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- The most common reason dogs lick their feet is allergies.
- A dog’s feet have inflammatory cells that react to allergens they walk on such as pollen.
- Daily foot washing can decrease an allergic dog’s need for other treatments.
Every spring and fall I’m asked, “Why does my dog lick his paws constantly?” dozens of times. And more importantly, dog owners want to know how to stop their dog from licking his paws raw and excessively chewing his feet.
You’ve been told to distract your dog or to apply things like apple cider vinegar to his paws. You’ve been told that if your dog licks his feet “he’s trying to warn you” about something. I’ll tell you what he’s trying to warn you about: he has allergies and needs your help!
Excessive paw licking in dogs is usually caused by pollen allergies. Parasites, injuries, food allergies and anxiety are much less common causes of extreme licking.
Washing your pup’s feet frequently to remove allergens will help stop mild to moderate paw licking. Once a dog has licked his paws raw, medication is often needed to get the inflammation under control.
As a general rule, the number one reason for a dog licking his paws excessively is allergies. When allergens come into contact with the abnormal epidermis of a dog’s paw they cause inflammation, itch and pain. Dogs lick their paws to relieve the discomfort caused by their immune system overreacting to allergens.
Veterinary dermatologists believe allergies are caused by genetic predisposition, defects in the epidermal barrier, and environmental factors.
Allergies are the likely culprit when a dog’s toes are itchy but there are no other lesions (swelling, sores, scabs). And allergic skin disease symptoms usually start before three years of age.
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).
Many dogs have flare-ups of itchy paws in the spring and fall. Most of the time when a dog is biting the bottom of his paws, it’s a mild and temporary condition that lasts only one to three weeks. Mildly itchy paws often get better without any special treatment.
- Paw chewing on the tops and/or bottoms of feet
- 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 skin all over, itchy lips, itchy bottom, sores, scabs, hair loss, areas of flakey dry skin, bumps, pustules, increased black pigmentation, thickened “elephant” skin.
Why do dogs lick their paws specifically?
One theory holds that certain areas of a dog’s body contain more mast cells which are responsible for fighting off invaders. When the skin comes into contact with an allergen, mast cells spring into action to fight the perceived invader. Researchers found that the ear flaps and skin between the paw pad 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!
Most dogs lick their paws due to allergies. Allergies are an overreaction of skin inflammatory cells to environmental substances like pollen. There is a high concentration of immune system cells in the skin of a dog’s feet. And their feet are constantly exposed to allergens that cause an itch sensation.
Yeast infections occur secondary to allergic dermatitis. Yeast is not the root cause of the problem but they can make the itch much worse.
Allergic dogs can also develop a secondary Staphylococcus bacterial infection.(3) Again, it’s not the primary cause but it can make the symptoms worse.
Testing can help identify secondary skin infections. Appropriate treatment of the primary allergy and the secondary infection should be done at the same time. Ignoring one or the other will prolong your dog’s suffering.
Making a diagnosis of allergies is not easy! There are other things that might cause symptoms that look similar to allergies:
- Ringworm-type fungal infections
- Demodex mites
- Secondary infections from bacterial and yeast
- 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 area of skin disease. 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 treatment for allergies, 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 fungal infection-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. In dogs, this 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 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.
1. Identify and avoid allergens
Recently planted grass, trees or shrubs could be causing your dog’s itchy paws. Intradermal skin testing by a veterinary dermatologist is the best way to know if a plant in your yard is making your dog bite and chew his feet.
You can also check local pollen reports online to figure out what your dog is reacting to. In my area, spring is filled with tree pollen while autumn is dominated by weed and grass pollen. Check it out for yourself: pollen.com.
To decrease overall exposure, 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 probably helps to avoid high-pollen times.
Foot coverings like dog shoes and socks help keep your pup’s feet clean when they walk outside during their bad allergy season. Most dogs need a day or two to get used to wearing booties, so don’t give up if he does some dramatic goose-stepping the first time you put his shoes on!
I bought each of my dogs a full set of RuffWear Grip Trex dog shoes years ago and have been happy with them.
I recommend using the little dog socks made by the same company under the shoes to prevent friction sores.
This model of dog shoes actually stays on their feet and the sole is thick enough to protect them from the cactus thorns in our neighborhood. 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. I’ve found a fantastic tool to make this job quick and convenient!
This Dexas MudBuster Paw Cleaner device is simple but ingenious. It’s basically a big plastic cup with silicone “fingers” inside it. Just fill it about 3/4 full with warm water then dip one of your dog’s paws into it. Twist the cup a little to agitate the dirt on the paw. Keep a towel under the foot to catch drips. Dry the foot and repeat the process with the other three paws.
My dog has extremely sensitive feet and he doesn’t mind having me wash them with this portable dog paw washer. It works a lot better than trying to wash them in a dishpan and it’s a lot faster than putting him in the bathtub!
I was shocked at how dirty the water was even after taking a 15-minute walk. Some of that “dirt” is actually pollen and that’s the main reason my dog is licking his paws!
3. Wash entire dog weekly
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 creme rinse with the topical anesthetic pramoxine. Make sure to apply it between all of the toes, tops and bottoms of the feet.
You can do everything I’ve mentioned so far without the need for prescriptions. If you catch your dog’s paw-licking episode early–before they become “raw,” you probably won’t need to see your veterinarian for help.
However, there are times when the itch is so severe and the skin irritations are so inflamed, you need your veterinarian’s help. They can check for infections and other health problems that aren’t obvious without testing.
Anti-inflammatory steroid sprays can stop a dog from licking his paws in the short term. The prescription products GenOne® and Betagen® both contain betamethasone (steroid) for inflammation and gentamicin (antibiotic) to kill bacteria. These products are used temporarily while other allergy treatments take effect.
Oral, topical and injectable steroids used to be the only option vets had to treat severe itch in pets, but now we have a couple of amazing modern medicines that stop the itch without the side effects of steroids.
Apoquel® is an anti-itch medication that can stop your dog from licking his paws within a few hours. It comes in pill form to be given daily during allergy season. Cytopoint® is another amazing newer anti-itch medication but it comes in an injectable form. It’s given by your vet every 4-8 weeks during a dog’s itchy season.
Prevention & Maintenance
In 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, check out my articles on homemade food for dogs. Then go grab your FREE, easy recipe for a balanced diet from Balance.IT.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Take advantage of the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 fatty acids. Fish oil supplements won’t help in the short term since they take 4-8 weeks to produce results. The idea is that you give your pet fish oil daily in order to decrease future flares, so start today! I wrote an article about how to give your dog fish oil supplements.
You could also feed your pooch a commercial dog food with increased levels of omega-3 fatty acids such as Purina Pro Plan Sensitive Skin & Stomach.
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.
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.
Clean air and home
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 a flare-up, 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 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.
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 for 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.
Antihistamines like Benadryl may help stop a dog from licking his paws. I find that the sooner I start giving my itchy dogs antihistamine, the less likely they are to need stronger drugs. Start giving antihistamine at the first hint of a dog’s paw licking behavior and continue throughout the allergy season.
The antihistamines vets recommend 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.
Allergies are the main cause of itchy paws in dogs. Due to the presence of overactive inflammatory cells in their foot skin, allergic dogs overreact to environmental substances like dust, dust mites, wool and especially pollen.
There are many natural remedies and conventional medications to soothe the itch sensation that causes allergic dogs to chew their paw and nails. But prevention is the best strategy to stop your dog from licking his paws raw! Frequent washing of your dog’s paws is easy with a portable foot washer.
- 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 2023-06-07 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API