- Reasons for persistent nail-biting can vary greatly — A few common causes are allergies, broken nails, infections, wounds, parasites, and anxiety.
- Don’t wait to call the vet — Seek veterinarian help immediately if your dog is unable to walk, bleeding heavily or if the area is very swollen or oozing pus.
- Proper paw hygiene is important — Proper nail maintenance and hygiene can prevent many causes of obsessive nail-biting of the nail bed and other destructive behavior.
Why do dogs bite their nails?
Dogs bite their nails for a number of different reasons. One common reason is due to irritation from allergens like pollen, mold, dust, and grass that make their paws and nails itchy. Another is food sensitivity to typical proteins like eggs, soy, lamb, chicken, or beef, which can cause dogs to become itchy and bite their nails. Your dog could also have a bacterial or fungal infection causing them to scratch and bite.
Getting to the bottom of your dog’s discomfort is important to their mental and physical health. Speaking with your vet is the first step to choosing a proper route of care for your furry friend.
Dogs are frequently allergic to pollen, mold, dust, and grass, much like humans. These allergies can be year-round or seasonal. The difference? Instead of coughing and sniffling, the primary symptom in dogs is skin itching (which can be shown by paw licking or frequent scratching). This is because allergies can cause atopic dermatitis (atopy), a condition that can affect the entire body or just a few areas — like the feet, ears, face, and front legs.
The best way to treat an allergy is by eliminating exposure to the allergen. However, if you’ve tried a lifestyle or diet change to no avail, consider asking your veterinarian for allergy medication — or whether your dog could benefit from an aller-immune supplement for dogs.
👉 Believe it or not, human-grade Benadryl is safe for dogs when it’s used properly. Learn how to treat your dog’s allergy symptoms in our guide to giving your dog Benadryl for allergies.
Intolerances and sensitivities can cause similar symptoms in your pet, even if they’re not dealing with a full-blown allergy. Proteins like eggs, soy, lamb, chicken, and beef are the most common offenders. Along with atopic dermatitis, your dog may experience GI upset and ear infections as a reaction to certain foods.
Changing your dog’s diet every few weeks is not an effective way to diagnose an allergy. The only way to test for a food allergy is a food elimination trial.
In this trial, a novel protein or hydrolyzed protein diet is fed for 6 to 8 weeks under veterinary supervision. Nothing but vet-approved food should be ingested — no treats, flavored medications, fish oils, or supplements. After that time, food can be reintroduced and you can begin to look for a reaction.
Bacteria can be the result of another issue that’s gone untreated, such as a wound. Bacteria or fungi enter the skin through the open sore and can cause swelling, redness, pus, and a foul odor.
Bacterial infections are usually treated with antibiotics, while fungal infections require antifungal medication. Once treatment starts, regularly clean the area and help your dog avoid touching or walking on it.
Broken or overgrown nails
Nails of a healthy length should not curve back around toward the paw. Overgrown nails can make walking painful for dogs, so they may try to bite the excess nail. They might also attempt to grind their nails down by scratching at the ground excessively. This can lead to nail breakage or further irritation, which can bring on infection. Talk with your vet if you notice any redness, swelling, or pain that is accompanied by your dog biting and pulling.
Foreign object or puncture wound
If your dog is dealing with a puncture wound or foreign object, symptoms are usually limited to the paw area — your dog may limp and lick the affected paw, which may bleed or appear swollen and red. They may also be hesitant to let you examine the wound.
If you suspect that your pet has a foreign object or puncture wound, it’s important to act quickly. Wounds can easily turn into infections if left alone. Your vet can help you assess, clean, and bandage the wound quickly, limiting your pet’s risk of anything else developing.
Dryness or burns
Paw pads are susceptible to drying, cracking, and burning in extreme temperature conditions. Asphalt and concrete can become far too hot for dogs to walk on (especially in the summer) — even when the weather is comfortable for you.
A good rule of thumb to gauge the heat is to place the back of your hand on the ground. If it’s too hot to hold your hand there for 5-10 seconds, it’s probably too hot for your dog to walk on.
Cold conditions can also cause problems. In addition to potential sensitivities to salted roads, dogs can be more susceptible to cuts when walking on hard, icy terrain. In general, it’s best to avoid extreme weather conditions or invest in some dog shoes.
Whether you live somewhere with extreme weather or your pup just has sensitive paws, paw balms and waxes can prevent and heal dry, cracked paws by moisturizing and creating a protective barrier. Here are a couple of our favorite products:
A dual-purpose option
4-Legger Nose & Paws Healing Balm
Interdigital cysts (furuncles)
Interdigital cysts are easy to identify — they’re red, fleshy bumps that appear between dogs’ toes. These cyst-like growths are most common in dogs with short hair and prominent toe-webbing, like the American bulldog and labrador retriever.
Interdigital furuncles are usually the result of an infection, sometimes due to an ingrown hair or even mites. While surgery is not usually required, you should take your dog to the vet to make sure the bump isn’t malignant. A combination of regular cleaning, Epsom salt soaks, and healing balms may heal the area.
Arthritic pain may be one reason your dog licks their paws nonstop. In this case, rather than sudden and acute symptoms (as with an injury), you’ll notice the paw-licking happens slowly as your dog ages. If your dog is older and you’re not able to see anything unusual in the area (swelling, redness, nail breakage, etc.), sore joints may be the culprit. Joint supplements can help if arthritis is the cause of your dog’s biting and pulling.
Parasites or bug bites
Fleas, lice, and mites are all parasites that may take interest in your furry companion and make them miserably itchy. Here’s a quick reference guide to the possible range of symptoms and fixes with each:
- Flea infestations. These cause clusters of red bumps on your pet’s skin, often with red halos around them. You might also notice small, black spots that look like pepper — which can either be “flea dirt” or fleas themselves. You can treat fleas with vet-recommended medications.
- Mites. Mites come in various species, but scabies (or sarcoptic mange) is the variety that causes excessive itching. Mites cannot be seen with the naked eye, so your veterinarian will have to view a skin sample under a microscope to provide a diagnosis and treatment plan.
- Parasites (like lice). You can check for parasites by combing through and closely examining your dog’s fur, but it may be difficult to identify exactly what kind of parasite has set up camp on your dog. Parasites usually don’t go away on their own, so it’s best to seek help from a veterinarian, who can prescribe medication to help.
Anxiety or mental distress
Excessive nail chewing can also be a sign of psychological unrest for dogs. They may begin to obsessively groom themselves as a coping mechanism to deal with stress or mental strains. They might also uncontrollably shake, urinate, defecate, pant, or whine.
Your pup can experience mental distress for a number of reasons:
- Overstimulation or fear. Think of your dog like a small child. The doctor’s office, loud noises, strangers, and new places can be scary for them! The quickest way to eliminate this kind of anxiety is to reduce exposure, building it back up as your dog can tolerate it. If that’s not possible or practical, you can try calming supplements, medication, or positive reinforcement techniques.
- Separation anxiety. Dogs with separation anxiety will experience great stress when left alone. Usually, this applies to separation from the owner, but dogs can also have a great attachment to their animal friends, too. Leaving music on or having a friend stop by while you’re gone may help.
- Boredom or loneliness. Dogs who don’t get enough exercise or engagement from their owners may exhibit anxiety-like symptoms. Regular walks or jogs, games of fetch, and cuddle time can be game-changers for your dog’s disposition, especially if you have a working breed.
Preventing nail biting in dogs
Most underlying causes of persistent nail-biting require some owner intervention in order to heal, so it’s best to address the problem as soon as possible. If left untreated, you risk infection, worsening symptoms, and more discomfort for your dog.
Here are some helpful steps to get you started:
Regularly check your dog’s paws, body, and behavior for warning signs — Excessive biting can break the skin and cause infection, so catching symptoms early is always best. The unpleasant sound of persistent biting, chewing, and licking should be the first clue that you need to investigate further. A healthy paw will be smooth, clean, and free of debris or open sores. Does the area look red, swollen, bloody, or infected? What other body parts have an unusual appearance? You should also be sensitive to changes in your pup’s behavior.
Ensure your dog is getting the proper amount of exercise — While lack of exercise can cause nails to become overgrown quickly, it can also take a toll on your pup’s mental health, causing boredom and anxiety-like symptoms. Exercise can be a great way to combat this. Connect with your vet for a personalized pet exercise routine.
Clean your dog’s paws after going outside — Environmental irritants like road ice, fertilizers, debris, and allergens can be harmful if left on your dog’s skin. If you make a habit of brushing away debris with a dry washcloth after walks, you’ll reduce the chance of irritation.
Use a paw balm — Paw balms work by moisturizing and creating a protective barrier between the paw and the ground. If you live somewhere that gets very hot or very cold, or if your dog’s paws are prone to dryness, a paw balm is great for prevention and healing. Read our full guide to the best paw balms for dogs.
Consult a veterinarian if you’re concerned — In fact, many causes of persistent nail-biting will require prescription medication. If you’re not confident that you’ve identified the problem or that you’re able to fix it, you should always take your dog to your veterinarian.
Trim your dog’s nails regularly — The best way to manage excessive nail-biting and chewing is to prevent it from happening. Regular cleaning and trimming will greatly reduce the chance of painful, broken nails.
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Frequently asked questions
When to consider paying a groomer to trim your dog’s nails?
Consider groomer intervention if your dog is extremely anxious, aggressive, or restless. You should also consider help if you don’t feel fully comfortable or confident in your skills, as this alone can make your pup more difficult to work with.
Can dogs trim their own nails?
Yes, they can trim their own nails — but even dogs with well-kept natural nails will still need an actual cut from time to time. Natural grinding that happens on sidewalks and other hard surfaces usually isn’t enough to keep nail growth in check, especially for older dogs — and can still lead to paw injury without proper care.
Why is my dog obsessed with biting toes?
Your dog probably isn’t obsessed with their toes — they are probably taking out mental stress on their feet through excessive biting and tugging. Other triggers of constant biting can include fleas, mites, food intolerances, and yeast infections.
What happens if you don’t trim your pet’s nails?
Without regular trims, your pet’s nails can grow back into their paw pad — causing extreme discomfort and a heightened possibility of toenail injuries and infection. Long nails can also lead to long-term posture issues and strain on the sensitive ligaments and joints in your pet’s feet.