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6 reasons your dog constantly licks their paws, plus tips to handle this behaviour

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Excessive paw licking can be caused by conditions ranging from paw injury to allergic reaction.
  • Dogs naturally lick their paws, but unusually excessive licking may have an underlying cause.
  • If your dog frequently licks the same paw, they could be in pain or have an injury or infection.
  • When you can't find a clear reason for your dog's constant paw-licking, it's best to call your vet.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

Lately, it seems every time you look at your beloved pooch, they're licking their paws. 

Should you be worried? Well, it depends. Excessive paw licking can happen for many reasons, including pain, injury, and in some cases, behavioural issues — though some dogs may be more prone to nervous grooming than others. 

Whatever the cause, identifying the issue before complications arise is key, says Emily Wilson, DVM, verified veterinarian with Fuzzy

Because pets can't explain what's wrong, paying attention to new and unusual behaviours like excessive paw licking can help you take steps to address those concerns promptly. 

1. Pain

If your dog is licking their paws, it could be a sign that they have an ache somewhere on their body. Paw-licking is a kind of "coping mechanism for discomfort," says Wilson

Causes for pain-related licking vary, but they may include:

  • Arthritis
  • Pain elsewhere in the body, such as lower neck pain
  • Wounds
  • Cysts or other growths
  • Cancer

Conditions like arthritis and cancer are especially common in older dogs.

Once you have a diagnosis from a veterinarian, you can limit licking by helping manage your dog's pain — often with prescription medication, but the remedy will vary depending on the underlying cause.  

You may also have to add soft runner rugs over slippery wood floors for dogs who have trouble getting around due to arthritis or other conditions that cause chronic pain, says Wilson. 

2. Paw injury

Your dog might lick the site of the injury if they have a cut or scrape, or if a thorn, burr, or other foreign material has become stuck in their paw. 

A cut or scrape is likely if your dog is licking one particular spot. However, it's not always easy to spot embedded objects. Foxtails, for example, are barbed plants that can get between the toes and cause incessant licking and chewing, says Wilson. 

If you spot any foreign material in the wound, contact your veterinarian right away instead of trying to treat the injury at home. 

You can take a few steps to help your pup get relief from a minor wound:

  1. Flush the area with water to remove any dirt and debris
  2. Clean the cut or scrape using mild soap and water
  3. Dab antibiotic ointment on the injured paw with a cotton swab
  4. Cover the site of injury with a sock or put a cone on your dog to keep them from licking the wound, which could lead to infection

3. Skin conditions and infections

Some skin conditions, like dermatitis, can trigger continual licking. They can also contribute to secondary problems, like infection, which can then lead to licking.  

Bacterial or fungal infections are more likely to crop up in dogs with hairier feet, particularly in wet weather, says Wilson. You can help prevent these infections by:

  • Wiping paws dry after taking your dog out on a rainy day
  • Using dog booties to keep your pup's paws protected from things like ice and winter salt.

4. Boredom or anxiety

Some dogs may lick their paws to self-soothe. 

Potential behavioural reasons for constant licking include:

  • Separation anxiety
  • Boredom
  • Phobias, including fear of strangers or loud noises like thunder
  • Compulsive disorders, including acral lick dermatitis and canine compulsive disorder (CCD)
  • Moving to a new environment

"Most breeds will get destructive before they start over-grooming," says dog trainer Ali Smith. Destructive behaviour can include chewing furniture, excessive barking, or shredding pillows and toilet paper.

Sometimes, you might be able to link the licking behaviour to a recent change in your dog's life. "If you know for a fact that you've just moved house and your dog tends to be a little bit of an anxious one, then yeah, it's likely that that's had an impact," says Smith. 

But a vet visit can help you rule out other causes before you bring on a behaviour expert. 

"It's very much a group effort. Behavioural things can be really frustrating for some pet parents, and it can be hard to explain to your care provider," says Wilson. 

In the meantime, enrichment items can help distract your pet from licking. Things like toys filled with yummy treats, for example, will cause most pups to forget about their paw, at least temporarily. 

Smith says that giving dogs a fulfilling life and boosting their enjoyment of daily activities makes anxiety less likely to take hold. 

5. Allergic reaction

Dogs might also lick paws that itch, and frequent itching could relate to an allergic reaction.

While it can be tough to narrow down the cause of your dog's allergies, potential culprits include:  

  • Food
  • Grass (particularly if it's been chemically treated) 
  • Fleas
  • Dust
  • Pollen
  • Mold 

According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), other symptoms of allergies include:

  • Swelling
  • Redness and inflammation
  • Ear itching
  • Sneezing
  • Diarrhea

One way to minimise allergic reactions to outdoor environmental triggers like grass is to wipe your dog's paws after a romp outside, says Wilson. 

If you suspect a food allergy is at play, ask your veterinarian about trying an elimination diet.

6. Fleas

Another common cause of constant paw-licking is a flea infestation. Many flea bites lead to itchiness and irritation that can trigger licking. 

In some cases, you may be able to actually see the fleas, but some dogs with a flea allergy may experience a reaction from a single bite. "They can get one bite when they're out on a walk and kind of go through this itch cascade," says Wilson. 

Ideally, you want to take steps to prevent flea infestations from happening in the first place by: 

  • Asking your veterinarian about flea control products for all pets in your home
  • Checking for fleas, especially during the warmer months, if your dog spends time outside 
  • Treating your home for fleas
  • Keeping your dog from interacting with wild or stray animals

Still, if you discover your dog's coat is crawling with fleas, you do have options for treatment

When to contact your vet

Because excessive paw licking has several potential causes, reaching out to your vet is generally a good next step. 

Not sure the problem is worth a vet visit? Wilson recommends contacting a telehealth service like Fuzzy, adding that veterinary telehealth services can offer pet parents more insight on the options available and prepare them before a potential full-service vet visit.

Keep in mind that a dog licking one spot or paw more than the other may be in pain, so it's best to connect with your vet right away if you notice this type of licking. 

Takeaway

Pinpointing the reason for your dog's constant paw-licking can take some time and careful attention. 

Since dogs can't talk, says Wilson, they're left relying on humans to help decipher the problem. While you can identify and address some causes of excessive paw-licking at home, in some cases your dog may need prompt veterinary care. 

If there's any chance your dog could be injured or in pain, reach out to your veterinarian right away to confirm a diagnosis and get the right treatment. 

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