For anyone who’s ever owned a dog, they can attest to the many ritualistic behaviors that are part of their pet’s daily routine. For example, it’s not unusual to see a dog grooming himself, which may include a full-body shake after getting wet, rolling around in the grass to ‘comb’ his fur, and of course licking his coat and paws to remove dirt, debris and other impurities. However, when you find your dog chewing his paws incessantly, it may indicate a problem. So, the question remains among many dog owners – how much chewing is considered “too much”? This article will explore the various reasons why dogs may be chewing or licking their paws profusely, how to identify abnormal behavior, when to see the vet, and preventative measures owners can take to ease problematic self-grooming and chewing.
Excessive Paw Licking and Chewing: Identifying Causes & Symptoms
Once a dog shows symptoms of over-grooming – which may include compulsive chewing on the paws, licking at the toes and/or pads of his feet, or other similar behavior – it should be cause for concern. Additional warning signs include redness, soreness, a foul odor, bleeding at the “overly-licked” region or swollen dog paws, as well as the dog limping when he walks. If any of these indicators are observed, contact a veterinarian immediately. Below, some of the most common reasons why dogs chew at their paws excessively:
- Canine Dermatitis (Dry Skin): One of the most common reasons why a dog may be over-licking himself is due to canine dermatitis – or more simply put, dry skin. Just like humans, dogs also suffer from the effects of the weather and humidity levels, whether it’s very cold outside or the climate (or humidity level in the house) is extremely arid. On the other hand, dogs have a distinct disadvantage: unlike their human counterparts, they don’t have the option of slathering on moisturizing creams and lotions when their coats feel flaky and itchy; hence, the urge to lick often becomes the temporary fix for dry paw pads.
Although dogs are capable of grooming themselves, it does help when humans brush and bathe their dogs often– however, dog owners can also over-groom and bathe, so be sure not to overdo it with pets, especially in the case of designer breeds who often require more upkeep at the groomer. Too much shampooing and blow-drying will strip a pup’s skin of his natural oils, while harsh chemicals and soaps will dry out his skin and coat. Therefore, read labels carefully and speak with a vet or groomer regarding dry skin/coat issues if a problem is suspected.
Another reason for canine dermatitis is a deficiency of fatty acids in his diet – in order for a dog’s skin and coat to remain healthy and resilient, he needs to get the proper allotment of essential nutrients found in certain foods for dogs. Fish oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil are all excellent sources of fatty acids and can be added to a dog’s food – a vet can recommend the exact amount if there’s any uncertainty. Similarly, the vet’s office or a dog groomer may also recommend natural skin balms especially formulated for animals for severe cases of dog dermatitis.
Canine dermatitis symptoms may include:
- Red, irritated or bumpy skin
- Noticeable flakes of skin observed through dog’s coat or when he is scratching himself
- Excessive licking
- Canine Allergies: Another unfortunate affliction dogs share with humans: allergies. Similar to people, dogs may be allergic to a variety of things, whether it’s environmental, food-related, or chemically-based. Among the things that cause canine allergies include cleaning products (such as shampoos, laundry detergent and even household cleaners), pesticides (such as those used to treat lawns and gardens), and various plants (both indoor and outdoor). Excessive licking and chewing of the paws that hasn’t been linked to any other condition may indicate some type of allergy or a canine food intolerance.
Much like their owners, dogs can also develop seasonal allergies to mold and pollen, or they may suddenly become allergic to certain chemicals or cleaning products in the home. However, one of the most occurring canine allergies are food allergies, which frequently lead to skin irritations that affect different parts of the body. The most common food allergies observed in dogs are protein-based – primarily beef, chicken and dairy; however, it’s also possible for dogs to have grain allergies (e.g., gluten allergies or sensitivity).
While veterinarians can run allergy tests to determine a dog’s triggers, pet owners can attempt an elimination diet at home to figure out what he’s allergic to. Although it may be difficult to identify the ‘offending’ ingredient, remember that in order for a dog to develop the allergy in the first place, he must have had prior exposure to the ingredient in question – therefore, it’s probably one of the dog food ingredients that the animal has been fed up until that point. The elimination diet will essentially consist of taking away one food at a time to establish whether or not his symptoms improve once the suspected food ‘culprit’ has been removed from his diet. In the event that a dog is showing signs of skin irritation and/or excessive paw chewing or licking, pet parents should speak with their vet regarding nutritional adjustments and changes to his daily routine to address and treat the condition(s).
Canine dermatitis symptoms may include:
- Excessively licking paws immediately following walks – may indicate environmental allergies (e.g., grass, plants or pesticides found outdoors)
- Itching, scratching, rubbing and licking, especially around the face, paws and underarms
- Thickening and redness of the skin
- Raised bumps on skin surface
- Dandruff/dry skin
- Crusts and wounds
- Dull coat
- Sneezing; watery/red eyes
- Injury: In the event that a dog has been hurt or injured, he may be nursing a wound. Whether it’s an abrasion or puncture to the toe pads, or a fractured toe or claw, contacting a vet for a professional examination is advised – particularly if the cause or severity of injury is undetermined. Excessive licking and nibbling at the site of an injury sometimes take place, as the dog may be trying to dislodge a foreign object in the paw, such as a thorn, splinter, burr or piece of glass. In other instances, he may be suffering from an insect sting. These sort of injuries are especially common for dogs who are very active or have recently been exploring a new area off-leash.
Dog owners should always check the paw area if an injury in that region is suspected – check the pads and feel in between for any foreign objects, cuts, tears, lacerations or open wounds; also examine the animal carefully for any other visible signs of pain/injury, including sprains, fractures or breaks. In the event that the dog is limping when he walks or resting more than he normally would, contact a vet right away – he or she can advise the next steps.
Indications of injury include:
- Acute paw licking
- Open wounds, lacerations or skin punctures at the site of the paw area
- Visible insect stings
- Signs of sprains, tears, fractures or breaks (paw licking can indicate pain further up the leg)
- Limping or resting more than usual
- Parasites: Dogs can suffer a great deal at the mercy of canine parasites – fleas, ticks and mites cause a tremendous amount of itching when canines are infested with these nuisance insects. While ticks are relatively easy to spot, fleas can be difficult to find unless a dog has an acute infestation. Mites, on the other hand, are barely visible and may require some detective-work to determine if they are present on the animal. As a result, pups may try to ease their itchy skin when infested with parasites by licking or chewing the affected area. For dog owners unsure about parasite prevention, recognition, treatment or general care, speak with a trusted vet for a thorough examination, diagnosis and care regimen. If a dog displays any of the signs or symptoms as seen below, contact a vet immediately.
The following includes a general overview of canine signs & symptoms for each parasite as reviewed:
Symptoms of Mites:
- Visible skin irritation/redness
- Severe scratching
- Loss of hair (either in patches or all over coat)
- Mites may be apparent to naked eye (part fur and examine closely)
- Chewing and biting at skin
- Extreme scratching/itching
- Hair loss
- Irritated/red skin
Signs of Ticks on Dogs:
- Tick discovered in the home (i.e., on bedding, in carpets, or on the floor) – examine dog immediately
- Dog has a fever (symptoms include shivering, weakness, loss of appetite and panting)
- Unexplained scabs
- Dog constantly shaking head (may be due to tick burrowed in his ear canal)
- Feeling a bump on the dog’s skin
- Psychological Distress: In addition to physical catalysts, dogs may also over-groom as a result of emotional or psychological distress – whether bored, anxious, depressed or lonely, canines may compulsively lick and chew at their skin, coat and paws when stressed out or upset. In the event where a dog is emotionally distraught or feeling neglected, he may self-soothe with excessive licking and chewing. This behavior may also occur when he’s not receiving adequate stimulation, affection or play-time with his family.
Many dogs suffer from separation anxiety, especially in the case of their pet parents leaving the home. In other circumstances, rescue dogs may have undergone abuse or neglect in the past that triggers bouts of fear and anxiety, even in their forever homes. This is why it’s so important to observe dogs and their behavior, especially when they show signs of anxiety, depression, aggression or other forms of distress. Pet parents should take note of certain activities taking place in the household and how it may trigger (or exacerbate) certain emotional responses and behaviors – and then determine ways to address the behavior, which may include training techniques or even one-on-one coaching with a professional dog therapist or licensed trainer. For dogs who are left home alone frequently, pet owners may want to consider a dog walker or pet sitter to help reduce their animal’s stress levels.
Did You Know…
When your dog is bored, it increases his levels of the stress hormone, cortisol – and paw licking actually reduces it! However, excessive licking can lead to soreness, bumpy skin and other superficial problems of the paws, skin and coat. What’s more, your dog may be gaining weight not due to poor diet or exercise – but because he’s bored and stressed out! Be sure to walk your dog regularly and engage in daily play-time to reduce his cortisol levels – and keep him happy & healthy!
Dogs of all ages, breeds and sizes groom themselves – it’s part of their DNA. It’s quite easy to spot ‘normal’ grooming behavior – whether a pooch has been out for a walk or eaten a tasty treat, he’ll lick his paws, not focusing specifically on one paw or the other. He may also gnaw or nibble lightly at his paw if he’s got something stuck in his foot pads. However, when excessive licking is observed for days or even a week at a time, it’s time to call a veterinarian for a conclusive diagnosis.
Because compulsive licking and chewing of the paws can become self-perpetuating, it’s important to nip this destructive behavior in the bud – a dog may enjoy the ‘relaxation’ that it provides, but it can worsen existing injuries and even lead to a condition known as lick granuloma – an open wound on the leg or paw – or may be accompanied by a bacterial or yeast infection on dogs. That’s why it’s crucial to contact a vet immediately if a dog’s licking and chewing has grown out of control. While there are many reasons for dogs to lick, gnaw and chew at their paws, one thing remains the same – they’ll be ok if their pet parents address the condition and seek proper medical attention as required.
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- Sailer, Cecily. “Why Do Dogs Chew on Their Paws?” Rover.com, (no publish date), https://www.rover.com/blog/why-dogs-chew-paws/. Accessed April 28, 2019.
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- “The Must Know Remedies for Canine Atopic Dermatitis.” CertaPet.com, May 29, 2018, https://www.certapet.com/canine-atopic-dermatitis/. Accessed April 28, 2019.
- “5 Signs Your Dog Has Ticks.” PetMD.com, (no publish date), https://www.petmd.com/dog/parasites/signs-your-dog-has-ticks. Accessed April 28, 2019.