To find out why your pet is licking, take a good look at his feet -- between the toes, under the fur, and on the pads. If the paw is red, swollen, or has a bad smell, he may be injured, and you will probably want to call your vet. If the paw looks completely normal, however, there is a good chance allergies are to blame. This is especially true if your pet has what vets call the gloves-and-socks syndrome, which means that he is not focusing just on one foot, but on two or four, says Dr. Melman.
The best way to treat allergies is to keep your pet away from whatever it is that is making him itch. Veterinarians sometimes recommend keeping a "feet-licking diary," in which you jot down everything that is happening when his tongue goes to work. Does he lick mainly in summer or winter? Does he lick only on weekends (after you have cleaned the house) or during the week. As you gather more details, you will start to see patterns that will help you identify the problem.
Suppose, for example, your pet always licks his feet after running in the field behind your house. It is possible, says Dr. Shema, that he is stepping on fertilizer or other chemicals that may be causing itchy feet. Other common culprits are household cleaners and carpet deodorizers. By keeping an eye on where he runs and plays, you may learn what is behind the problem -- and what he needs to avoid to get better.
Since many dogs and cats suffer from allergies in the spring and summer, you may want to try keeping him indoors during the early morning and evening hours, when pollen counts are highest. In winter, you may want to clean your pet's paws well after walks since chemicals used to de-ice roads can irritate the feet and cause licking, says Dr. Shema. It is also a good idea to remove packed snow and ice from his paws since prolonged moisture can cause them to get tender.
Here is another winter tip: When snow and ice are on the ground, apply a light coating of petroleum jelly before he goes outside, says Joanne Howl, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in West River, Maryland. This will help protect his paws from ice, snow, and road salt, while keeping the pads soft and moist. Wipe off the petroleum jelly before he comes back in the house, she adds.
Since food allergies are very common, a good starting place is with an elimination diet, says John Daugherty, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in Poland, Ohio. This means putting your pet on a totally different diet, for 8 to 10 weeks, being careful not to slip him little extras like snacks or rawhide chews. (Even certain medications may skew the results, so it is a good idea to review all your pet's medications with your vet before starting this kind of diet.) If he starts leaving his feet alone during this time, you will have a pretty good idea what you need to avoid in the future.
Even when you can't figure out exactly the problem is, there are still ways to stop the licking. Cool baths can be a big help since the water assists in relieving itching. At the same time, it washes particles from his coat that may be causing an allergy, says Dr. Melman.
When you are giving a bath, it is a good idea to use shampoos that contain moisturizers, adds Dr. Daugherty. In addition, veterinarians sell shampoos that contain a mild anesthetic, which can stop itching fast. At the very least, you may want to add a little colloidal oatmeal (like Aveeno) to the bathwater, which can be very soothing. Just be sure to rinse your pet thoroughly after the bath since any soap that remains can make the itching worse.
Even though dogs may appreciate a cool dip, cats aren't so enthusiastic. Making the water lukewarm instead of cold will help them tolerate it better. Or if your cat would rather fight than get in the tub, wet a washcloth in warm water, wring it out, and wipe him gently from his ears to the tip of his tail.
You don't have to wash your pet's whole body for him to get the benefits, says Carvel Tiekert, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in Bel Air, Maryland, and executive director of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association. Simply soaking his feet for 5 or 10 minutes, four times a day, in cool water can help control licking. For additional relief, add a sprinkling of Epsom salts to the water, he suggests.
Since a rash, cut, or mild infection can cause your pet to lick his feet, you may want to try soaking his feet in a mild mixture of Betadine Solution and water. (The mixture should be the color of weak tea.) Soak the feet for 10 minutes, three times a day, and repeat for about four days, says Grant Nisson, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in West River, Maryland. A solution made by mixing equal parts white vinegar and water can also be helpful.
You can even try soaking his feet in a solution made from brewed tea, since tea contains chemicals called tannins, which help dry rashes and ease irritated skin, says Dr. Tiekert.
Chamomile tea is also good, says Dr. Scherk. You don't even have to soak his feet to get the benefits. Just brew a cup of tea as you normally would, then soak a clean towel in the cooled tea to make a compress and apply it directly to his paw for three to five minutes, up to five times a day, she says. Tea can discolor fur, so don't be surprised if your pet seems to be wearing socks when you are done.
It is always a good idea to wash your pet's feet after he has spent time outdoors, says Dr. Tiekert. This especially helps pets with allergies to grasses," he says. He recommends washing the feet in a very dilute bleach solution, mixing one teaspoon bleach in a quart of water.
Some vets recommend giving oral medications to control licking caused by allergies. For example, you can give dogs over-the-counter antihistamines containing diphenhydramine, such as Benadryl. Give one milligram for every pound of pooch, three times a day, says Karen L. Campbell, associate professor of dermatology and small animal internal medicine at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine at Urbana Champaign. For cats, a better choice is a product containing chlorpheniramine, such as Chlor-Trimeton. The usual dose is half of a four-milligram tablet for every 10 pounds of cat, twice a day, says Dr. Campbell.
In addition, fatty-acid supplements, which are available in pet supply stores, catalogs, and from veterinarians, can also help relieve itching. To be safe, however, always check with your vet before giving human medications to pets, says Dr. Melman.
One of the best remedies for stopping feet licking is also the most fun. Since pets often lick their feet when they are bored, keeping them entertained can make a big difference. Go to the park. Play a game of catch. Toss a catnip mouse. Drag some string. Take a walk. It doesn't really matter what you do as long as it is fun. When your pet's mind is on fun and games, he won't be thinking about his feet, says Dr. Shema.
Worried owners will sometimes try coating their pets' paws with hot spices or bitter-tasting sprays or ointments, such as Bitter Apple, to stop the licking. Or they will wrap the feet in bandages. But these remedies usually don't work. "Pets will chew themselves anyway because the itching is so intense," says Dr. Shema. "If a dog is determined to lick, nothing you put on the paw is going to stop it."
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