Even high-energy dogs can be bored, and pups that seem calm can be anxious under certain circumstances. In fact, here are a few unexpected things that can trigger dog anxiety. Consulting with a dog trainer or behaviorist on a treatment plan can solve the root cause of such licking. And the earlier you catch it, the easier it will be to correct.
If your dog happens to be a greyhound, this is a definite possibility. Greyhounds are virtually the only breed that gets corns, due to the unique way their feet are formed. Corns can be really uncomfortable for your dog, causing him to lick the affected paw. Special booties can alleviate them, as can avoiding walking your dog on pavement and other hard surfaces.
How to stop a dog from licking its paws
At the end of the day, knowing all the possible answers to the question “Why do dogs lick their paws?” is less important than figuring out how to get your dog to stop licking his paws. No matter the reason for a dog continuously licking and nibbling at his paws, the moisture can cause a bacterial or yeast infection. In other words, the licking itself becomes its own problem. So come up with a plan with your vet to stop the behavior sooner rather than later.
“I recommend visiting your vet if your dog continues to lick, chew or bite at the pad after trying to get them to stop or if your dog is guarding their paw,” says Dr. Lobos. If you have a light-colored dog, one sign of excessive licking is fur discoloration. “They get what’s called saliva staining on their fur,” says Dr. Richter. “The fur will actually turn a rusty color where they’re licking.”
Celebrity dog trainer Chrissy Joy echoes Dr. Richter’s advice: If you suspect the paw licking is something medical, consult your vet. However, if the paw licking is behavioral, she recommends trying the following strategies to thwart it:
1. Give your dog something to do
If your dog is licking their paws because they’re bored, Joy recommends giving them something enriching to do. Creating an engaging environment that promotes mental stimulation allows your pup to focus on something other than their paws. “The use of puzzle toys is an excellent option to help create an engaging environment for your dog,” she explains. “Many puzzle toys can be found online, including unique shapes and styles that offer unique challenges for your dog.” Somewhere to start: putting your dog’s meal into a puzzle toy and offering it to them when they start licking their paws.
2. Exercise your dog
This is another tip for the pup that’s licking their paws out of boredom. Joy says exercising your dog daily and tiring them out will help alleviate boredom behaviors, including excessive licking. “Long walks, hikes or even picking up canine sports can be a great way to bond with your dog and meet their physical demands,” she explains.
About the experts
- RuthAnn Lobos, DVM, is the lead veterinarian with Merrick Pet Care. She has more than 15 years of experience in the pet food industry and practices veterinary medicine in Boulder, Colorado, where she lives with her family and three dogs: Rigolets, Stella and Finn.
- Gary Richter, DVM, is an award-winning veterinarian and a veterinary health expert with Rover.com. He has owned and been the medical director of Montclair Veterinary Hospital in Oakland, California, since 2002 and started Holistic Veterinary Care in 2009.
- Chrissy Joy is a celebrity dog trainer, live performer and International Trick Dog Champion who has been featured on PIX11 and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, as well as in USA Today. Her goal is to inspire others to develop their bond with their pup through activities like trick training.