Vet Reviewed

By Carmela Ciuraru | August 29, 2023

Sometimes a paw lick is just a paw lick. If this is an occasional behavior, it may be a normal part of your dog’s grooming routine. But when dogs lick their paws intensively and often, causing skin to turn raw, or they keep licking one paw in particular, there might be something else going on. 

It’s easy to dismiss excessive paw licking as a quirk, but pay close attention. By staying attuned to your dog’s typical behaviors, you’ll notice if anything seems off, and you can find a way to help.

Injuries and pain

We might lick our wounds figuratively to ease our pain, but dogs literally lick their wounds.

If your dog appears suddenly focused on licking a single paw, an injury may have occurred, and the licking could be a sign of self-soothing. Examine all four paws carefully for injured nails, a cut (such as from broken glass or a sharp object), a pebble caught between paw pads, or any bleeding on the paws from an injury or sore skin. Your dog might have suffered an insect sting or tick bite. 

Your dog’s paw pads may have also sustained damage from hot surfaces or plants like foxtails (a weedy grass). Vets tell us that foxtails are notorious for navigating between the toes and migrating upwards causing infection and pain. 

You can treat small wounds at home with a pet first-aid kit, but if something looks more worrisome, or you’re not sure what’s causing excessive licking, make an appointment with the vet right away. 

In wintertime, streets and sidewalks can be treacherous. Your dog might have a painful ball of ice lodged in a paw after a romp in the snow,  or feel pain after walking on sidewalks that haven’t been treated with dog-friendly salt. Rock salt and other de-icing solutions (made without dog-friendly formulas) can crack or burn your dog’s paws. If you live in an apartment building, ask your building manager or superintendent to use snow salt that won’t be harmful to dogs, because these solutions can also be dangerous if ingested.

If you see your dog frantically licking a paw after a wintertime walk, clean their paws by wiping them down thoroughly with a warm (not hot), wet towel. Or, depending on the size of your dog, you can try dipping the paws in a bowl, sink, or bathtub, massaging water onto the paw pads, cleaning them well, and then drying them with a towel. To prevent injuries from snow or ice, consider booties (yes, most dogs hate them) or a nontoxic paw balm. These products may also be helpful for preventing dry paw pads, and even preventing pain caused by walking on scorching sidewalks in the summertime.

As strange as it sounds, arthritis is another cause of licking in senior dogs. Although it’s a joint condition, dogs often lick their paws to relieve aches and pains.Your dog may also have a paw lesion or growth. A small cyst or tumor (benign or not) in between the toes or on the bad can be very bothersome. See your vet if you notice any lumps, bumps or lesions on your pup’s paws. 

Changes in behavior

Paw licking can be a sign of anxiety, stress, or boredom. If you observe your dog licking a paw repeatedly in what appears to be a compulsive behavior, try some fun distractions: maybe a walk, a brief training session, or a game of fetch, or some calming treats. To encourage a behavioral shift, you might have to adjust your dog’s routine—more walks, longer runs, more time at the dog park to use up lots of energy, and more frequent, short play sessions throughout the day if you’re home. You might also want to consider buying chew toys—but for safety, never leave a dog alone with one—or puzzle toys to occupy your dog’s curiosity and focus. 

Is there something else going on? Have you recently moved to a new home, or added a new family member or pet? Is your dog having trouble adjusting? Maybe you’ve had a change in schedule, and your dog is suffering from separation anxiety; or there could be construction or other noise nearby that is making your dog feel anxious. You might consider talking with your vet or an animal behaviorist.

Skin issues and allergies

Sometimes when dogs lick their paws too much, it’s because of dry, itchy skin caused by environmental allergies. In spring and summer, grasses, weeds, and dust can impact dogs, just like humans. 

Certain foods can irritate dogs’ skin and trigger an allergic reaction. They may lick their paws to relieve an itchy sensation, so take note if your dog tends to do this after mealtimes. If you suspect a food allergy, speak to your vet who can help determine whether your dog does have a food intolerance or allergy and can recommend steps to take, like an elimination diet.  

In general, no matter the season, it’s a good idea to always keep a clean towel near your front door to wipe off residue from your dog’s legs and paws after every walk. For one thing, it’s nice not to have dirt (and other substances) tracked into your home—but more importantly, wiping down your dog’s legs and paws will minimize whatever may have been picked up on a stroll, and prevent vigorous paw licking that could become problematic and painful.