Emma came to us when she was approximately three years old and we knew little of her history. She was found wandering the streets of the Bronx, limping, emaciated, with substantial scars and looking like she recently birthed a litter of puppies. She was just days away from being euthanized at the overcrowded shelter that housed her. A Pit Bull rescue group I volunteered with asked me to foster her.
When she arrived at our home, she was understandably traumatized. I wanted to pick her up myself at the shelter, but protocol demanded that she be delivered to our house. I was so excited to meet her! on the day she was due to arrive, the seconds seemed to pass like hours. They gave us no estimated time of arrival and as tortuous as the wait was for me, I am sure it was much worse for Emma.
The huge delivery truck finally pulled into our driveway at approximately 5pm that evening. The driver had started dropping dogs off all over the tri-state area (we live in Connecticut) since early that morning. Emma had just experienced yet another scary and grueling day. When the driver slid the door open to the back of the truck the sight was pitiful and the stench even worse. Emma was the only remaining dog in rows and stacks of empty crates, and she was huddled in the corner shivering.
Covered in the smell of urine and fear, she cowered as the driver gently deposited her in my arms. Her big, brown, almond-shaped eyes shifted uncomfortably when I looked into her face, but none of this mattered. I felt my heart melt instantly. We followed our vet’s advice and introduced her to our dog Otis gradually. We took them on walks together and let them get acquainted outside before bringing them into the house. And then I promptly gave Emma the first bath of her life.
Behavioral Problem or Something More?
Like many rescue dogs, Emma came to us with some challenging behavioral problems. She was not housebroken entirely and would have frequent accidents during her first weeks with us. Her separation anxiety manifested in regular destruction of shoes, furniture, and toys. And the dog park became off-limits to us as Emma’s fear of strange dogs soon escalated into fights.
So, we sought help and adjusted. Instead of a trip to the dog park, we took regular walks and played in the yard with Otis. A trainer helped us with housebreaking and gave us tips to help with separation anxiety. Eventually, even her destructive chewing habits were completely solved…. almost.
Emma had one confounding habit that had us hamstrung. She compulsively licked and chewed her paws. As a chronic nail-biter myself, I put it down to stress and told myself that it would work itself out. She quickly became more comfortable with us. And for a time, that seemed to be the case. After all, it seemed a harmless little thing compared to all the other issues she had overcome.
But one day I noticed her limping as we took our customary morning walk. Her left front paw was definitely causing her pain, and she would hold it up in the air rather than stand on it. When we got home, I took a look at the bottom of her foot expecting to find a splinter or a scratch. I was horrified by what I saw. The entire pad was raw and red. It looked as if she had actually gone beyond licking to chewing off the skin on her foot. Alarmed (and feeling like the worst dog foster parent in the world) I immediately took her to the vet. Her tests revealed that Emma’s paw licking (and chewing) was not just a stress reaction. It turns out she had seasonal allergies that caused so much discomfort that she was licking and nibbling at her pads for relief!
Diagnosis and Treatment
Our veterinarian prescribed Apoquel to relieve her itching and inflammation and an Elizabethan dog collar to keep her from further damaging her paw. At first, the collar was difficult for Emma – she knocked into stairs and doorways (and poor Otis) as she adjusted to it. The Apoquel seemed to get her to a place of comfort, and she no longer required the collar to keep her from licking her poor little paws. Twelve years later, Emma still needs Apoquel in Spring and Autumn when her allergies erupt. I have learned to keep a keen eye out for the first signs of excessive paw licking to tell me when we need to start her regimen.
I share Emma’s story to illustrate that well-intentioned owners often misdiagnose the causes of excessive paw licking which can have uncomfortable and even dangerous consequences for their pets. In Emma’s case, we were able to diagnose and treat the problem fairly quickly. Because of my own ignorance and assumptions kept me from getting her the help she needed in a more timely manner.
Getting To The Bottom of Excessive Paw Licking
Chronic foot licking usually comes down to uncomfortable itchiness in those pups who are plagued with it. Unfortunately, the moisture caused by excessive licking between the paws can cause a secondary infection so it’s best to see your vet when you first notice the behavior.
According to Dr. Justine A Lee, DVM, DACVECC, chronic paw licking is a symptom that your pup may have an underlying medical problem. In Emma’s case, it was caused by Atopy, the equivalent of seasonal hay fever in people. Harder to diagnose are food allergies which would require an elimination diet to diagnose and treat. And then there’s Flea Allergy Dermatitis (often abbreviated “FAD”) which is more common than people realize.
Skin Condition Causes
Another related, but altogether separate problem are skin disorders which can cause chronic difficulties for dogs. According to petMD, there are 160 different canine skin diseases! In fact, chronic dermatitis makes up about 10% of animal hospital visits and are notoriously difficult to diagnose, often requiring a variety of tests, medications, and supplements to manage.
Like humans, dogs can experience dry, itchy skin which brings on licking behavior. This can be triggered by cold, dry climates, weather-related changes, excessive bathing, and harsh soaps. If this is the case, ask your pet clinician to recommend natural oils or lotions for canines to relieve their dry skin.
Is Pain The Cause of The Problem?
In addition to the conditions above, it’s worth noting that when animals are in pain, licking is one way they comfort themselves. If you notice your dog licking one paw, in particular, this is often the case; with an injury, the cause of the pain will be localized and could be caused by a thorn, embedded glass or even a broken nail.
Once you and your veterinarian have ruled out physical conditions that may be contributing factors, it’s time to consider psychology. Often when dogs are left alone for long periods of time, boredom sets in and they will resort to licking their paws. Anxiety can also trigger licking. Like their nail-biting human counterparts, some dogs lick their paws as a method of self-soothing. The causes of this kind of behavior can range from separation anxiety to obsessive/compulsive disorders and more. If this is the case with your dog, your vet can recommend an animal psychologist to help your pet with her coping mechanisms.
When To Get Your Pet To The Vet
The only way to really get to the bottom of chronic paw licking is to visit a veterinarian who will typically perform tests including a tape preparation cytology (analysis using a piece of tape), a culture, or occasionally, a biopsy. Your pet’s doctor may also require additional skin or blood testing to rule out atopy, food allergies or flea allergy dermatitis. Sometimes year-round flea and tick treatment or a new diet are prescribed.
If your pet is licking her paw obsessively, your pooch could be experiencing some pain, redness or swelling, and it may be time to get your itchy little pet promptly to the vet!
About the Author
Moira Lynch is a passionate pet mom of two 14-year-old pound pups but if you ask her, she’ll say that Otis and Emma were the ones who rescued her. She’s also a freelancer writer, marketer, founder and owner of DownDog Customizable Yoga Mats for Pet Lovers.