Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
Your dog is essentially naked, and they don’t wear any shoes or socks. They also probably don’t bathe more than once every week or so — if that — to remove allergens and environmental chemicals that collect on their bodies. This is why I’m a firm believer in giving your dog regular foot baths to remove all the debris that will inevitably end up on their paws.
Pesticides, herbicides, ragweed, grasses, pollen, mold and dust mites are just some examples of what can easily accumulate on your dog’s paws, which can build up a surprisingly heavy allergen and chemical load. Allergens that collect on their feet can be extremely irritating to your dog’s paws, and a medicated foot bath can remove them.
It’s a simple, inexpensive and powerful intervention, but most veterinarians don’t recommend them, because it’s a little cumbersome for pet owners. Giving a pill is certainly easier than rinsing the irritants off your pup’s feet, but remember, when the pill wears off, the irritants are still there, annoying your dog.
By physically removing the source of the itch (all those irritating substances), you’re providing a nontoxic, common sense approach that may help you avoid having to use long prescription immune suppressants (a common way vets deal with seasonal allergies).
Topical therapy plays an important role in managing atopic dermatitis and contact dermatitis, yet it’s one of the most underutilized ways to provide relief.1 Many integrative vets, including myself, can vouch that during some high-allergen months, up to 50% of foot licking and chewing can be reduced by mechanically removing allergens or irritants on the paws via “irrigation therapy;” removing them with medicated water.
The only place dogs sweat from is the pads of their feet and their nose, so the paws can be a hotspot for accumulated irritants. A foot bath can remove debris, allergens and lower your pet’s chemical load.
How Often Do Dogs Need Foot Soaks?
If your dog has highly itchy feet, I recommend removing irritants from your dog’s paws each time they come in from outdoors, but even a daily foot soak will go a long way toward keeping your pet’s paws healthy. If your dog is frequently licking their paws seasonally, such as primarily during spring and summer, environmental allergies are a likely cause.
This is especially true if your dog licks all of her paws, between her toes and perhaps also her inner thighs and rear end. Licking only one foot is NOT a symptom of a seasonal allergic response, unless it’s a reaction from an insect bite. Licking one part of the body (as in acral lick dermatitis) should be investigated separately from seasonal allergy symptoms.
If your dog is allergic to or irritated by environmental chemicals and allergens, the more they collect on her paws, the itchier she’ll be — and the more licking that is likely to occur. A foot bath is an ideal solution to remove seasonal allergens from your dog’s paws.
A Washcloth Won’t Cut It
Wiping off your dog’s paws with a washcloth will not provide the same relief that an actual foot bath will, so you’ll need to use a basin of some sort. For larger dogs, a bucket works — plunking each paw into the medicated water one paw at a time — while smaller dogs can be given a foot bath right in your kitchen sink. It’s up to you how you do it — the key is to make sure each of your dog’s paws can be effectively soaked.
A bathtub is also an option, which can be used for any size dog. I have also used shallow plastic storage tubs and kiddy pools (outside by my back door), which are more convenient if your dogs go in and out a lot during the day.
You only need a few inches of water, enough to completely cover the pads on your dog’s feet. My favorite solution for foot baths is povidone iodine (brand name Betadine®), which is an organic iodine solution that’s naturally:
Safe and nontoxic
You can buy it in the pharmacy section of almost any drug store or big box store. The solution will be very dark in color. It does not burn if your pet has sores, abrasions or raw spots. It can temporarily dye light colored fur the color of the water (but this is usually the least of my client’s concerns when their dog is chewing their paws off).
Add povidone iodine enough to the water in your basin until it reaches an iced tea color once swished around. If the water is too light, you can add another splash of povidone iodine. If it’s too dark, you can to add more water to dilute the solution. I err on the side of the solution being darker tea color, rather than light. In a pinch, you can also use a solution of half water and half white vinegar until you can source betadine (which is also available online).
It Only Takes Two to Five Minutes
I recommend letting your dog stand in the foot soak solution for two to five minutes. You don’t even have to wash or scrub your dog’s paws, just let him stand there; talk to him, pet him or even sing to him. If your dog is nervous, offer a few healthy treats to calm his nerves. Lick mats, loaded with plain yogurt, canned pumpkin, raw ground meat or almond butter also work as a fantastic distraction during the soaking period.
After a few minutes, remove your dog from the tub (or the paw from the bucket) and pat it dry — there’s no need to rinse off the solution. If your dog has really red, swollen feet, aim for the full five minutes.
If you’re short on time, you can even keep a bucket with the solution near your door and soak a paw at a time when you come in from outdoors. You can keep the solution for a day or two, then change it out for a fresh solution. In most cases, regular foot baths will keep your dog’s paws feeling contaminant-free, so they will have less of a desire to lick them excessively.
When You Need More Than Foot Baths
Aside from allergens and irritants, paw licking can be due to pain, behavioral and psychological issues and demodectic and sarcoptic mange — issues that will require more than a foot bath to resolve.
Food allergies and food intolerances can also cause itchy paws, with your dog licking them excessively for relief. A yeast infection is also a common cause of intense itching in dogs, including the paws. If your dog’s feet smell like corn chips or “Frito feet,” yeast is likely to blame.
Regular foot baths are important to remove seasonal allergens, but even if your dog rarely licks her paws but you live in an area where yard chemicals, fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides are applied, they’re still highly recommended for reducing your dog’s body burden/chemical load. However, if your dog licks her paws often enough for you to take notice, a visit to your integrative veterinarian can help you get to the bottom of it.