Yesterday: a dog who panics whenever someone touches her feet. The day before: a dog with anxiety about her ears being touched. These dogs are everywhere, but what happened to them?
The answer is something I’ve held back a long time from writing about. It contains criticism of my own profession as well as others. God knows, I’m no saint, and like most vets, I’ve made all these mistakes too. But we’re going to keep making them, so you need to know how to stop them.
The main reason why dogs lick their paws is when allergic skin disease causes itchy dermatitis between the toes. Other less common causes include
Bacterial or fungal infection
Contact dermatitis, trauma or burns
Nailbed infections or tumours
Grass seeds, stress, illness or anxiety.
Now dive deeper.
Does your dog lick or chew their feet? A little bit of foot licking can be normal, but if the hair has brown saliva staining or the skin is red, then it’s a problem.
Short-term foot licking might be caused by a grass seed, pad or nail injuries, stings or abrasions. These are usually easy for a vet to fix.
Long-term foot licking is frustrating. Sometimes it’s a chronic disease, other times it’s a short term issue that has morphed into a vicious cycle of licking and skin damage. To help our dogs we need to understand their individual motivation. Sometimes it’s not obvious. Beware of anyone claiming to have all the answers.
Myths About Foot Licking
Later I’ll share my views, but here are some of the things you read online (I’ll call them myths but you can make up your own mind).
“Dogs lick their feet due to boredom”
A bored dog will probably lick more, but something has to start them licking in the first place. Foot lickers need to be kept occupied, but that’s only a small part of the solution. Overnight they will still lick and scratch if you haven’t got it right.
“Nine times out of ten, the itching is caused by allergies to inhaled pollen.”
9 out of 10 itchy dogs may be allergic, but only if you rule out fleas, mites, bacterial and fungal infections first. None of these are usually visible.
“Dogs that lick their paws aren’t usually suffering from a bacterial or fungal infection.”
Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It takes extra testing to find. I get fooled by this one all the time so it’s no wonder that many non vets do too.
“Paw licking is only seen in certain breeds.”
The grain of truth here is that canine skin allergies have a genetic element, and some breeds are more at risk than others. However, not all Jack Russell or West Highland White Terriers are allergic and even the healthiest breeds such as Greyhounds get interdigital dermatitis.
“No one has yet developed a cure for allergies.”
We can’t cure most dogs but that doesn’t mean we can’t make a big difference. Allergen Specific Immunotherapy will give some improvement in two thirds of treated dogs, and gives a complete cure in around 10%.
Similarly, new advances like Apoquel are giving excellent results in many dogs.
“The idea behind giving your dog fish or fish oil is sound, but in practice it never seems to help and can often have unintended results.”
Omega 3 fatty acids help, as good science shows. The effect is weak, but if it doesn’t cause gastro upsets then why not?
“The main problem with medicated shampoos is that they were invented for horses and later marketed for dogs. They are industrial strength detergents and they dry out already damaged skin.”
Rubbish. Good shampoos are listed in our guide to bathing dogs and these won’t damage or dry out skin if used properly. Medicated shampoos are essential for some infections. Judge them by their results.
“Try to bathe your dog as little as possible. Even the mildest shampoo can wash away natural skin oils. The best shampoo is no shampoo. The best choice is puppy shampoo with aloe vera, oatmeal, and coconut cleansers.”
Cynical me sees ‘puppy’ as just a marketing word on shampoo bottles. The same goes for adding ‘oatmeal’, ‘aloe vera’ or ‘coconut’. Good in theory but how much is added and is it in the right form?
Choose your shampoo carefully, preferably with your vet’s assistance. If you follow our advice on our skin care page and work in cooperation with your vet, you should find frequent bathing to be an important part of managing itchy dogs.
“Creams or ointments don’t work”
It’s not that simple. Every day I see topical remedies play a big part in helping dogs with paw problems. However I also know that they can be dangerous or useless if used incorrectly. Why?
Putting something on a dog’s feet only makes them lick more.
Cortisone or antibiotics ointments were never designed to be ingested, and their toxicity is untested.
Some active ingredients can be too powerful for prolonged use.
BUT with care and the use of a collar to prevent access to the area, ointments and creams can be the fastest and most effective way to help your dog. So here’s my summary of the foot licking problem.
Why Do Allergic Dogs Lick Their Feet?
Dogs with allergic or atopic dermatitis are more likely to be affected in particular places. The best guess is that the combination of a slightly warmer and moist environment makes the skin a bit itchier. Other places include:
On the chin (notice that this is the odd one out).
What Else Causes Dogs To Lick Their Feet?
Allergic disease is number one, but we do see other causes.
Grass seeds are very common in spring and early summer- read more here
Malassezial or staphylococcal infection is common and easily overlooked. While often secondary to allergy, dogs won’t get better if it isn’t controlled.
Nailbed disease. We see infections, and tumours commonly.
Illnesses like heart disease or chronic pain can cause dogs to chew at themselves. A common example is when impacted anal glands need emptying. Rusky improved when we controlled his arthritis better.
Anxiety or Stress can increase foot licking but it isn’t as common as believed.
Pad damage from hot pavement or overexercise.
Licking! Did you know that dog saliva and licking are harmful? By the time I see many dogs with interdigital dermatitis the cause isn’t obvious any more. The dogs are being driven mad by the itch and can’t leave their feet alone. The constant licking only damages the skin more and introduces infection. These dogs often get better if I can just help them forget their feet for long enough for them to heal.
What Can Stop Dogs Foot Licking?
It’s helpful to think of foot licking as a skin problem exacerbated by behaviour. Here’s what we suggest:
Follow our suggestions on home help for dogs with itchy skin. These wholistic approaches treat the skin as a unit and recognise that the feet are just the visible sign of a larger problem.
Encourage distractions and extra exercise. Loki gets more raw bones during his itchy season.
Have something to add? Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours of lodging. By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These help topics are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story! The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.