When dogs lick their paws excessively, it's important to closely evaluate the situation. Paw licking is one of those behaviors that you need to watch carefully because its meaning may vary based on context.

 Is your dog licking gently, or is he licking aggressively and it is difficult to distract him? When does it happen the most? Being a good observer in this case is important, considering that paw licking can provide you with important insights about your dog's health and overall well-being.

Normal Grooming Behavior

Paw licking that takes place when your dog is nice and relaxed, may fall under normal grooming behavior. 

If you thought grooming was a cat thing, think again: most dogs enjoy grooming themselves to some extent, especially when they lie down before falling asleep.

If you own multiple dogs, you may have witnessed the endearing sight of them taking turns grooming each other.

Dogs may therefore lick their paws to clean them up and while they are it, they may also use their paws to clean up their face, in a kitty-like fashion. Normally, simple grooming behaviors are not excessive and dogs can be easily distracted from this behavior.

A Sign of Pain

If your dog is licking one paw more than usual, focusing a lot on licking a specific area, there are chances that your dog may have a wound. It could be your dog stepped on a thorn, got bitten from some insect, or perhaps there is a piece of glass embedded in his paw pad. Sometimes, the issue may be a broken toe nail.

It's a good idea to inspect your dog's paw to check for any problems. Look under the paws, on top of the paws and in between the paws, but be careful as some dogs are prone to biting when in pain. See your vet if your dog is not comfortable in having you handle his paws.

Sometimes, the problem may not be readily visible. For instance, your dog may have sprained a muscle or he could have fractured a small bone in the wrist area. 

Dogs suffering from arthritis may cope with the pain by licking their paws. See your vet if your dog is limping or showing signs of pain. Your dog may need a closer inspection or x-rays.

Dogs may develop skin allergies which causes them to have very itchy paws. 

Dogs may develop skin allergies which causes them to have very itchy paws. 

An Itchy Allergy

Sometimes, rather than pain, dogs who lick their paws a lot are suffering from an itching sensation. This is often seen in dogs suffering from allergies. Allergies can be to certain foods, but also in some cases, the allergy may be to something in the dog's environment such as grasses, pollen, molds, awns and products used on lawns or carpets.

Dogs do not wear shoes like humans do, and therefore their feet get directly exposed to irritants and allergens in their environment. Sometimes when paws get inflamed, dogs develop an inflammation in their feet, which is known as "canine pododermatitis."

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Finding the source of the allergy is important, but in the meanwhile, the vet can prescribe medications to make dogs feel less miserable. Sometimes when allergy testing is negative, it turns out that dogs may be suffering from a chronic immune system disorder.

A Mental Issue

Dogs may not have to balance their checkbooks at the end of the month, but they are prone to being stressed. Sources of stress may vary depending on dogs. Some dogs can get stressed when they are left home alone, some get stressed from loud noises, others get stressed when a new dog or family member lives in the home. Licking paws may be a way for dogs to cope with their anxiety or stress.

Dog paw licking may also be caused by boredom. Dogs need daily exercise and mental stimulation and if their lives become too dull, they can easily fall prey to boredom. When dogs are bored, it's not like they can sit down and engage their brains in a game of Sodoku or some crossword puzzles.

Instead, they may use their bodies in unproductive ways to vent their frustration and pent-up energy. Paw licking, tail chasing, blanket sucking, are all behaviors that may stem from boredom, anxiety or frustration and can become quite addicting too.

And then there are dogs who love attention and they may resort to licking their paws if they notice that that's the best way to gain the attention they so badly crave. Remember: even attention of the negative type will do for an attention-deprived dog!

Potential Complications

Addressing the underlying cause of paw licking is important considering that left untreated, paw licking behaviors in dogs can easily get "out of hand."

In light-colored dogs, excessive paw licking may lead to unsightly stains on their paws, and this occurs because of the presence of porphyrin pigments found in a dog's saliva. In some cases, excessive paw licking can trigger secondary bacterial or yeast infection considering that pesky bacteria and yeast are attracted to moisture.

Sometimes, paw licking may start as way of coping with an arthritis, irritation or anxiety, and soon the behavior puts roots and becomes addicting, or even compulsive.

Too much paw licking may cause what is known as an acral lick granuloma. The repeated friction of the tongue against the paws causes erosion to the superficial layers of the dog's skin which triggers more licking. 

Soon a vicious cycle is formed possibly because the damaged local cells or nerves release endorphins, the body's natural painkillers which provide a "high" and leads to further licking, explains veterinary dermatologist Dr. Ian B. Spiegel.

Now That You Know...

As seen, dogs have their own good reasons for licking their paws excessively. Identifying the underlying cause may require some investigation, but it's worth the effort since dogs who are licking their paws excessively need to be treated accordingly based on the underlying cause. Following are some tips.

  •  Let your vet examine your dog's paws and your dog in general so that the problem can be diagnosed and treated. The problem may be easily diagnosed, but sometimes finding the underlying cause can be challenging. 
  • Complicated cases may require a referral to a veterinary dermatologist.
  • Dogs suffering from allergies may require an anti-histamine, dogs suffering from arthritis may need anti-inflammatory drugs, compulsive disorders may require special drugs and behavior modification.

If your dog is licking his paws often, it is therefore important to see your vet so that it can be treated accordingly. Don't let it persist, dogs can develop annoying complications and soon paw licking may become a habit that is difficult to eradicate.

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