A golden retriever licking its paws

Why Do Dogs Lick Their Paws?

It’s no secret that dogs enjoy licking things. As far as dog behaviors go, licking serves positive and useful functions from grooming and soothing wounds to releasing stress-reducing hormones.

Some of the licking behavior we see in dogs evolved from their wolf ancestors. Mother wolves lick their pups for several reasons, including cleaning. Wolf puppies lick the mouths of their parents so that they will regurgitate partially digested food (I know, gross). This is a stepping stone towards eating solid food.

However, if your dog is licking their paws obsessively, favors one paw over the other, or has other symptoms aside from licking, it can be a sign of something more serious. 

Is Paw-Licking a Serious Problem?

Paw-licking is not always something to worry about, but it can be. Most of the time your dog is probably licking its paws as part of their grooming routine, or for comfort in stressful situations.

Some symptoms that might signal a deeper issue include: 

  • open wounds
  • red/bumpy skin
  • flaky skin
  • scratching
  • limping or favoring a leg
  • resting more than usual
  • obsessively licking everything

Take Note

If you notice a sudden increase in paw licking alongside these or other symptoms, look into the behavior more closely. 

Chances are there’s a reason for your dog’s change in habit, and getting to the bottom of it could be important for their health.

8 Reasons Why Dogs Lick Their Paws

1. Normal doggy behavior

Like we’ve already mentioned, it’s normal for dogs to lick their paws sometimes.

After coming in from a walk or spending time outside your dog may groom its paws. There could be a rock or other debris stuck in between the pads of your dog’s feet, which most of the time they can dislodge themselves. If you think something is bothering them take a look at their paws.

Dogs may also lick their paws for comfort and as long as it’s not obsessive in nature or causing sores this behavior is completely normal.

2. Allergies

Another reason your dog could be licking its paws (and other parts) is due to allergies. Dogs, like humans, can be allergic to a number of things in their environment or their food. Our furry friends can even be allergic to chemicals and ingredients in the cleaning products we use around the house!

If you notice red skin or raised bumps on your dog’s paws where they are licking, they could have been exposed to an environmental allergen while on a walk. This could be triggered by pesticides on grass or plants on your route.

Rinse your dog’s paws after coming in for a walk. If it makes a difference in their symptoms, you know that the cause of the reaction was probably something environmental. Try changing routes and avoid places like agricultural areas or construction sites that might have more contamination.

Itchy paws are also a sign of food allergies, along with other symptoms like hot spots, sneezing, and leathery skin. If you suspect your dog has a food allergy you can talk to your vet about allergy testing or try an elimination diet. Some of the most common dog food allergens are chicken, beef, dairy, and grain.

3. Dry skin

A problem that can be related to allergies and chronic inflammation is dry skin, a.k.a. atopic dermatitis. If you notice flakes of skin in your dog’s coat or falling off while they scratch, this might be why they are suddenly licking their paws more.

Their skin might also be red and bumpy.

Licking dry skin can be soothing for dogs and a way to provide moisture, but too much licking can cause sores and make the problem worse. It’s important to get to the root cause of the dry skin to get rid of the problem.

Your dog’s dry skin could be due to excessive bathing and grooming, which can strip your dog’s skin and coat of their natural oils. Pay attention to the ingredients in the soaps you use to wash your dog, trying to keep them as natural as possible.

Dry, itchy skin can also be caused by dietary issues. Supplementing ingredients high in Omega fatty acids (fish oil, flaxseed oil, and spinach are a few) may help improve your dog’s dry skin.

Most commercial diets include ingredients rich in Omega fatty acids in their recipes but if you feed your dog a raw or cooked diet you can also buy supplements to make sure your dog is getting enough. Zesty Dogs’ Wild Alaskan Salmon Oil is rated highly by pet owners for dogs with skin problems.

If you’re unable to figure out why your dog’s skin is dry, contact a groomer or veterinarian for professional guidance.

4. Fleas and ticks

Our fourth pesky reasons for persistent paw licking is fleas and ticks. These critters are a growing problem for pet owners who live close to wildlife, such as wooded areas, but can also be found in urban areas with overgrown grass, shade, moisture, and humidity.

According to the ASPCA, fleas and ticks are among the most common concerns for pet owners in America.  They say that,

“While prevention is the best defense against these parasites, it’s important to be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of fleas and ticks so you can help your pets if necessary.”

Spotting them early can help prevent discomfort and other health problems resulting from these pests.

The saliva from tick and flea bites causes an immune mediated response, which much like an allergic response, causes itchiness. You may notice your dog scratching and licking at their paws or other body parts to remove these pests and sooth attachment areas.

Remember that when infested, treating your dog isn’t enough! Make sure you vacuum floors and soft furniture, wash rugs, toys, and dog beds to do a thorough job of kicking fleas and ticks to the curb. Vet’s Best Flea and Tick Home Spray is a natural way to get rid of fleas and ticks on surfaces in your home.

Treating your dog for fleas and ticks should stop excessive licking. Regular vet treatments plus checking your dog with a flea comb after spending time outdoors can reduce the likelihood of recurring issues.

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5. Thyroid problems

Thyroid disease is a common problem for dogs that could also explain why your pet might suddenly start licking its paws more than usual.

Hypothyroidism (when your dog isn’t producing enough thyroid hormone) is characterized by hair thinning and hair loss, along with other symptoms like lethargy, obesity, and cold intolerance. Once their skin is exposed dogs tend to lick those areas, causing open sores called lick granulomas.

Even though dog’s saliva has antibacterial properties, continuous licking impedes healing. You may need to keep lick granulomas covered when you’re not able to supervise your dog. When you are around, keep your dog from licking by using commands or distracting them since open air will help them dry out and heal.

Treating the underlying hormone imbalance will help keep the problem from recurring. The good news is that with medication and regular testing at the vet, your dog can recover and live a healthy life. A replacement hormone compound will level out your dog’s thyroid hormones and you should see their symptoms start to improve in a few weeks.

6. Anxiety or stress

Some dogs lick their paws when they become anxious or stressed. If the stress is related to something minor or infrequent the licking may not be a problem. In fact, pups who are licked frequently by their mothers are more resilient and less stressed growing up, so they associate licking with calm.

However, when caused by a larger stressor or anxiety problem licking can become excessive enough to cause sores. You will want to address the problem because stress isn’t good for your dog’s health either.

If you think that stress is the issue you can try to remove the stressor (if possible) to see if that fixes the problem. This could be reducing loud noises that are scaring your dog, socializing them so they are more comfortable meeting new people, maintaining a regular routine, etc.

If the source of stress is something that can’t be changed, like a big move or a loss in the family, making your dog as comfortable and happy as possible may be your best bet.

Natural supplements like Ikarian Health’s Tranquility is one way to help dogs stay calm during car rides, vet trips, and other stressors.  

Other aids you can use to help give your pup a break from what stresses her out are: calming caps, Thundershirts, Zyklene chewable tablets and window films.

Many dogs experience anxiety as they age.

As your dog gets older, their memory starts to be affected, as well as their abilities to think and learn. This can be strange and scary, just like it is for humans, so we may see our pets acting differently or becoming more anxious as they enter their senior years.

Other symptoms that might signal a stress/anxiety problem is behind your dog’s excessive licking are:

  • excessive panting
  • whining
  • barking
  • urinating
  • defecating
  • crying
  • aggression

Important

If your dog is acting out in any of these ways don’t hesitate to contact your veterinarian and/or an animal behaviorist.

They can help you pinpoint the reason for your dog’s anxiety and guide you towards an appropriate treatment, including behavior medication if necessary.

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7. Boredom

After you’ve ruled out stress, anxiety, and other health concerns as causes for your dog’s excessive paw licking, the next thing to ask yourself.... 

“Could my dog just be bored?”

Boredom actually increases the stress hormone, cortisol, in the body. We know that licking reduces stress hormones in dogs, so it’s not surprising that dogs tend to lick themselves when bored.

Dogs need a lot of love to be healthy and happy, along with mental and physical stimulation. If your dog isn’t getting enough attention or exercise they will exhibit unwanted habits. Some dogs groom themselves excessively when under stimulated. Others will chew anything they can get to.

Some dogs are more prone to getting bored than others, like high intelligence and high energy breeds, although all dogs are different and should be treated as individuals of course.

Dogs who over-lick when bored may get lick granulomas which will need to be kept clean and dry to heal. If you suspect that boredom is the problem, commit yourself to making sure your dog gets enough exercise and play each day.

Make sure they have space to roam and toys to play with if you’re not around, and if you’re gone for long periods during the day try to have someone stop in to give your dog some loving and take them outside.

Training your dog at any age is another way to bond with them and make sure they’re getting enough attention/stimulation.

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8. Pain

One more potential reason to consider if you can’t figure out why your dog is always licking their paw all of a sudden is if they are in pain. Especially if you see your dog licking just one paw all of the time.

When pain is the culprit you may notice other symptoms and side effects like:

  • being less active
  • limping
  • open wounds (from cuts, animal stings/bites etc.,) 
  • agitation
  • yelping or growling 
  • hiding

Licking their paws can even be a sign that your canine friend has an injury further up the leg, like a sprain. If you suspect that your pup is in pain but can’t find the source, take them to the vet to be safe.

Changes in your dog’s behavior is their way of telling you something’s wrong.

Fixing the pain means figuring out where it is coming from and treating the source will stop the licking and other side effects.

Why Do Dogs Lick Your Face?

As mentioned before, dogs’ habit of licking people’s faces is partly due to the evolutionary need of wolves pups to lick their parents’ faces, causing them to regurgitate partially digested food for their pups to eat.

These days, dogs still lick our faces but not for the same purpose.

There are actually many reasons why a dog might lick your face.

You might have food residue on your face, if you’re sweaty your skin might be salty and taste good, or it could be a sign that your dog is showing affection.

Licking another’s face is also a way that dogs show social deference, or submission. They may do it because they want food, attention, or affection from you.

Now that we’ve given some possible answers as to why your dog might be licking your face, it’s time to answer the next question: is it a problem?

For healthy adults and children who don’t mind having their face licked, a little bit isn’t a problem. You still might want to wash areas where your dog has licked you to avoid unnecessary exposure to bacteria, but you should be fine.

Young children or adults with compromised immune systems should avoid being licked by dogs, since there is bacteria in dogs’ saliva that can make people sick. One common bacteria that is harmless to cats and dogs but makes humans sick is called Capnocytophaga canimorsus.

Because of this potential for bacteria, you shouldn’t let your dog lick an open wound, even though dogs often are attracted to those spots and seem to know when we’re hurt sometimes.

How to Stop Unwanted Licking?

If your immune system is compromised or you just don’t like when your dog licks your face, don’t give the behavior attention!

Just walking away is the best way to do it, because if your dog wants attention when they lick your face and you leave they aren’t getting what they want.

Don’t give positive or negative reinforcement or they will keep on doing it. Remember that dogs will lick to appease your or show their submission, so if you swat them away or shout it may just cause them to continue the behavior.

When it comes to licking their paws, you will stop unwanted licking when you get to the bottom of why they are doing it. A trip to the vet should tell you if your dog’s licking is health related. Just keep in mind that no matter what, your dog will probably lick their paws sometimes to groom themselves.

If your dog’s licking isn’t health related but they still do it more than usual, it’s probably behavioral. Consider seeing a vet or an animal behaviorist. Make sure that your dog is getting all the stimulation they need by going outside and doing things like swapping boxes of toys so they don’t get bored.

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