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Why Does My Dog Lick Its Paws?
Ron Hines DVM PhD 1/18/04
A lot of dogs, particularly those with long hair and non-oily coats such as poodles and schnauzers and an occasional cat spend an unusual amount of time licking their paws. Often the front paws are the most affected. When the pet’s coat color is light, saliva stains the fur of the paws darker.
This stain is impossible to remove. Sometimes this habit is no more than a nuisance – like chewing one’s finger nails. But in other cases the web between the toes and the nail beds of the toes themselves become infected and swollen - sometimes to the extent that the pet walks painfully and the lesions bleed. Blood tests and general health examinations in these pets are usually normal. This condition is poorly understood but here are some possible causes:
Allergies to grasses, molds and pollen can be a common cause of this problem. That is why these pets often lick their paws soon after coming in from out of doors. Inhaled allergies (canine atopy) or topical allergies can sometimes be managed simply by reducing exposure to these allergens. Often a spray containing gentamycin and beclomethasone or betamethasone used on the paws is quite helpful. It should be massaged into the skin of the paws. Some pets respond to antihistamines such as Benadryl, other allergy medication and medicated shampoos. The use of a bitters mist on the paws will also discourage licking in a few pets. Allergic paw licking is especially likely if your pet is subject to itching on other parts of its body, ear infections or crusty eyes. If more than one of these symptoms of allergy is present, you may wish to have your pet examined by a veterinary dermatologist who will perform skin sensitivity tests and possibly attempt to desensitize your pet with injections. The success rate is about fifty percent.
In some severely affected pets, only a low, intermittent dose of cortisone with occasional courses of antibiotics solve the problem. In Florida where I live, the problem is usually present year round. In northern climates it may be only a summer time problem.
Boredom and Compulsive Behavior:
Another common cause of this problem is boredom. Grooming the paws is a normal canine and feline activity. But once the paws become swollen and inflamed the problem is self-perpetuating and grooming is carried to an extreme. In older dogs, fat dogs or dogs left alone for long periods of time this problem often becomes a nervous vice. Compulsive behavior, confinement, loneliness and separation anxiety have also been implicated in paw licking. It is often very difficult to determine if a physical or psychological problem is causing the dog’s obsessive licking and grooming of these areas. Changing your pet’s routine is the best cure for this form of the disease, but I use a lot of psychotropic medications to break this cycle as well.
Bone and Joint Problems:
In older pets, or obese pets, and splay-footed pets, arthritis of the bones of the toes can cause this condition. These pets often respond to aspirin or one of the newer non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as Rimadyl (carprofen) or Etogesic (etodolac). An x-ray and physical exam can confirm this condition.
A few dogs and cats lick their paws due to sensitivity to components of the food they eat. These are usually protein ingredients in their diets. When other treatments fail, it is wise to place the pet on a sixty to ninety day trial of an “antigen free” diet such as Nestlé/Purina’s HA diet or Hills s/D. These diets have been processed to reduce the size of large antigenic protein molecules. Pets with food sensitivities will have their problem year round and not seasonally. They almost always itch in other places as well.
When bitters mist is not enough to discourage licking and topical antibiotic/steroid sprays are ineffective, it is best to bandage the paws loosely in socks to allow them to heal. Elizabethan collars (sunflower collars) are effective but traumatic and stressful to your pet. Particularly the high-strung pets that tend to have this problem. Be sure to keep your pets toenails cut short since twisted toenails can be the root source of this problem. Some groomers feel that clipping the hair of the feet and applying talcum powders help with this condition. You can read my articles on allergy, itching and acral lick granulomas for more information on those similar problems.