A dog’s life is filled with repetitive behaviors. Your pup may bark, chew, spin or chase and never grow tired of doing so. But a behavior like licking becomes compulsive when it interferes, to some degree, with a dog’s daily life. It’s up to the pet owner to determine if licking has escalated into something more serious. Consult a licensed veterinarian to address and rule out compulsive licking due to allergies, skin conditions or underlying pain.
In many cases, repetitive paw licking is part of a dog’s typical grooming routine. A good rule of thumb is to first try to pinpoint everyday triggers for paw licking. For example, if your dog has just come in from outdoors and settles in to lick her paws for several minutes, she is most likely exhibiting completely normal grooming behaviors -- cleaning her paws the way you might wipe your shoes on a doormat. It’s the dogs who lick endlessly without any external trigger or who lick to the point of self-injury that may need medical or behavioral interventions.
When dogs lick compulsively, it’s not unlike the nervous habits their human companions exhibit regularly, including nail biting or knee bouncing. Licking releases endorphins: mood-altering brain chemicals that sooth your pup and make him feel happy or take the edge off of a stressful situation. Compulsive behaviors triggered by anxiety can continue even after the initial stressors cease or resolve, the ASPCA notes. For example, a dog rescued from a stressful living situation or whose home life has since improved may continue to demonstrate the same ticks that he developed as an earlier coping mechanism.
Constant paw and feet licking can be a symptom of allergic reactions to airborne irritants or to something consumed orally. Acral lick dermatitis is the formal name given to compulsive licking that leads to self-injury. Also called lick granuloma, this skin condition leads to a vicious cycle of habitual licking and irritation, often with exposed welts or raw skin where hair has been abrasively removed through licking. It is a neurological condition -- rooted in stress, anxiety or even boredom -- typically diagnosed only after all other causes have been excluded. Lick granulomas can originate with an allergic reaction or injury that is later resolved or healed, but the licking behavior continues on, sometimes developing into a disorder mirroring obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Dog trainer Cesar Millan notes that compulsive licking can be addressed through methods of anxiety reduction. Start by making sure your dog is getting the proper level of exercise and seek safe distractions, like a puzzle toy that will offer a food reward, when compulsive behaviors resurface. To avoid further irritation, consider gently washing your pooch’s paws in warm water after walking outside. Dogs are at risk for ingesting residual toxic chemicals when they lick their paws after a walk.
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