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Why does my dog frequently lick his paws and limbs?

My dog nibbles and licks the top of his forepaws and the front of his forelimbs. He seems obsessive about doing this, usually after being outdoors. He does not break the skin. What could be his problem?

There are several possible reasons that dogs excessively lick or bite their paws and limbs. Allergies, arthritis pain, neoplasia (growths) and even boredom are some of the more common causes. These lesions can vary in their severity depending on the cause and how persistent the dog is about licking them.

It would be a good idea to have your veterinarian examine your dog to determine the underlying cause for the licking and to offer treatment options. He or she may perform some tests, including bloodwork and possibly radiographs (x-rays) to help diagnose the underlying condition. It may be that your dog is itchy because of allergies. Allergens are substances that cause an allergic reaction in affected animals. While it is possible that your pet is simply being fastidious when he comes in the house, the more likely explanation is that he is being exposed to allergens on his trips outside.

Dogs, like people, may be affected by pollen and other airborne allergens. Unlike people, however, inhalant allergy symptoms in dogs more commonly include itching, hair loss, ear infections, dermatitis (skin inflammation or irritation) and other skin problems. Dogs do not tend to get runny eyes and sneezing episodes as much as human allergy sufferers. Depending on where you live, your pet's worst allergy time may vary seasonally. Inhalant allergies, or atopy, can sometimes be managed simply by reducing the exposure to the allergens and with the use of antihistamine or other allergy medication and special shampoos. In severe cases, it may be better to have your pet tested for specific allergies and treated, if necessary, with allergy shots, which are essentially vaccinations against the allergens. This approach can greatly reduce the need for anti-inflammatory medications that may produce unwanted side effects.

Veterinary dermatologists are specially trained to conduct allergy testing and to formulate an appropriate allergy serum. Hypersensitivity or adverse reaction to food components is a possible cause of itchy feet and extremities that results in licking and chewing. Patients develop allergies to inhaled or ingested allergens over time, usually after months or years of continuous exposure. While atopy is often a seasonal problem, adverse reactions to food are usually year-round.

To prevent your dog from licking his feet and limbs, you may want to put an Elizabethan collar on him or even try using a long-sleeve tee shirt while treatment is ongoing. If your dog continues to lick or bite himself, he is at risk of developing acral lick dermatitis, which is a skin condition that may become infected. Please take your dog to the veterinarian to find the root of the problem. You may want to look in the VetCentric Encyclopedia for these articles: "Inhalant Allergy," "Food Allergy," and "Acral Lick Granuloma."