Understanding why dogs check on, and lick, their feet

By Dr. Cherice Roth, KeraVet Bio Lead Medical Advisor

Pet parents see a lot of weird dog behavior as pets grow up, but one of the weirdest is foot-chewing. A dog will curl up on their favorite chair and start biting at their toes, or plop down on the kitchen floor and gnaw — sometimes during the most embarrassing times, like when their pet parent is entertaining a date.

So, why do dogs chew on their feet, and what can a pet parent do about it? The first step is to look for what else might be going on. Once the cause of chronic foot chewing or licking is clear, pet parents can help their pups feel better — which may sometimes require an online vet consultation or medication.

Why dogs like their feet?

1. Injury to the paw

When a dog isn’t usually a paw-licker and suddenly starts chewing on one particular foot, they may have injured it. Dogs step in things that get embedded between their pads and occasionally puncture the skin. Foxtails, burrs, or splinters are common. In the same way that we humans get splinters and bits of glass when walking barefoot, dogs can step on something sharp and not be able to remove it.

What to look for

Pick up the paw that the dog has been licking and closely examine it. Use fingers to gently spread the pads and check under the fur, searching for:

  • Punctures or cuts
  • Debris (gravel, sticks, etc,)
  • Splinters
  • Glass

The first step is always to remove anything that shouldn’t be there, including dirt, debris, gravel, grass, and more. If the dog whines or yelps when touching their paw but no debris or cut can be easily seen, seek a veterinary consult to help determine the cause of the pain.

Managing paw injuries

Start by wiping down the dog’s paws with a damp cloth, focusing in between the toes and pads under the bottom of the foot. Sometimes this will immediately solve the problem, as the wiping will jiggle out whatever was stuck there.

If something has broken the skin, a little more first aid might be in order. If it’s just a small cut, treat it with diluted iodine solution and apply a triple antibiotic ointment like Neosporin once or twice a day until fully healed. A twice-daily Epsom salt soak can help speed up the healing process, too.  If your pet happens to focus and lick on even the smallest of injuries you will find it useful to talk with your vet about having a tube of KeraVet Gel in your first aid kit.

If the source of the small injury can be easily found, a pair of clean tweezers can help to gently remove debris. Splinters and glass shards are tougher to deal with. If lucky, they won’t be embedded very far into the skin, and pet parents should be able to gently slide them out. After all debris are removed and the area is cleaned with dilute iodine solution I recommend apply KeraVet Gel. The KeraVet Gel keeps your pet from licking on the area and potentially making the injury worse.  It also helps to keep the wound moist so that healing cells can help the wound to heal faster.  Occasionally, slivers may be stuck too deep, which can happen if the dog has continually walked on the paw and pushed the splinter, fox tail, or shard deeper. If so, a vet’s help may be needed.

Contact a vet if:

  • The affected area is red or swollen, has a pus-like discharge, or smells unpleasant
  • ‌An object is embedded too far to lift out easily
  • Your pet is unwilling to walk on the affected paw after about an hour
  • You do not feel like you can safely remove the debris at home safely.

2. Allergic Skin Disease

Itchy paws are a classic sign of a canine allergic reaction. Like humans, dogs can be allergic to many things in their environment — mold, pollen, dust, plants, and so on. They can also develop allergies to ingredients in their food.

Allergies can show up or develop in dogs of any age. Even if a dog was fine with pollen last year, they may suddenly develop an allergy during the Spring. Even if a dog has eaten the same food for years, they may develop a food allergy or intolerance of a staple ingredient in the food due to overconsumption.

What to Look For

Any time a dog develops a chronic paw-licking problem, seemingly out of nowhere, consider the possibility of allergies. Check for other allergy symptoms, including:

  • Paw-licking in specific situations (coming in from outside, after meals, etc.)
  • Redness or rashes around the toes
  • Ear scratching
  • Runny eyes or discharge
  • Sneezing
  • Itching or rashes elsewhere on the body

Managing Allergies

One option is to wash them away. Bathing a dog 2 to 3 times a week can help scrub away environmental allergens that cause itchy feet. Medicated shampoo can provide some extra relief.

For dogs with outdoor allergies, a quick wipe-down after walks and play sessions can help prevent anything from getting stuck. Focus on the feet to prevent paw-licking, and remember to wipe between the toes!‌

Learn more about KeraVet Bio Lead Medical Advisor, , Dr. Cherice Roth, MS, DVM, by visiting her on LinkedIn.