Give a Lick – Why you shouldn’t ignore paw licking

Recently, we’ve been receiving a lot of questions about a fairly common problem: frequent licking or chewing of paws.  We’ve talked a bit about paw licking as a symptom of other disorders, but the frequency with which we see this problem and the frustration and worry it can cause pet owners warrants a more pointed discussion of paw licking and chewing.

There are many problems that can lead to a dog licking or chewing its paws frequently.  If a dog very suddenly begins to lick or chew a paw or seems to be sore when walking on that paw, then an examination of the paw in question for abnormalities like a cut or wound to the paw or a broken toe nail is a good place to start.  If a wound is found, then a trip to your veterinarian for cleaning and treatment is in order. Cuts to the pads of the feet and broken nails can take a little while to heal, but are often fairly easily treated, depending on the severity of the injury.

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More commonly, however, we get reports of a dog who is incessantly licking or chewing at its feet.  This behavior is usually the result of an underlying condition.  In many cases, licking and chewing feet is a sign of an underlying allergy, such as a food or environmental allergy.  This behavior may be seen in combination with an overall itchiness, ear infections, or licking under the tail, or may be the only symptom observed.  Unlike humans with allergies who experience runny noses or sinus problems, dog tend to manifest their allergies in their skin, becoming itchy and uncomfortable.  Simply, dogs with allergies lick their paws because their paws itch.  Unfortunately, licking and chewing paws may relieve some of itchiness that your pet feels, but can irritate the skin, causing inflammation and creating prime conditions for bacterial and yeast infections between the toes and between the pads of the feet.  Once these infections are present, they make the feet even more itchy, leading to more licking and chewing, worsening the condition of the feet, and making the pet more uncomfortable.  In some cases, frequent licking can cause a deep infection to develop resulting in swelling and pain.

Although allergies are probably the most common source of frequent paw licking and chewing that we see, they are not the only cause.  Conditions causing chronic pain, such as arthritis, can lead to frequent paw licking.  Masses or tumors on toes can cause discomfort and frequent licking.  Neck pain can cause abnormal sensation or tingling in the paws and forelegs that can lead a pet to obsessively lick or chew these areas.  In some dogs, frequent licking of paws, legs, and other surfaces in the pet’s environment can indicate the presence of gastrointestinal disease.  Paw licking can also have a behavioral rather than a medical cause and can be an expression of anxiety or emotional discomfort in your pet.

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Frequent licking can further create a problem known as a lick granuloma or acral lick dermatitis.  In this condition, the dog will lick one area intensely, not necessarily the paws, causing a thickening of the skin, and hair loss.  This frequent licking also drives bacteria deep into the skin, creating an infection that can be quite difficult to treat.  Finding and treating the underlying cause of the behavior, be it an allergy, arthritis pain, or even neck pain, and then treating the deep infection is necessary.  These cases can take a long time to resolve as the infection can be difficult to treat, and licking the area has usually become an entrenched habit for the pet as well, sometimes requiring behavioral modification.

If your pet is frequently licking or chewing its paws, a discussion with your veterinarian is warranted.  They will likely begin with a thorough evaluation of your pet’s history to understand the depth, chronicity, and frequency of the problem.  Even though the licking and chewing may be limited to the feet, your veterinarian will also likely perform a full examination of your pet to determine if there are any other symptoms that might indicate the underlying source of the problem.  They will examine the feet, looking for signs of infection and other abnormalities in this area.  Based on their examination and any tests that were needed, they will do their best to help you and your pet resolve this problem by treating any infection present and treating the underlying disease that is making your pet so uncomfortable.

If you feel that your pet is excessively licking or chewing its paws or another part of its body, please see your veterinarian for evaluation.  Correcting frequent licking and chewing of paws can be a long process depending on the source of the problem, but ultimately can result in an improvement in your pet’s quality of life.