In the last few weeks, I’ve been asked, “Why is my dog licking his paws constantly?” dozens of times. I’ve seen dogs who morphed from the picture of health to having stinky, itchy, inflamed feet in a matter of days or hours.
The number one reason for a dog licking his paws constantly is allergies. Veterinary dermatologists believe allergies are caused by a combination of a genetic predisposition, defects in the epidermal barrier, and environmental factors. Allergens like pollen come into contact with the abnormal top layer of the skin, causing inflammation, itch and pain.
Dogs Lick Their Paws Mostly Due to Allergies
Veterinarians call dog skin allergies atopic dermatitis (AD). AD is an inherited tendency to have hypersensitivity reactions to allergens. Allergens are most often pollen, but also include dust mites, substances like wool or grass, and even humans (thank goodness that last one is rare).
Dogs who have itchy feet with no other lesions (swelling, sores, scabs) when it first starts are likely to have allergies. And skin allergy symptoms usually start before three years of age.
Many dogs have flare-ups of itchy paws in the spring and fall. Most episodes of a dog licking his paws are mild and last only one to three weeks. Mildly itchy paws often get better without any special treatment.
Why Does Your Dog Lick His Paws Specifically?
Until dogs learn to speak the human language, we can only guess at the sensation that causes a dog to lick their paws. Based on our human experiences with allergies, we assume the feeling is one of itchiness.
But why do allergic dogs get itchy specifically on their feet?
One theory holds that certain areas of a dog’s body contains more mast cells which are responsible for fighting off invaders. When the body “sees” pollen or other allergens, mast cells spring into action to fight the foreign invader. Researchers found that the ear flaps and skin between the toes have a higher number of mast cells than other areas of a dog’s body (1).
There is another reason the feet are affected more than other parts of the body. The feet come into contact with more stuff since they are in contact with the ground. A dog’s paws are practically sponges for allergens!
Itchy Paw Allergy Symptoms
- Dog licking his paws on the tops and/or bottoms
- Fur loss between toe pads
- Red, pink or blackish discoloration of fur
- Skin swollen and red between the toes and pads
- Moistness between toes and pads
- Odor of corn chips or popcorn–stronger than normal
- Pain, limping, reluctance to walk on gravel
- Other allergies symptoms: red/runny eyes, red ears, itchy lips, itchy bottom, sores, scabs, hair loss, bumps, pustules, increased black pigmentation, thickened “elephant” skin
Red Swollen Paws Are Not Necessarily from Yeast Infection
Don’t make the mistake of thinking every red, itchy dog foot has a yeast infection like most internet gurus tell you!
Some other causes for itchy foot allergy symptoms to flare up include food, fleas, environmental substances and hypersensitivity to Staph. bacteria and Malassezia yeast (3). It’s impossible to say which one of these factors is responsible without diagnostic testing.
Another thing about a dog licking his paws…
It’s not uncommon for other parts of the body to be itchy at the same time. The lower legs, armpits, groin, ears and face are all areas your dog might start licking or scratching when he has allergies.
Diagnosing the Cause of Paw Licking
Making a diagnosis of allergies is not easy! There are other things that might cause symptoms that looks similar to allergies:
- Ringworm-type fungal infections
- Demodex mites
- Bacterial and yeast infections with or without allergies
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Auto-immune disease
- Skin cancer
Your vet will probably want to do some tests to make sure they’re not misdiagnosing your dog. Most dogs will get a skin cytology which usually involves pressing a clear piece of tape to the affected skin. The tape is stained and examined under a microscope for the presence of excessive bacteria and yeast (there are always a few on a dog’s feet).
Your vet may also do a skin scraping to make sure your dog doesn’t have a Demodex mite infection. Some dogs develop pretty serious problems with Demodex only in the skin of their feet. The treatment for Demodex mites is somewhat opposite from allergy treatment, so it’s important to make the right diagnosis!
Some dogs will need a fungal culture to find out if they have a ringworm infection on their feet. A small hair sample or skin scape sample is placed on a culture medium and monitored for growth for up to 10 days. If your dog has ringworm (which is a fungus–not a worm) he will need a specific treatment to cure it.
To make a solid diagnosis of allergies, your vet will have to rule out all the other possibilities. Once they’re pretty sure your dog does have atopic dermatitis, they may recommend allergy testing. Allergy testing in dogs is done with intradermal testing like humans get or blood testing which is not the gold standard but is still useful. Once your dog’s specific allergens are identified, immunotherapy can desensitize him so he has fewer allergy symptoms (see below for details).
A few dogs will need a skin biopsy to figure out what’s causing their foot problems. Your dog will need a local anesthetic and sedation so your vet can collect a small, full thickness sample of skin. The sample is then microscopically examined by a veterinary pathologist for abnormalities in the cells and structure of the skin.
How to Stop Your Dog from Licking His Paws
1. Identify and Avoid Allergens
This can be tricky, but if you’ve recently planted grass or a new shrub you might be suspicious of it causing your dog’s feet to be itchy. Intradermal skin testing by a veterinary dermatologist is the best way to identify specific allergens.
A non-specific way to figure out what your dog is reacting to is to check local pollen reports online. In my area, spring is filled with tree pollen and fall is all about weed and grass pollen. Check it out for yourself: pollen.com.
It might help a little bit for you to avoid walking your dog during high-pollen times of the day. Pollen counts are highest between 5:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m., peaking again at dusk.
Since we believe dogs react to pollen ON their skin, not just what they inhale, they’ll still be in contact with allergens when they walk outside at any time of day. Still, it might help some to avoid high-pollen times.
One strategy my clients have found helpful is having their dog wear foot coverings when they walk outside during their bad allergy season. Shoes will protect a dog’s feet from exposure to pollen and other allergens when walking outdoors.
I bought each of my dogs a full set of RuffWear Grip Trex dog shoes years ago and have been happy with them.
I do put the matching socks on their feet before putting the shoes on when we go for a walk to prevent friction sores. It takes only about 30 minutes for most dogs to get used to the shoes.
This model of dog shoes actually stays on their feet and the sole is thick enough to protect them from thorns. I strongly recommend you get the RuffWear brand as many of the others I’ve seen don’t stay on or don’t hold up well over time.
2. Wash the Feet Daily
Rinse your dog’s feet with lukewarm water two or three times a day, especially after spending time outdoors. Get a plastic tub used for dishwashing and fill it a few inches with warm water.
First have your dog stand in the tub with his front feet for a few minutes, swishing the water over his feet. Dry the front feet and repeat the process with the rear feet.
Of course you could also fill your bathtub or kitchen sink with a few inches of water instead, but I like using a dedicated container as it’s easier to clean.
3. Wash Entire Dog At Least Once a Week
I recommend using Douxo Calm shampoo. Make sure you let the lather soak on your dog’s skin for about 10 minutes before rinsing. Take special care to wash and rinse her feet, between the toes on the tops and bottoms of all four feet.
After rinsing your dog, apply a leave-on conditioner with the topical anesthetic pramoxine. Make sure to apply it between all of the toes, tops and bottoms of the feet.
Holistic Treatment of Paw Licking and Allergies
This section I’ll discuss things to improve your dog’s overall health. We don’t have clinical studies to back up any of these things, but we do know that allergies flare up worse in humans when they’re stressed. Working to decrease nutritional, physical and emotional stress may help your dog’s allergy flares to be fewer and milder.
Improve the Diet
One of the best ways to improve your dog’s overall health is through his food. It’s important to feed your dog a balanced, nutritionally complete diet but beyond that there are many ways to do dog food well.
If you’re currently feeding a store brand food and storing it for months, it’s easy to up your game by switching to premium dog foods bought in smaller quantities. Buy a small, fresh bag every couple of weeks instead of buying a king-sized bag and storing it in the garage for months. The fats and other nutrients break down quickly so your dog doesn’t get as much benefit from stale dry dog food.
Consider adding some fresh foods to your dog’s diet in the form of very lean, cooked meats and smaller amounts of dog-safe cooked minced vegetables and fruits. Veterinary nutritionists say you can feed up to about 25% of your dog’s daily intake as fresh foods.
If you want to feed more than 25% of your dog’s diet from fresh foods, get a recipe for a balanced diet from BalanceIT.com.
As always, introduce new foods one at a time, gradually and in smaller quantities than you think you should. Dogs who aren’t used to eating fresh foods often get an upset stomach if they’re introduced too quickly.
Probiotics to Strengthen Immune System
Probiotic supplements are widely embraced by the veterinary community as safe and possibly beneficial to many canine health conditions. We know that the biggest part of the immune system is in the gut. Seeding friendly bacteria to the gut can have a good effect on the entire body.
I wrote an entire article about the benefits of probiotics and how to choose a good one for your dog.
Learn about probiotics: How to Find a Good Dog Probiotic.
Improve Rest and Exercise Habits
Many clinical studies have been done in humans and other species on the effects of stress on allergies. While the relationship is not well-defined, it seems that stress can make allergy symptoms worse in susceptible individuals (4).
Dog stress might look different than human stress, but the effects are the same. The sources of stress for most dogs probably come from not being allowed to express their normal behaviors. This includes not enough exercise, not enough outdoor activity/sunshine, and not enough good sleep.
Please make time to walk your dog daily. Try to visit new places and let your dog explore natural areas (in a safe way, of course). Turn the lights, televisions and computers off at night so everyone can sleep in the dark
Provide a Cleaner Environment
Dust and dust mites are a problem for some allergic dogs. It’s a good routine to wash your dog’s bedding at least once a month in warm water and let it dry in the sun. When he’s having an allergy flare, you might want to do this weekly.
Vacuum/mop the floors and dust your furniture at least once a week. Avoid using strong fragrances and cleaning products.
During high pollen/high allergy times of the year, don’t leave your doors and windows open. Invest in a good HEPA air purifier (click the picture below to see the one I use in my own home). Change your HVAC air filters every one to six months depending on which kind you use.
All these simple steps will help your dog avoid allergens that make his feet itchy.
Reconsider Frequent/Excessive Vaccination
There is no proof that frequent vaccination causes allergies in dogs. With that said, most veterinarians agree with the current standards of vaccinating adult dogs every three (or more) years for diseases they are at risk of contracting.
Most places in the US require rabies vaccine by law, but many localities only require it every three years.
What I hate to see is pet owners who bring their dog to the clinic and say, “Just give him everything so I don’t have to bring him back in. I don’t care if it’s early or if he doesn’t need it.”
Every vaccine we give a dog produces an immune response. When you give a bunch at one time, vaccinate for very low-risk diseases or give vaccines every single year you’re asking the immune system to do a lot of unnecessary work. That same immune system is already creating havoc with your dog’s skin and paws, why provoke it with too many vaccines?
Vaccines are a wonderful, life saving medical tool we have at our disposal. Use them wisely.
Please discuss your dog’s actual risks with your veterinarian and follow the AAHA vaccination guidelines on how often to give them.
More Home Remedies for Paw Licking
Aloe Vera Gel
Aloe vera gel (click to see my favorite brand on Amazon) can be applied topically to soothe irritated skin. Small amounts of aloe vera shouldn’t cause any problems if your dog licks it. In rare cases, dogs can be sensitive to aloe vera so discontinue its use if the skin starts looking worse after applying it.
Tea rinses are a traditional remedy for itchy skin. Use dried calendula, chamomile, green tea, nettle, or yellow dock to make the herbal tea.
Add one tablespoon herb to one cup of boiling water, steep five minutes. Strain off the herb, then allow the tea to completely cool. Fill a dish with the tea and have your dog stand in it for five to ten minutes twice a day.
Alternatively, use a clean cloth soaked with the tea and apply it as a compress to the affected area of skin twice a day.
Grated cucumber is another traditional remedy used to soothe inflamed skin. Simply grate a cucumber and use it as a compress on the affected area for five to ten minutes twice a day.
Antihistamines may be helpful in mild cases of dog allergies. I find that the sooner I start giving my itchy dogs antihistamine, the less likely they will need stronger drugs. Start giving antihistamine at the first hint of paw licking and continue throughout the allergy season.
The antihistamines vets recommended for dogs most are diphenhydramine (Benadryl), cetirizine (Zyrtec), and chlorpheniramine. Check with your vet to make sure your pet can take these safely. Your vet will be able to give you an appropriate dosing schedule for your pet, too.
Plant Sterol Supplements
Plant sterols are naturally occurring substances derived from plants. Regular administration of plant sterols may decrease skin allergy symptoms (2).
I’ve prescribed Moducare, a supplement made by Thorne, for dogs who are licking their paws. The company recommends two capsules per 25 pounds of dog daily.
Fish Oil/Fatty Acid Supplements
Fish oil/omega-3 fatty acid supplements won’t help in the short term since they take 4-8 weeks to produce results. The idea is that you give your dog fish oil daily in order to decrease future allergy flares, so start today!
Read about the benefits and proper use of fish oil for dogs.
When to Pull Out the Big Guns for Paw Licking
You can do everything we’ve discussed so far at home without the need for prescriptions. If you catch your dog’s paw licking episode early, you probably won’t need to see your vet for help.
However, there are times when the itch is so severe and the skin so inflamed, you need your vet to step in and sort things out.
If you’ve been good about bathing and cleaning but your dog is still licking her paws constantly, make an appointment at the animal clinic. The vet will be able to check for infections and other problems that aren’t obvious testing.
There are some great modern medicines available these days that make life bearable for many allergic dogs. I prefer to use these as a last resort, but I sure am glad they’re there when I really need them. We used to only have steroids to treat severe itch, but now we have Apoquel and Cytopoint, too. Both of these newer drugs work to block the itch factor in allergic dogs without the side effects of steroids.
Sure, you can find adverse events for any drug or supplement on the internet if you look hard enough. But don’t write off these medicines if your dog really needs them. Thousands of dogs take them every day without adverse effects. A short course of effective strong medicine is much better than having your dog suffer through weeks of painful, infected feet.
But don’t get the idea that you can just give a pill or injection to cure your dog’s licking his paws excessively. You need to do all the other home care treatments to minimize your dog’s need for these strong medications.
- Auxilia, S. T., & Hill, P. B. (2000). Mast cell distribution, epidermal thickness and hair follicle density in normal canine skin: possible explanations for the predilection sites of atopic dermatitis?. Veterinary Dermatology, 11(4), 247-254.
- Han, N. R., Kim, H. M., & Jeong, H. J. (2014). The β-sitosterol attenuates atopic dermatitis-like skin lesions through down-regulation of TSLP. Experimental Biology and Medicine, 239(4), 454-464.
- Montoro, J., Mullol, J., Jauregui, I., Dávila, I., Ferrer, M., Bartra, J., … & Valero, A. (2009). Stress and allergy. J Investig Allergol Clin Immunol, 19(Suppl 1), 40-7.
- Olivry, T., DeBoer, D. J., Favrot, C., Jackson, H. A., Mueller, R. S., Nuttall, T., … & International Task Force on Canine Atopic Dermatitis. (2010). Treatment of canine atopic dermatitis: 2010 clinical practice guidelines from the International Task Force on Canine Atopic Dermatitis. Veterinary dermatology, 21(3), 233-248.
Last update on 2020-11-27 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API