Dogs lick and chew on a lot of things, including themselves. This behavior is natural and something every dog owner and lover recognizes. There are plenty of reasons dogs might chew on their paws and nails, from healthy grooming to coping with pain, inflammation, or discomfort. So how do pet parents know when our canine companions have crossed the normal threshold and when their paw chewing might be problematic?
In this article, we’ll decode nail and paw biting in dogs, why they do it, when it’s a problem, and what pet parents can and should do about it.
Dogs Chewing Paws and Nails: Is it Normal?
Occasional brief sessions of paw licking and chewing are normal dog grooming behaviors. Most dogs will lick and chew their feet to clean themselves, especially after walks or play sessions outside. Some dogs may also exhibit this behavior as part of their nightly routine while they settle into bed or throughout the day while they are relaxing.
However, if your dog has suddenly started licking or chewing in a way they never have before, such as much longer than normal or more aggressively than usual, it can be a sign that something is wrong. It’s also a cause for concern if your dog is incessantly licking, biting, or chewing at their feet.
Typical grooming sessions don’t last much longer than five to 10 minutes maximum, and your dog should never leave themselves with raw or red paws afterward. It’s abnormal for your dog to stay up all night obsessing with their paws or to stop on walks or play sessions to bite or chew their paws. These scenarios are a good reason to inspect your dog’s feet and schedule an appointment with your veterinarian.
Why Do Dogs Chew Their Paws and Nails?
There are many reasons dogs bite and chew their nails. Abnormal reasons for paw licking and chewing include:
Dogs with allergies usually have red, itchy skin and paws. Allergies are the most common reason dogs bite, chew, and lick at their feet frequently and repeatedly.
Dogs with both environmental allergies and food allergies will often develop red, inflamed feet (along with other areas of their body), and they may start to lose fur in these places. Despite popular belief, environmental allergies are much more common than food allergies in dogs. Only about 10 percent of dogs suffering from allergies have a true food allergy.
The inflammation in their paws is itchy and uncomfortable, so allergic dogs will bite, chew, and lick at their paws and nails to relieve the discomfort. These dogs will usually be gnawing on all four paws instead of just one. Allergies become progressively worse with time, so a dog may start just a little itchy and become more uncomfortable over time.
Over-the-counter antihistamines are unfortunately not very effective in most dogs with allergies. Apoquel is a commonly prescribed oral medicine for allergic itch in dogs that provides fast, effective relief. Your veterinarian can work with you to help identify, alleviate, and manage your dog’s allergies.
Paw and nail injuries are relatively common. Our dogs don’t wear protective shoes like we do and are liable to hurt themselves while out and about in the world. Your dog may have irritated or cut their paw by stepping on something sharp or walking on a hot or rough surface, like gravel.
Dogs sometimes step on acorns, rocks, or other small objects that become lodged between their toes. Their nails can sometimes become torn, ingrown, or even broken during rough play or even on leisurely strolls.
If your dog is licking or chewing their paw due to an injury, they will typically be focused on one foot in particular, and it will have started abruptly. Dogs with an injury to their paw may or may not limp, depending on their pain tolerance and the location of the wound. The sudden, persistent paw chewing will usually be a new behavior for them and will last much longer than regular grooming sessions.
Carefully check the top and bottom of your dog’s paw, and look between the toes, too. Minor scrapes or irritations are likely to heal with some simple, at-home first aid, but a veterinarian should examine cuts, wounds, or nail injuries. In most cases, paw injuries are not serious, and with proper wound care, antibiotics and pain medications, your dog will recover just fine.
Some dogs are very protective of their feet and may not allow you to examine their paws yourself. In these cases, it’s best to go to the veterinarian sooner rather than later so a professional can help check for any potentially painful or serious problems.
Parasites, like fleas or mange, can cause our dogs to bite and chew frantically and constantly. Bites from these parasites leave the skin red and inflamed. Dogs with flea or mite infestations will often bite all four feet and will usually be red and itchy on other spots of their body as well. Ticks can also cause an itching sensation. If a tick attaches to your dog’s paw or between their toes, your dog may chew at it to stop the itch and remove the tick.
These pests can be challenging to find, so just because you don’t see any parasites doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Your veterinary team can employ specialized techniques and tests like skin scraping to determine if parasites are causing your pet to tear their feet apart.
A common reason our pets lick themselves is to alleviate pain. Dogs experiencing pain in or near their paw will regularly lick the area. This is often seen in dogs with arthritis but can occur with any painful condition involving the leg or paw.
Dogs licking their feet due to pain will often focus on the specific paw that is uncomfortable instead of all four feet. In most cases of joint pain or arthritis, there will be no obvious redness or swelling noticeable on the outside of the paws unless they lick the area raw. Your veterinarian can take radiographs (or X-rays) of your dog’s lower legs and paws to confirm this cause of persistent paw licking.
Paw Pad Disorders
Cracked, dry, or damaged paws can be painful and cause constant paw licking or chewing by our canines. Certain autoimmune disorders, like pemphigus, can cause painful lesions on the paw pads. In these cases, dogs are likely to bite all four paws. Other issues, like paw pad corns often seen in Greyhounds, lead our dogs to bite or chew the area incessantly and are usually limited to just one paw.
Treatment for these conditions will depend on the underlying cause. If your veterinarian is concerned about an autoimmune disorder, a biopsy may be needed. Corns often need to be surgically removed. Over-the-counter paw balm is usually an effective remedy for dry or cracked paws.
Bacterial and yeast infections of paw pads, nail beds, and/or skin on their feet can be another cause of consistent foot nibbling by our dogs. These infections can be secondary to paw chewing for another reason, like allergies or an injury.
Infections can be localized to one paw or occur on all four paws. The affected paws will usually be red, hairless, and swollen. Infected nails will often turn dark brown near the base of the nail, and pus can sometimes be seen from the nailbed.
A combination of antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory medications are usually needed in cases of infection. Additionally, your veterinarian will often need to determine what led to the development of the infection to begin with and decide whether the infection was the cause of the licking or vice versa.
Overly anxious pets repeatedly lick or bite their paws and nails to self-soothe. It can help distract them from their anxious thoughts and gives them something to fixate on. Anxious dogs usually lick their front paws. The paws typically do not have any signs of redness or outward irritation.
Dogs develop anxiety for many reasons. By working with your veterinarian, a trainer, and maybe even a canine behaviorist, you can find the best way to relieve your pet’s stress.
Lastly, if you and your veterinarian have ruled out other, more problematic causes of incessant paw licking, the reason may be boredom. Bored dogs will lick, bite, and chew their paws and nails to occupy their mind. Try increasing playtime with your dog to burn some of that energy and reincorporate training sessions to satisfy their mental drive. Providing food puzzles, safe chew treats, or motorized toys can help keep their attention away from their feet.
Dog Chewing Paws and Nails: When to Worry
Every dog is different. Familiarizing yourself with your dog’s everyday habits and their typical amount of paw licking or chewing can help you recognize when something is out of sorts.
Although dogs are expected to lick or chew their feet occasionally, sudden onset or constant licking or chewing is different. Dogs should never bite or chew their paws so vigorously that they leave their feet red, raw, or damaged.
Your veterinarian should address paw or nail biting, chewing, or licking if it’s beyond the realm of normal behavior or if you aren’t sure whether it’s happening too much. A veterinary visit is necessary if the behavior is accompanied by limping, bleeding, swelling, redness, hair loss, pain, sores, or signs of infection like odor or drainage.
How to Stop Dogs From Chewing Paws and Nails
Stopping your dog from chewing on their nails and paws relies heavily on determining and managing the cause of the behavior. Any parasites and infections must be treated, allergies must be managed, injuries should be doctored, pain should be addressed and boredom or anxiety must be mitigated.
For example, if your dog is chewing their paws like crazy and your veterinarian suspects allergies are to blame, they may prescribe a medicine for allergic itch, such as Apoquel.
Applying an Elizabethan collar (e-collar) or similar dog-cone alternative is a good short-term measure to stop your pet from licking their paws while you are waiting for a veterinary visit. Your veterinarian may also advise an e-collar at the start of treatment to keep your pet from causing further damage or a delay in healing.
Wrapping your pet’s paws to stop biting and chewing is usually not a good idea. Many pets will simply rip off the bandaging, and some will even eat it, which can lead to intestinal obstruction. If the bandage is applied too tightly, it can cut off circulation to the paw and cause tissue death. Additionally, infections can take root if the bandage is left on too long or becomes wet or dirty, and further complications develop.
The best way to stop your dog from chewing their paws and nails is to work with your veterinary team to determine and treat the cause.