When your buddy’s feet become his latest obsession and, ahem, chew toys, it’s time to consult your veterinarian. Sporadic grooming is fine, but it’s concerning when he suddenly starts biting, licking and chewing on his limbs. It may be a sign of underlying medical problems, even if his feet look perfectly normal.
Grooming Versus Self-Mutilation
Though dogs aren’t consummate groomers like cats, they will clean their feet and lower legs as part of their typical grooming routine. They also have a tendency to lick yummy leftovers off their paws; residue from chew treats or a bit of dinner will usually get happily lapped up. Self-mutilation occurs when licking behavior turns obsessive. Dogs who self-mutilate lick and chew themselves raw, even down to the bone in some cases.
Foreign bodies such as thorns, sticker burrs and even tiny rocks can wedge themselves between your dog’s toes, causing pain and a lick-bite response. Check for foreign objects first if you notice your pup going after his feet, especially when outside. You may be able to remove the foreign body and relieve his suffering in mere seconds.
Allergic skin disease is one of the most common reasons dogs lick and bite at their feet. Environmental factors, such as pollen, mold and dust, are common culprits. Food allergies can also cause feet and leg itchiness and discomfort. Typically redness, rash, hives and welts are also found on the dog’s face and belly when allergies are present. Removing the allergen coupled with antihistamines and immunosuppressive therapy are common treatments.
Fleas and Ticks
Your dog’s natural reaction to a flea bite is to bite back. If he has a host of fleas and ticks biting and irritating his feet, it’s only natural that his own defense mechanism will exacerbate the problem. Purchase a monthly flea and tick preventative from your veterinarian and remain vigilant about its use, even in the cold winter months.
Joint injury, nail injury, cuts, bruises and torn ligaments can all cause your dog to lick his feet in an attempt to soothe the pain. Licking and chewing accompanied by limping and swelling of the injured area are telltale signs of trauma. A veterinary exam and possible X-rays are necessary to definitively diagnose and treat the injury.
Some cases of excessive licking and chewing don’t present any noticeable physical clues. In these instances, your veterinarian may want to conduct blood work and other diagnostic tests for systemic causes of your pet's discomfort such as cancerous tumors and hypothyroidism.
First and foremost, make an appointment for your buddy to see his vet as soon as you notice excessive grooming behavior. Your vet will work to diagnose and treat the underlying cause of his suffering. In some cases a dog will continue abnormal licking behavior even after the cause has been treated. It’s as if the non-behavioral problem triggered a response that feels good and soothing for your pup. According to the ASPCA, golden retrievers, Doberman pinschers and Labrador retrievers are most likely to engage in this type of compulsive behavior. At this point you’ll need to consult your veterinarian or a licensed canine behaviorist to help your pup redirect this obsessive behavior.
Christina Stephens is a writer from Portland, Ore. whose main areas of focus are pets and animals, travel and literature. A veterinary assistant, she taught English in South Korea and holds a BA in English with cum laude honors from Portland State University.