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What's Up With Dogs Licking Their Front Legs So Much?

Let's face it: when dogs keep repeatedly licking their front legs a whole lot, it can get annoying for owners who must listen to the incessant licking sound. Some dogs lick their front legs when coming home from a walk or right after eating dinner, and for some other dogs, paw licking may be part of their bed-time routine, but then you have dogs constantly licking those front paws as if dealing with a hard-to-get-rid-of habit almost as addicting as the smoking or gambling seen in humans. In light-coated dogs, constant licking of the front legs can lead to unsightly rusty stains courtesy of their saliva. What's up with these dogs? Today we'll be discovering more about what potentially causes dogs to lick their front legs so much, both from a physical and mental standpoint.


A Matter of Allergies

When you think allergies, you think about sneezing, itchy noses and red eyes, but in dogs allergies develop differently. So move over that box of Kleenex and instead, plan to book up a trip to the vet.

Allergies in dogs translate into hair loss, ear infections, skin inflammation and irritation with its associated itchiness, and.. you guessed it, constant paw licking and chewing.

What are dogs allergic to? As in humans, the allergies may be seasonal involving exposure to pollen and other airborne triggers such as molds, fungi, dust or storage mites. In other cases, the paw licking may stem from direct contact with irritants, things your dog walks on such as fresh-cut grass, awns and products used on carpets and yards.

Many times, the issue of excessive paw licking in dogs is a year-round ordeal. Hypersensitivity or adverse reactions to certain components of your dog's food may play a role in making your dog's feet constantly itchy, and yes, these sensitivities may develop after many months or years of eating the same foods.

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Excessive licking due to exposure to allergens, contact with irritants and food sensitivities may therefore lead to annoying itch and lick cycles that could cause secondary problems such as bacterial and yeast infections of the skin.

A Painful Disorder

When dogs sense pain, they react differently from humans and their instinct may drive them to lick, lick and lick.

At times, the answer may be right in front of you if Rover allows you to do a thorough inspection of his dog's front paws and legs. There may be a splinter somewhere embedded in the foot, a broken nail or perhaps a bug bite.

Pinpointing the source of the problem though is not always so straightforward and at times it can be quite challenging, which is why it's best to see the vet for some good, old diagnostics.

When the issue is not readily recognizable, there are chances that excessive paw licking in dogs may be attributed to arthritis, joint pain, a fractured toe or sometimes pain from other areas of the dog's body. The pain need not to be necessarily directly coming from the dog's paws and legs.

For instance, pain in the vertebrae may travel down to a dog's front leg, causing something known as "nerve root signature."

At other times, the pain may be internal or in an area hard to reach and the dog compensates by licking his paws.


The Mental Factor

At times, paw licking can be triggered by boredom. With no bones or toys to chew on and with his needs for exercise and mental stimulation not being met, Rover adjusts with what's readily available and can keep him occupied for minutes on end: his front paws and legs!

It may just casually happen one day that a bored dog discovers this form of entertainment and soon paw licking becomes his default behavior for when he has nothing better to do.

At other times, paw licking may become a coping mechanism for when the dog feels stressed, anxious or frustrated.

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Dogs who are socially deprived for a good part of the day, may end up craving attention from their owners when they come home from work, and if they don't receive their slice of attention, these dogs will do anything to get it.

Attentive dogs who crave attention may soon learn that paw licking causes owners to look at him, talk to him (what's up Buddy, why are you licking your paws so much?) and this can be reinforcing. And even attention of the negative type will do for an attention-deprived Fido, such as the owner saying in a derogatory tone of voice "Hey, stop licking your paws once and for all, dude, it's driving me nuts!"

Getting Out of Hand


Sometimes excessive paw licking in dogs can get quite out of hand and may lead to a compulsive disorder. The paw licking may start innocently as a way of coping with an allergy, arthritis or a mental state of boredom, anxiety or frustration, and soon the dog becomes addicted to it. This repeated paw licking may then lead to what's known as acral lick dermatitis (ALD), also known as an acral lick granuloma.

Basically, what happens is that the dog's repeated licking causes erosion of superficial layers of the dog's skin and infection, which leads to a vicious cycle of more licking. This cycle is possibly exacerbated by the fact that damaged local cells or nerves release endorphins, the body's natural painkillers which provide a "high" and leads to further licking, explains veterinary dermatologist Ian B. Spiegel.

The areas most affected are the front and top portions of the dog's legs, respectively the carpus, metacarpus, tarsus, or metatarsus.

Did you know? The unsightly stains found on the paws and legs of light -coat colored dogs is due to excessive licking because of porphyrin pigments found in a dog's saliva.

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Course of Action

As seen, paw licking in dogs is something to monitor carefully. It could just be a dog's way of relaxing before going to bed or just a part of grooming, but if it's happening more than usual or your dog seems to lick and chew his front legs with intensity and it isn't easy to interrupt, it's something worthy of mentioning to a vet.

Allergies, a foreign item stuck to the paws or the onset or arthritis are a few possibilities. Compulsive disorders may require special drugs along with behavior modification.

If your dog gets a clean bill of health, then it's time to consider whether your dog needs a more relaxing environment or perhaps needs more exercise and mental stimulation to keep occupied. It could be it just boils down to giving your dog a job to do and that job must encompass something other than constantly licking his front paws over and over.

"A behavior that is difficult to interrupt may be more likely to be caused by a medical condition that causes distress than is a behavior that is easily interrupted. However, a true compulsive disorder that has been present for months or years may also be difficult to interrupt."~Valerie V. Tynes

Disclaimer: this article is not meant to be used as a substitute for professional veterinary advice. If your dog is licking excessively his front legs, please see your vet.


  • DVM360, Just Ask the Expert: How do you combat acral lick dermatitis, by Ian B. Spiegel, VMD, MHS, DACVD, retrieved from the web on November 5th, 2016.

Photo Credits:

  • Wikipedia, Canine lick granuloma / acral lick dermatitis; self-inflicted as an obsessive-compulsive self-destructive behavior,self - Own work CC BY-SA 3.0

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