Why dogs lick their paws

The overwhelming reason dogs obsessively lick their paws is because they itch.

Nine times out of ten, the itching is caused by allergies to inhaled pollen. 

In people, allergy symptoms are usually watery eyes and sneezing. But allergies in dogs usually cause an inflammatory response in their skin.

Paws have special skin that is more sensitive to histamine - and inflammation - so allergies often show up first in paws.

Other body parts like legs, tummy, eyes, rectum, snout, back and ears are also prime locations for inflammation and itching.

We don’t believe that dogs lick because they are bored. They lick the most at night when they are ready for bed. Dogs are happiest when they are getting ready to go to sleep and everyone is settling down for the night. They aren’t bored. It's just that all inflammation gets worse at night. The same thing is true in people, for the same reason that arthritis hurts more at night, or your sinuses get swollen at night, or your back hurts more, or your skin itches. 

We also don’t think it’s anxiety. Almost all dogs will stop licking if given a steroid. That's because steroids decrease swelling and inflammation, so it stops itching. But steroids will, if anything, increase anxiety. If anxiety was the issue, steroids would make it worse.

Because the main problem is inflammation and itching, a steroid can reduce it or stop it altogether for anywhere from two to six weeks. Steroids are excellent anti-inflammatories but they shouldn't be used on a long-term basis. They have some nasty side effects.

The genetics of the breed have much more to do with paw licking or skin problems, than anything else.

About two-dozen breeds are prone to allergies and paw licking. They are usually pure breeds, and the smaller dogs seem to do it slightly more than the larger dogs. Although little dogs lick more, they do less damage to themselves. Larger dogs can lick or chew until it bleeds and becomes infected with bacteria or yeast.

Dogs with white skin are horribly sensitive to everything and get secondary infections more easily too. Bulldogs have toe cysts. Great Danes chew one ankle. Jack Russells all lick their paws constantly. Westies almost all have skin problems, including infections that get worse with age. Bichons get red spots and sores all over. Black Labs usually lick just their front paws, and golden retrievers often get ear infections around the same time their paw licking starts.

Each breed usually exhibits almost exactly the same symptoms and behavior as the rest of the dogs of the same breed.

Since there’s not much to do about the genetics of dog breeding, or pollen in the air. And no one has yet developed a cure for allergies, dog owners can only rely on finding the best things to manage the symptoms.

There are several things you can do to help your dog. Dermapaw is just one of them. 

Just click on one of the links below to read more.

Best quick remedy for dog paw licking

The best thing you can do to help a dog who is licking her paws is to use a cheap steam vaporizer in the room where she sleeps. In the summer, tree and grass pollen can make dogs skin itch. But a huge factor is dry skin caused by dry air.

When air conditioners cool the air in your house they also remove moisture. The condensation that's dripping out of that little tube is moisture from the air in your house. Dry air can make your dog's skin dry enough to itch. And itchy paws cause dog paw licking.

A steam vaporizer is the best and cheapest. They will probably help your dog's skin more than any other single thing you can do.

During seasonal allergy flareups or if your dog licks year-round, a steam vaporizer can often solve 70% of dog skin itching problems with very little additional treatment.

If your dog is taking Prednisone or other steroid, Benadryl or other anti-histamine, a drug that combines both like Temaril-P, or you are using anything else, a warm steam vaporizer will radically improve the effectiveness.

Dogs with allergies or smaller dogs with little lungs will often develop a dry hacking cough that often starts in late evening and can go all night. A vaporizer will help immensely.

Small dogs and older dogs can also have reduced tear production and the result is very dry irritated eyes. The discharge might get gummy or even infected during the summer when pollens are the worst and the air conditioner takes all the moisture out of the air. If you have a little dog with tear stains, the best thing you can do is use a vaporizer at night, especially if your dog is getting older or you've noticed the stains are getting worse.

So if your dog licks his paws, or coughs at night, or has dry eyes or decreased tear production, or just seems restless, spend $16 and try a warm steam vaporizer for a few nights to see what happens. You will be pleasantly surprised, and so will your dog.


Causes of itchy dog skin

It’s impossible to always find the source of itchy dog skin.

In the winter it’s often dry skin aggravated by a heater. In humid environments it seems to be mold that causes the biggest problems. In dry areas, dust mites can be a contributor. A low percentage of dogs are allergic to certain food ingredients.

But by far the largest factor is inhaled allergens. In the spring this is usually tree pollen. In the summer, grass pollen. In the fall, weeds and flowers.

Genetic factors are a huge contributor too. Dog breeds that come from a very small gene pool are prone to allergies. Smaller dogs seems to suffer more itching, again because of the genetic influence of selecting for smaller and smaller puppies. Luckily, smaller dogs rarely do serious skin damage or worry a single spot. They will often produce reddish stains caused by a reaction of their saliva and skin and hair, but that’s usually the extent of the problem, except for the licking itself.

White or pink skinned dogs are sensitive to everything. They get dry skin, sunburn, allergies, you name it. They are also prone to secondary infections, rashes and sores.

Larger breeds will often chew the hair off, or focus on a particular spot on their leg or paw. Instead of just licking, they will use their teeth and scrape off hair and skin. Bigger dogs are at a more serious risk of long-term chronic problems. Early stage treatment is important to make sure it doesn’t develop complications.

English bulldogs have further complications. They will often develop cysts between their toes, usually on the back feet. There are a dozen theories as to why, but it’s obviously in their genes. Few other breeds have this problem. Dermapaw can help reduce swelling and discomfort of interdigital cysts. We have dozens of English bulldog customers that use it primarily for this.

Keratosis is the weird knobbly, scaly skin that often looks like mud on your dog’s nose. It’s fairly harmless but it looks uncomfortable and can itch and crack. Dermapaw helps soothe your dog’s itchy nose and replace any lost oils. It feels nice and smells good.

Some dogs will develop keratosis on the bottom of their paws. Dachshunds are prone to this. It looks like bumply, scaly stalagtites. Sometimes there is hair growing out of it. Rub Dermapaw into the cracks and between your dog’s toes. It won’t prevent the keratosis, but it should make it feel better.

Despite all the things that could be causing your dog’s skin to itch, there’s very little you can do about most of them. There are also no cures on the horizon for allergies, or generalized dry, sensitive, inflamed skin.

So the options narrow down to symptom management. Overall, you want to keep your dog’s skin in the best physical shape possible. Reduce the inflammatory response. Provide protection against bacteria and the environment.

The more things you can do to help your dog’s skin feel better, the less he will lick his paws.

Hopefully, you can find a combination that will keep problems under control, and licking to a minimum.


Things that help

Injected corticorsteroids – Almost always works for six weeks to two months. The problem is that it has dimishing results and the side effects get more serious with repeated use. Long-term use should be avoided if possible.

Apoquel – Promising. People say it works. Still fairly new. Call your vet first to make sure they can get it if you want to try it for your dog.

Atopica – Works pretty well in smaller dogs that get the little white pimples on their snout and back, especially Yorkies. Doesn’t seem to be as significant in larger dogs. Side effects include nausea and gum tumors.

Baking Soda Swish – A quick fix is to keep a plastic container with some water with a few tablespoons of baking soda dissolved in it. Swish your dog’s paws and legs in the water and pat dry. It can help wash away pollens and calm down irritated, inflamed skin.

Benadryl – Works in some smaller dogs under about 15 pounds. Rarely works in larger dogs. Can cause nervousness and panting.

Zyrtec – Usually more effective than Benadryl with less sleepiness, nervousness or panting. About one-third of dogs will respond to it. As with most antihistamines, it will either work within two hours or not at all.

Dermapaw - Smells good. Feels good. Dogs like it.

Medicated Shampoo

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.

The second problem is that they are almost always prescribed for the wrong thing. Most of them are anti-bacterials which are fine at killing germs but really hard on itchy, inflamed skin. Dogs that lick their paws aren't usually suffering from a bacterial or fungal infection. If they are, it's a secondary problem and there are better ways to handle it. The primary issue is inflammation caused by histamine, as a result of allergies. The objective is to make it itch less so the dog stops licking his skin off and causing all the other resulting problems (infections, sores, scabs, bleeding, hair loss, etc.).

The second category of medicated shampoos are the ones prescribed for seborrheic dermatitis. These shampoos are in the T-Gel, Selsun Blue family. They are not gentle shampoos. They are designed to dissolve oils and fat deposits on the scalp. They are especially harsh on dogs whose skin is already dry and itchy. Very few dogs ever get dandruff. The ones that do don't lick their paws as a result. These shampoos will make things more itchy, not less.

Only a few medicated shampoos are actually designed for allergic skin inflammation. One variety contains hydrocortisone. It works pretty well for serious skin itching. It's also relatively safe for your dog because all the hydrocortisone goes down the drain and your dog can't ingest it. But it doesn't last more than a few days and the baths require 20 minutes of soaking. It's a good backup plan for bad flareups but isn't really a good management tool. It's more of a bad case scenario.

The theory behind the other variety of shampoo for allergic dogs is that it creates a surface that is too slick for bacteria to adhere. That sounds pretty good, but bacteria aren't the problem. It's inflammation and itching. Unfortunately, this shampoo is excellent at removing every last molecule of oil and moisture, leaving skin more dry and itchy than before.

If you are currently using a medicated shampoo, you can give it a test by lathering up both your arms past your elbows, then rinsing and drying. If your skin feels great, we stand corrected. If your skin feels dry, or uncomfortable, or itchy, it’s probably making your dog's skin feel the same way.

The best shampoo is no shampoo. If you want to help your dog feel better, give him a bath in some luke warm water with a few tablespoons of baking soda dissolved in it. The baking soda will absorb pollen and raise the pH level of his skin. It can often relieve itching for a few hours and calm down irritated skin.

Most shampoos for people are too acidic for a dog. Acidic shampoo lathers up great and makes your hair shine. But a dog has more alkaline skin than a person, and sometimes shampoo that makes hair look good isn't that great on their skin.

The best choice is shampoo with aloe vera, oatmeal, and coconut cleansers. Don't use anything that's medicated or has any special ingredients or perfumes. It may not make your dog's hair quite as silky smooth, but his skin will be in a lot better shape.

Try to bathe your dog as little as possible. Even the mildest shampoo can wash away natural skin oils. We just mean keep it under once a week for little dogs and once a month for big ones.

If they are really stinky, that's a different story. If there's no visible infection, they may be eating stinky foods. Some game meats and alternative proteins can be pretty stinky, especially fish. If you currently give your dog fish oil capsules, you might want to reconsider. We've never heard of any dog ever having a significant benefit from fish oil, but we've heard of quite a few who have fishy breath, fishy burps, or fishy body odor. A significant number of dogs are also allergic to fish or fish oil. 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.

Things that don't work

Lick deterrents - These are bad for a number of reasons. Your dog already knows you don't like the constant chewing and licking. If they could stop they would. The main problem with lick deterrents is that they are alcohol based. It stings like crazy when you spray it on raw or inflamed skin. It also irritates their sense of smell. But it won't work regardless. A dog will lick anything off it's fur, especially if it tastes bad. They can't help it.

Vinegar - Although it has a well-deserved reputation as a germ killer, as well as making hair shiny, vinegar is really bad for your dog's skin. It's a strong acid that burns away the germs, and healthy skin along with them. It extremely irritating to a dog's sense of smell and if you get some in their eye it stings like crazy. If they have any raw or damaged skin, it's going to burn there too. Bad. It's just not a good idea to have vinegar around a dog at all.

Tea Tree Oil - Although it's relatively safe when diluted, make sure you never use tea tree oil undiluted. It's basically an insecticide/bactericide manufactured by the tree to protect itself. In undiluted form it can burn skin or cause an overdose. Products that have less than 1% tea tree oil are not bad, but the smell is really awful to a dog. They take care of bacteria, but that's not really the problem. The real problem is too much histamine causing inflammation in the skin cells and sending itch signals to the brain. Tea tree oil and it's relatives are very good at killing germs but itching and inflammation isn't caused by germs and the smell is way too intense for dogs.

The same is true for other aromatic oils that are commonly used to prevent itching - these include peppermint, menthol, eucalyptus, clove, camphor, all of them are just too intense for a dog's nose. The other reason you don't want to use serious aromatics on a dog is because they are too strong to put on raw skin. They will sting like crazy if your dog has broken the skin or has sores or cracks. The anti-itch benefits of these ingredients aren't meant for raw skin or damaged skin on your dog's paws or anywhere else.

Benzocaine - This topical anesthetic is found in teething gel and sunburn lotion. It's also found in dog paw spray. True, it will numb your dog's skin, but only for about twenty minutes. After that, the effect goes away rapidly. The problem is that benzocaine restricts blood flow to the area and starves skin of oxygen. It's similar to what happens to people's noses when they snort cocaine. It isn't good. The skin is left much worse off than before for only a few minutes of relief.

Hydrocortisone cream - The problem with this is that your dog will lick it off. When ingested hydrocortisone can cause bleeding in the intestines. The result is foamy stools with streaks of blood.

Antifungal cream - This could be anything that ends with zole. Fluconazole and Clotrimazole are two common creams for yeast (fungus). They may kill some fungus, but the yeast or fungus is a secondary infection that would probably clear up if you can restore the skin's integrity. Unfortunately your dog will lick all of it off his skin and fur. If you have to clear up a fungal infection, it's best to go with oral medication from the start.

Medicated shampoo - The only one that really works is 10% hydrocortisone. It's good for severe flareups but requires a 20-minute soak and isn't really going to last more than a few days. It's safe because there's no drug left on your dog once you've rinsed it off. The downside is that it washes away all the natural oils that keep your dog's skin healthy. If you use this, use it sparingly. 

All other medicated shampoos are either for the wrong thing, or they are way too harsh for dogs.

The best shampoo is a puppy shampoo, made with coconut cleansers, oatmeal and aloe vera. There are several good ones out there. Just make sure it doesn't have any other ingredients. Try not to bathe your dog more than absolutely necessary. Even the mildest shampoo washes away natural oils and dries out their skin.

Other things that might help

Supplements – One softgel per day of either evening primrose oil or borage oil. A small softgel of vitamin e also seems to help.

Fish oil – Theory is good, but in practice we’ve never heard of anyone seeing results. Some dogs can be allergic to fish. Since there’s no apparent benefit, we’d vote this down. Besides, it gives your dog fish breath and makes their skin smell like fish. Not good.

Food change – Some dogs will benefit but it’s probably less than 10%. A good food is good, but it may not solve your dog’s skin problems. While most dogs aren’t actually allergic to corn and wheat, complex carbohydrates can produce high levels of blood sugar and aggravate the inflammatory response.

Other vitamins may benefit but be careful. Dogs metabolise some vitamins differently than people and they can overdose. Commercial diets have added vitamins so most dogs won’t need a supplement. If you give your dog vitamins be conservative.

Other allergy symptoms in dogs

If your dog has soft poop, it’s not always food. Dog's intestines can be affected by the same inflammatory response as their skin. The result is mushy poop.

Carpet scooting is also often caused by inhaled pollen or other allergies. Inflammation makes their rectums itch, exactly the same way it causes itchy eyes and ears, so they lick and scoot. Just dab a little Dermapaw on their itchy rectum and they should stop scooting for a while. Don’t worry. It won’t sting. Same goes for chronic genital licking. Use it like lip balm on irritated genitals and it should give them some relief. Again, don't worry, it won't sting even the most sensitive areas.

Cough – Some dogs will get a dry cough, usually at night, from allergies. Try using a warm steam vaporizer at night and see if things improve. If it becomes chronic, see your vet. Some vets will prescribe an inhaler in severe cases.

Ears – Dogs will often paw at their ears because their ear flaps or the sensitive inside itches. In some cases their toenails can scratch the skin of their ears. Dermapaw can help relieve the itch and protect ears from further harm. Dogs can also have increased ear infections, often caused by excess fluid from their sinuses draining into their inner ear. If your dog shakes his head more than once or twice a day, he might have an ear infection and needs to see a vet. Ear infections can be very painful and can cause serious injury. So if in doubt, check it out