Here’s what to know about why your dog licks his paws—and when you should worry about his habits.

By Lacey Howard
August 24, 2020
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When your dog licks his paws, it may simply be an act of personal grooming, or it could be a sign of a serious health condition. Here are all the potential reasons for the behavior, and what to do if you think there might be an underlying health issue.

Dogs Lick Their Paws to Groom Themselves

Like cats, dogs groom themselves, and licking and gentle chewing are parts of the grooming process. You might even notice your pup licking his paw and then dragging it across his head or face to get to places his tongue won’t reach.  

Dogs Lick Their Paws to Relieve Stress

The act of licking, in itself, releases feel-good hormones and acts as a stress reliever—think of it like humans biting their nails. This display of doggy self-care, however, can potentially stem from boredom or anxiety, and become an unwanted frequent habit for pups. If you suspect your dog’s paw licking is due to boredom or stress, Anne Conover, DVM—the owner of Rolling Hills Veterinary Clinic in Madison County, Iowa—suggests stimulating your dog’s mind with games and providing lots of opportunities for exercise. 

“Sometimes an Elizabethan collar [also known as The Cone of Shame] will need to be used temporarily to block the behavior if it has become a habit,” she says. “For severe anxiety, you should contact your veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist.”

Dogs Lick Their Paws to Clean Wounds and Soothe Sore Spots

Dogs also lick their paws to help healing happen. Canine saliva has enzymes that kill bacteria and, in turn, promote healing of cuts and scrapes. Dogs may lick their paws to remove a foreign object like a thorn or soothe an injured toe. If you notice more licking than usual, Conover suggests giving your pup’s paws a close look. “At home, you can check for thorns or lacerations; you can usually see swelling or redness if you look for it,” she says. 

If you spy something concerning or if the licking continues despite your exam yielding no obvious cause, call your vet. “During my exam, I check all of the nails and paw pads for lacerations, thorns, trauma, etc.,” Conover says. “I also separate each toe and check the webbing, feeling if it is swollen or if there is any debris between the toes. I move each toe individually, as well as the other joints in the limb, to feel for any swelling or see if the dog shows any signs of pain with movement.”

Dogs Lick Their Paws to Alleviate Itchiness

Your dog may also be licking his paws because they itch. Insect bites are one possible culprit, but there could be a more serious issue. “Itching can also be caused by systemic allergies (affecting the entire body) or contact dermatitis (the dog coming in contact with a substance he is allergic to),” Conover explains. 

In either case, it’s best to reach out to a vet to do an exam. “First, we try to find a cause for the itching. This can be a long process in some cases!” Conover says. “The treatment will be related to what the tests find. Most of the time we will give medicine to alleviate itching at the same time we're treating the underlying cause of the itching.”

At the end of the day, if you’re not sure why your dog is licking his paws, get it checked out. “Any time a dog is licking constantly or frequently enough to cause a wound or reddened skin, a veterinarian should do a thorough exam to look for the cause or an underlying problem,” Conover says.