There are several reasons that dogs lick their paws to the point of irritation. The fancy medical term for this is Canine Acral Lick Dermatitis and it is a very common ailments that veterinarians encounter. It can be very frustrating and stubborn to treat. Here are some of the most common culprits.
Yeast/Fungal infections The easiest way to tell if your dog has a yeast infection on their paws is the smell. Yeast on dog paws can smell like Fritos chips and can be a very pungent strong smell. It is most common in the summertime and can make their paws itchy and irritated which can make your dog want to lick their paws excessively. Allergies can cause this too and some dogs can be allergic to yeast but they are not the same thing.
Yeast and fungus can grow anywhere moist and warm on your dog. It is most common on feet, ear canals, armpits and other skin folds (think about a bulldog’s facial folds). If your pet is shaking their head a lot or pawing at their ears, this can be the cause. Having a little bit of yeast on your dog is normal and may not produce a strong odor. It becomes a problem when the yeast grows out of control and causes irritation, redness, or swelling. When this happens it is called Malassezia Dermatitis or more commonly as a yeast infection. This can be especially irritating if your dog becomes allergic to the yeast. If they become allergic, their biological response can be much more severe as they become hypersensitive to the yeast. This will make even the smallest amount of yeast very irritating. This research article goes into greater detail here. https://europepmc.org/article/med/9659547
If I was stuck on a deserted island and there wasn’t a veterinarian on the island with me… but I had some homemade vinegar… I would rinse my dogs itchy paws with vinegar -if I thought they had a yeast infection that was making them chew their paws. Vinegar can be effective on yeast or fungus on the skin and it is non-toxic to dogs. But, if you can get to a veterinarian, that is better of course.
Environmental Allergies Atopic Dermatitis is most often caused by environmental allergens. It can show up as lesions, hot spots, or skin irritations in addition to paw licking. Most veterinarians will recommend a multifaceted approach to treating skin irritations caused by environmental allergens that include medication, dietary supplementation and avoidance of allergens if possible. Testing to determine which allergens are the offending culprits also helps to treat the allergies. Non-irritating baths and topical ointments can also help alleviate the discomfort that this kind of dermatitis causes. Symptoms may be seasonal or non-seasonal depending upon the allergen. Many dogs end up with lesions that occur after they chew or paw at the itchy area (self-trauma). This can also cause bald patches and hyperpigmentation from licking. Some dogs will lick these areas until they are raw. I have had clients that have licked their feet until they bleed and after starting their allergy medication, their feet completely healed and they stopped licking them altogether.
Other external parasites can also cause dermatitis so a trip to the veterinarian is encouraged to accurately diagnose the cause of skin irritation.
Food Allergies Food allergies can also cause skin irritations and itchy feet One way to determine if your dog has food allergies that is often recommended by veterinarians is with an elimination diet in which you eliminate potential allergy inducing ingredients and add them back one at a time and watch for flare ups. Another common option is to feed your dog limited ingredient commercially prepared food which is why these are so common lately. The most common food allergens in dogs are chicken, beef, dairy and wheat. Fish has been shown to cause the lowest allergic response. The elimination diet is usually recommended for 3- 10 weeks. Consult with your veterinarian before trying this at home. More about this can be found here.
Canine Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Paw licking can also be a self-soothing behavior in dogs that have separation anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorder. Medication can help to reduce paw licking that is related to obsessive compulsive disorder. More about obsessive compulsive disorder in dogs can be read here.
It is thought to be caused by a combination of genetics, early environmental influences during the puppy stage and early conflicts.
Treatment can include changes in environment, behavioral modification with specialized training and medication. It is not uncommon for something as simple as an insect bite to be the cause of initial irritation and once the licking begins, the compulsive aspect can kick in and the dog does not stock licking. This is why when a dog has surgery, they are sent home with a cone around their head. The urge to lick is really strong and they will not stop once they start. That is the frustrating psychological aspect of this condition.
Genetic Disorders Some breeds are more likely to have allergies, sensitivities, and even auto-immune conditions that can make them predisposed. It occurs most often with medium to large breed dogs and symptoms may not appear until the dog is 3 years old or even later. Any breed can have this though. There hasn’t been enough research for definitive data at this time but new research is always being done.
Canine Acral Lick Disorder is most often caused by a combination of the above. Once a dog starts licking a spot on their lower limbs, tail or feet, they often habitually lick until the area becomes traumatized and often infected. The sooner you can curb this behavior the less ingrained the habit will become so it definitely should not be ignored. A trip to the veterinarian is usually the fastest and most effective way to treat this.
Just a reminder that I am not a veterinarian. I care for dogs on a regular consistent basis and have seen this in my clients many times. These have been my experiences that I am sharing. I am not qualified to give any medical advice or diagnosis.