If your furry friend is constantly chewing, licking, and biting at their paws it can be an annoyance. You may also be wondering if this is normal dog behavior or if it could be a sign of an underlying issue. This is an extremely common reason for veterinary visits. If the licking is only occasional it is probably a normal behavior such as your dog cleaning themself, however, if the biting is new or significant, it often indicates that your dog is uncomfortable, whether from underlying allergies, pain, or anxiety. But the good news is that there are many options that can help, and the place to start is a consultation with your vet.
Why Dogs Bite Their Paws
There are several common reasons why dogs may bite, chew, and lick at their paws.
Pododermatitis is a term used to describe inflammation of the paws, including the nail beds, paw pads, and between the toes. This, along with salivary staining, are common findings in dogs who have been biting or licking their paws extensively. Pododermatitis may be caused by a bacterial or yeast infection, allergies, environmental factors, such as foreign bodies or damage from hard surfaces, masses, or growths, or systemic disease such as metabolic or immune-related conditions. The prognosis and treatment will depend on the underlying cause, which is discussed in more detail below.
This is probably the most likely reason that dogs will lick or chew at their paws, or elsewhere on their body. Allergies cause pruritus (itchy skin) as well as recurrent skin and ear infections. They can range in severity from a dog licking their paws more than usual to severe infections affecting the quality of life. Dogs may be allergic to fleas, something in their diet (food allergy), or something in the environment (atopy). A full workup for allergies may be done by your vet and may include checking for external parasites such as fleas and mites, skin cytology and/or culture to determine the source of any skin and ear infections, diet trial, and possibly blood or skin testing for specific environmental allergies.
Any skin or ear infections, if present, will require treatment with topical and/or oral antibiotics. Treatment for the underlying allergy will depend on what your dog is allergic to. All pets with itchy skin should be placed on year-round flea prevention. If a food allergy is suspected, your vet may recommend a hydrolyzed protein diet (in which the protein source is broken down into pieces so small the body cannot recognize or react to it). Environmental allergies are often managed with medications such as Apoquel and Cytopoint, to help keep dogs comfortable and reduce the frequency and severity of skin flare-ups. Mild allergies may be kept at bay with over-the-counter antihistamines such as Benadryl, and omega-3 fish oil supplements, as well as wiping paws after coming inside to help decrease the allergen load.
Pain or Injury
If a paw is causing pain due to an injury, mass (such as a cutaneous growth or interdigital cyst), or arthritis, it can cause a dog to bite at the area. A thorough exam of the paws should be able to determine if this is present. Radiology may also be beneficial in diagnosing arthritis or looking for other bony abnormalities such as fractures or cancer.
Treatment will depend on the underlying cause, and will also likely involve some form of pain management. A laceration may need sutures, bandaging, and antibiotics. A growth will require surgical removal, and arthritis can be managed with a multimodal approach including pain medications and joint supplements.
Nail or Grooming Issue
If a dog has a torn nail, a nail that has been cut too short (quicked), an overgrown nail, or matted tufts of fur between their toes, it may also cause them to bite at their paws. This should also be evident on examination of the paws, and treatment recommendations will depend on the underlying issue.
If all other medical causes have been ruled out, it is possible that repetitive licking or biting of the paws may be due to behavioral issues, such as anxiety. Other signs of anxiety often include panting, pacing, lip licking, barking or whining, and more. Treatment may involve training, behavioral modification, and in some cases medication to help reduce anxiety.
How to Prevent Paw Biting in Dogs
Because there are so many different causes of foot biting in dogs, it’s a good idea to see your vet if the problem persists or is causing concern. You may also consider trying the following at home:
- Regularly check for any injuries or irritants on your dog’s paws. Depending on your location and the season, certain types of plant material such as foxtails and burrs can be problematic. If you suspect allergies it is also beneficial to wipe down your dog’s feet upon coming in from outside to try to decrease the presence of allergens on their skin and paw pads.
- Keep your dog’s nails trimmed and paws clean and healthy.
- Provide your dog with ample mental and physical stimulation.
- Consult with your vet about any recommendations and dosages for over-the-counter products such as Benadryl and omega-3 fish oil.
- If the problem persists or worsens see your vet for additional testing and treatments.
When to See Your Vet
If the paw biting is extensive or causes issues for you or your pup, you should schedule an appointment with your vet. Other signs that veterinary care is indicated include:
- Red, irritated, painful paw(s)
- Presence of injury, skin growth, or infection
- Any other concerns or symptoms
As there are so many possible underlying causes, veterinary recommendations may vary greatly. Possible treatments include oral or topical antibiotics to treat infection, cleaning and wound care, medications or diet changes to manage allergies and itchy skin, and training, behavioral modification, or anti-anxiety medications.
Frequently Asked Questions
What will happen if my dog keeps biting their paws?
If paw biting is not addressed, the condition will likely get worse and may lead to secondary infections.
Should I put a cone on my dog to stop paw biting?
This is definitely an option. Especially if an infection is present, it will be important to keep your dog from licking and chewing to promote healing. However, it is important to also take steps to address the underlying issue.
What kind of training can help with paw biting?
Just like in people there are many different types and causes of anxiety, including separation anxiety, specific phobias (storms, fireworks, etc.), and generalized anxiety. It is best to work with your vet and a professional trainer specializing in positive training techniques, to come up with an individualized treatment plan involving training and behavioral modification.