Why Is My Dog Licking His Paws So Much? Causes and Remedies

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dog holding paw out to woman

Dog paw licking is a common behavior and not always cause for concern. Dogs sometimes lick their paws to clean them (or because there might be something tasty on them). But when a dog's paw licking becomes excessive, that could be a sign of a problem. So why is your dog licking their paws so much? Learn about some common causes of obsessive paw licking, as well as potential remedies. Of course, always consult your veterinarian about any concerns regarding your pet's health.

Lick granuloma

Some dogs will obsessively lick a paw or a nearby area — usually the front part of the carpus (wrist) — over and over until a large, hairless, inflamed area develops. This is called a lick granuloma, or acral lick dermatitis, and the exact cause is debated. Some believe it is a self-soothing behavior in response to anxiety or boredom. Other triggers for the licking can be an injury, a sore, or arthritis or joint pain. The paw licking then can become somewhat of a chronic obsession. 

Because the triggers vary so widely, there are many different approaches to treating a lick granuloma and stopping your dog from obsessive paw licking. Your veterinarian will provide individualized care for your pet's situation. 

Atopic dermatitis

Another common cause for dog paw licking is atopic dermatitis, an inflammatory chronic skin disease caused by an allergic reaction to one or more substances in the environment. The allergens that can trigger atopic dermatitis are often the same allergens implicated in human allergic conditions, such as hay fever. They include grass, mold spores, and house dust mites.  

Atopic dermatitis is the second most common allergic skin disease in dogs, and the symptoms usually start when a dog is between 1 and 5 years old. It can manifest in several different ways, but one of the classic signs is itching. The skin can be generally itchy all over, or only certain regions — primarily the face, ears, and feet — can be affected.

Diagnosing atopic dermatitis in dogs

Diagnosis of atopic dermatitis is based on clinical observations and physical examination by a veterinarian, as well as by ruling out other causes of allergies — primarily parasites and food. To rule out parasites, a full body exam for fleas, lice, and mites should be performed. In addition, a blood panel, fecal test, and urinalysis should be done to make sure there are no underlying diseases, such as a low thyroid level, that might be contributing to the problem.

To rule out an allergy to a specific food ingredient or protein, an appropriate “elimination diet” can be selected. Your veterinarian will want a complete medical history, including a thorough history of what foods and treats your pet has eaten (including table scraps and chew toys with food flavorings). An elimination diet will contain a new protein and carbohydrate source, meaning that your dog has not eaten this protein in the past. You must feed only the prescribed diet for the required period of time.

If your vet diagnoses atopic dermatitis and the dog isn’t responding to traditional treatment, allergy testing might be considered. There are two types of allergy tests: intradermal allergy testing and blood allergy testing.

Intradermal allergy testing is similar to the test used in humans. After clipping the dog's fur, very small injections of approximately 60 allergens are made into the skin on one side of the dog’s body while under sedation. Though often referred to as the “gold standard,” this test does involve some subjective interpretation and has been found to be less than 100% reliable, especially when reactions are not particularly strong.

Blood allergy testing attempts to measure antibody levels that your pet has formed against particular allergens. Because this test also is not always accurate, it’s best to discuss with your vet the pros, cons, and costs for each type of testing.

Treatment of atopic dermatitis

Once a diagnosis has been established, your vet can prescribe a treatment plan. The following treatments can be used alone or in combination, depending on severity and individual response to treatment.

  • Anti-inflammatory medications: Apoquel, Atopica, fatty acid supplements, prednisone, or other medications such as antihistamines can be very effective in reducing itching. Apoquel and Atopica are the only FDA-approved non-steroidal drugs for the management of canine atopic dermatitis. Because Apoquel was approved fairly recently, its long-term effects are not fully known. The most common seen are vomiting and diarrhea, lack of appetite, and lethargy. Potential effects can include increased susceptibility to infection or skin disorders, as well as the possibility of certain types of cancer as a result of suppressing the immune system. (These side effects are generally rare, but you will want to discuss this with your veterinarian.)
  • Topical therapy: Medicated shampoos and conditioners can help. Bathing removes the allergens that adhere to the surface of the skin, and the medicated ingredients help to reduce itching and control secondary infections. Using lukewarm water soothes the skin to reduce itching.
  • Antibacterial and antifungal medications: Dogs with atopic dermatitis are prone to recurrent bacterial and yeast infections of the skin and ears. Antibiotics and antifungal medications might be needed to combat these infections. There are also topical treatments such as antibacterial and antifungal shampoos that can help resolve and/or prevent infections. 
  • Diet: Sometimes a hypoallergenic diet is combined with the above therapies if multiple allergies — environmental and food — are identified.

It is important to recognize that atopic dermatitis can often be managed but not necessarily cured. Also, some dogs respond to certain medications better than others, so you will need to work closely with your vet to determine the most effective treatment plan.