Allergies? Pain? Boredom? Why do dogs lick their legs and feet obsessively, and what can you do about it? Here’s how I answered those questions from a reader.
Q: I have a dog who licks her feet and legs too much. She is groomed every month, and I give her daily dietary supplements. Her vet says she might have back leg problems. Is she in pain?
A: Dogs lick themselves for lots of reasons. Sometimes it’s a result of being anxious, stressed or bored. Dogs with separation anxiety may lick themselves because the behavior releases soothing endorphins that help the dog feel calm. Conflicts with other animals or changes in household routine may also cause “stress-relief” licking. Some dogs lick their paws because they don’t have anything better to do.
Your veterinarian is correct that licking can also be a sign of an underlying health problem. It’s not unusual for dogs to lick areas of the body that are itchy or painful. Dogs who lick their paws and legs may be attempting to relieve the awful itch of skin allergies or bacterial or fungal infections or the joint pain from arthritis, which can settle in the carpus (wrist), stifle (knee), elbows, hips and lower back.
Anytime a dog licks excessively, he should be seen by the veterinarian to rule out a health problem, such as one of the many itchy skin diseases or a painful condition such as arthritis. Be prepared to tell your vet about the food and supplements your dog receives, his daily routine and the detergents and household cleaners you use. The vet may run diagnostic tests that include skin scrapings, a fungal culture or blood work.
If a thorough history and physical exam don’t turn up any cause for the licking, consider your dog’s lifestyle. Does he need more physical and mental stimulation? Consider taking him on walks in new areas, letting him take his time sniffing instead of rushing him along, introducing him to a fun dog sport such as nose work or rally, or rotating several interesting puzzle toys
Read more in Pet Connection, the weekly nationally syndicated pet feature I co-write with Kim Campbell Thornton and my daughter, trainer Mikkel Becker.