Why Won't My Dog Stop Licking Her Paws?

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

With spring disappearing in the rearview mirror and the official start of summer just days away, there’s a good chance many dog parents reading here today think of this as “itchy paws season.” Of course, dogs do groom themselves (minimally, as compared to cats), but if it seems as if your canine BFF is suddenly obsessed with licking his paws, it’s important to figure out what’s going on.

There are a variety of reasons dogs lick and chew at their paws, but by far the most common is environmental allergies. If your dog is licking all four paws and in between the toes, it’s likely he’s having an allergic reaction to something in the environment that’s making him extra itchy.

The reason so many dogs lick their paws is because especially during the spring and summer months, those often-sweaty little Swiffer dusters are picking up allergens and chemicals in the environ­ment, including ragweed, grasses, dust mites, pollens, molds, fertilizers, pesti­cides, herbicides, and more.

During colder months, there’s road salt and chemical deicers to content with, so when you consider how often most dogs go out­side and what their paws encounter, it’s clear that a wide range of potential irritants can quickly accumulate on their fuzzy little feet.

Your dog’s environmental allergic response is an immune system overreaction to normal substances found in nature. Seasonal allergies can range from mild to profound, and the earlier you identify and treat the body’s overreaction, the sooner your pet will get relief from his itchy misery.

Contact dermatitis occurs when chemicals come in contact your pup’s skin and foot pads, creating an irritating inflammatory response. The most common culprits are outdoor lawn chemicals, road salt, and de-icing chemicals.

The good news is that about 50% of most dogs’ seasonal foot licking and chewing can be alleviated by simply removing those irritants from their paws each time they come in from outdoors, or at a minimum, at the end of each day.

Easy, Effective, Nontoxic Relief for Itchy Paws

The secret to success in removing allergens from your dog’s feet is to soak or rinse them. Simply wiping them off with a damp cloth won’t give her nearly the relief she’ll feel with a foot soak, and it won’t remove the billions of allergens found in the nooks and crannies around the nailbeds and in between the toes.

There are many ways to do foot soaks, so you may need to experiment to find the method that works best for you and your dog. For example, if you have a large or medium-sized dog, you can use a bucket and soak one foot at a time. If your dog is small, you can use your kitchen or bath­room sink.

What's important is to soak those paws at the end of any day during which your dog has been in contact with allergens, lawn chemicals, or anything in the environment with the potential to irritate her feet.

My go-to add-in for foot soaks is povidone iodine (brand name, Betadine), which is an organic iodine solution. It's safe, nontoxic, antifungal, antibacterial, and anti-yeast, and you can buy it in the pharmacy section of almost any store. Add just enough water in the foot soak to cover your dog’s feet, and enough iodine to turn the water to the color of iced tea. This will conserve both water and iodine.

Another approach is to use white vinegar diluted 50/50 with water, especially if your dog’s coat or paws are light in color, since Betadine may darken light fur.

Some dog parents leave a pail of the solution on their porch, deck, in the garage, or at the front or back door and make a fresh batch every few days. I don’t recommend going more than 2 or 3 days using the same foot soak solution. There's no need to rinse your dog's feet after the soak. Just pat the paws dry and you’re done.

Helping Your Dog Get Comfortable With Foot Soaks

Admittedly, many dogs aren’t too keen on getting their paws wet or standing in a foot soak for any length of time. But to receive the full benefit of the soak, in terms of fighting secondary fungal or bacterial infections, your dog needs to stand in the solu­tion for 2 to 5 minutes.

Keeping the paws submerged is key — they need to be in the solution long enough to thoroughly disperse contaminants and chemicals, and a little longer if your goal is to address any yeast that might be growing, as well as mild bacterial infections or nailbed inflammation.

You don’t have to do anything during soaks except help your dog keep his paws in the footbath — the solution will do all the work. To encourage him to cooperate, pet him as he soaks, talk, or sing or read to him, and praise him. If he seems anxious, offer a few treats. If he’s truly fearful of the water, instead of putting him in a sink or tub, make a mini soak in a small container and let him soak one foot at a time.

This will take longer, obviously, but you may be able to graduate to all four paws in the water simultaneously after he gets comfortable with one foot at a time.

Extra Help for Extra-Sensitive Dogs

Some pets need additional immune support (in the form of an oral protocol or immune desensitization) during allergy season to help quell the inflammatory response from the inside out. And remember, if your dog is continuing to lick, bite, or chew at himself, he might be allergic to something else he’s exposed to — perhaps ingredients in his diet, or something in his indoor environment.

You can learn more about food sensitivities here, and additional strategies to address environmental allergies here. The most effective approach is to coordinate your seasonal support protocol so that it’s ready to go a few weeks before allergy season starts. This will go a long way toward avoiding the need for steroids or other drugs with potentially significant side effects.

Addressing symptoms, including foot licking, the minute they occur is the best way to win the irritated paw battle.