Q: My 3-year-old toy poodle seems to be licking his paws frequently. Is this common in toy poodles? I have been checking him constantly and there doesn't seem to be any obvious skin problems on his paws. I've heard that sometimes it can be an allergy. What is considered excessive licking and how would I know if it were an allergy or not?

A: Paw licking or chewing is relatively common in dogs. Although dogs do not perspire through their skin on the body, they do sweat through their paw pads. The sweat often creates an odour which dogs love to lick. Mild licking is considered as self grooming but if the licking and chewing lasts more than an hour, three to four times daily, then it is excessive. The saliva tends to accumulate and soak through the fur. This will result in bad odour which will attract bacterial and fungal growth. So you can imagine, a paw full of sweat, saliva, bacteria and fungus – not well at all!

Some dogs lick their paws due to pain or irritation. Injuries from running on a hot rough floor surface or a sharp splinter poking into the paw pad can be extremely painful. The dog may limp or walk with an uncomfortable gait. Make sure you bring your pet for a veterinary check up to ensure that the injury is treated immediately. If an infection has set in, antibiotics must be given to ensure a fast recovery.

Most dogs, like your toy poodle, often lick and chew their paws day and night. When you check their paws and there are no obvious or apparent lesions or pain, then we have to worry that your dog may be suffering from allergies, boredom or a compulsive habit.

Allergies are commonly related to the floor detergent, grass, dust, or flea and tick bite. To find out whether it is an allergy and of what kind, you will need to keep a list of changes in the products you use around the house and the routes you take your dog on. Food allergies can also result in excessive paw licking and chewing. Protein in the diet is often the culprit. It is helpful if you also keep a food journal of what your dog eats, like the brand and flavour of the commercial diet, the type of home cooked food and treats. If your family also offers human titbits, stop immediately to minimize the risk of food allergies. Air borne allergies resulting from dust, grass/ flower pollens or chemical sprays/ vapours can also cause itchy paws. You may also observe that your pet may sneeze or have watery eyes. At times, the rest of the body can also be affected.

Boredom and a compulsive habit of licking can result from lack of stimulation for your pet. When the dog is bored, he "distracts" himself by licking and chewing his paws. When he is stressed or anxious due to moving house, the arrival of a new family member or pet, or loud noises from construction, he can also start the habit of licking and chewing his paws.

Try to spend more time with your pet by bringing him out for walks (but beware of contact allergy from grass or dust); give him adequate exercise and lots of assurance and encouragement to help reduce your anxious pet's boredom and compulsive habit.

Some owners may use an Elizabethan collar or apply bitter spray on the paws to "break the habit". These methods can work but are not 100% effective. In some cases, the dog undergoes "cold turkey" and will lick and chew his paws with vengeance once the collar is removed or if bitter spray is not applied!

Even after you have checked that the skin at the paws is not infected or inflamed, it is essential to still keep the paws clean and dry at all times. It is useful to clean his paw pads daily with diluted apple cider vinegar (10% dilution) or saline solution. These cleaning solutions act as a mild deodorizer and antiseptic.  Make sure you dry the paws completely after cleaning, especially the skin between the toes. If required, trim the fur in the paw pads short. This will help to keep the cleaning and drying easy.