- 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. More obvious causes are things like broken nails, dryness, burns, or foreign objects stuck in the paw or nail. Something like a rock stuck in your pup’s paw might be easy to spot, but figuring out if your dog has an infection or allergy may require a vet visit.
Common reasons dog bit and chew their nails
Environmental substances. Just like humans, dogs are frequently allergic to pollen, mold, dust, and grass. Also like humans, these allergies can be seasonal. But instead of coughing and sniffling, the primary symptom in dogs is skin itching. This is because the allergy causes atopic dermatitis (atopy), a condition that can affect the entire body or just a few areas — usually the feet, ears, face, and front legs.
The best way to treat an allergy is by eliminating exposure to the allergen. And while you may be able to eliminate dust and mold, some environmental and outdoor allergens are unavoidable, especially at certain times of the year. It’s also possible your pet could be suffering from food allergies.
The bottom line is that there are a ton of reasons your dog could experience allergic reactions. 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.
Food sensitivities. Proteins like eggs, soy, lamb, chicken, and beef are the most common offenders. Along with atopic dermatitis, your dog may experience vomiting, diarrhea, 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, which is tedious, but effective. Under a vet’s supervision, a novel protein or hydrolyzed protein diet is fed for 6 to 8 weeks. Nothing but the vet-approved food should be ingested — no treats, flavored medications, fish oils, or supplements. After that time, food is reintroduced and you can look for a reaction.
Bacterial or fungal infections. These are typically the result of another issue that’s gone untreated, such as a wound or constant chewing that’s broken the skin open. Bacteria or fungi enter the skin through the open sore and can cause swelling, redness, pus, and a foul odor. Paw infections can be painful for dogs, so they may limp or be wary of you getting close to it.
Bacterial infections are usually treated with antibiotics, while fungal infections require antifungal medication. Your dog’s chewing and licking at the infected area will likely increase the severity of the infection, so you should have a veterinarian examine the infection as soon as you notice the symptoms. Once treatment starts, regularly clean the area and help your dog avoid touching or walking on it.
Broken or overgrown nails
Overgrown nails can make walking painful for dogs, so they may try to bite away from the excess nail. They might also attempt to grind their nails down by scratching at the ground excessively. Nails of a healthy length should not curve back around toward the paw.
Nail breakage is one side effect of letting your dog’s nails get too long – overgrown nails splinter and break more easily. But injuries can happen for any reason, so check for a broken nail even if you regularly trim your dog’s nails.
If your dog is constantly losing and breaking multiple nails, it’s possible that they have symmetrical lupoid onychodystrophy (SLO). Dogs with this rare condition can lose all of their nails within a few months. The nails may grow back brittle and misshapen. Treatment usually consists of a combination of antibiotics and supplements.
Foreign object or puncture wound
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.
The important thing is to act quickly. Wounds can easily turn into infections if left alone. If you see a foreign object that looks easy to remove, like a thorn, you can use a clean pair of tweezers to extract it. You can then clean and bandage the area. The same goes for shallow puncture wounds– clean and bandage them. If the wound is deep or if you’re worried you haven’t removed all of the debris, you should seek help from your veterinarian.
In the days following treatment, watch the area closely for signs of infection. If the wound appears the same or worse in terms of swelling, redness, tenderness, or pus, it may be infected, which will require antibiotic treatment.
Dryness or burns
Just like human skin, paw pads are susceptible to drying, cracking and burning in extreme temperature conditions. Especially in the summer, asphalt and concrete can become far too hot for dogs to walk on, even when the weather is comfortable for you. A good rule of thumb 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 too hot for your dog to walk on.
Cold conditions can also pose a problem. 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.
Some dogs, however, are genetically more prone to paw injuries than others. 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 high-quality vegan balm
Paw Soother® by Natural Dog Company
A popular beeswax product
Musher’s Secret Natural Paw Wax
A great low-scent option
4-Legger Certified Organic Nose and Paw Pad Healing Balm
Interdigital cysts (furuncles)
Interdigital furuncles are easy to identify – they are 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 English 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 into the vet to make sure the bump isn’t malignant. Furuncles are notoriously tough to eradicate, but there are a few at-home remedies you can try. A combination of regular cleaning, Epsom salt soaks, and healing balms may heal the area.
👉 Read our guide to treating your dog’s interdigital cysts (furuncles) for a complete list of healing tips.
Arthritic pain may be one reason your dog licks their paws nonstop. Rather than sudden and acute symptoms, as with an injury, you’ll notice the paw-licking happen 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.
Arthritis is a natural part of aging, so there’s no cure. However, joint supplements can help. As dogs age, enzymes break down cartilage, which is the cushion-like tissue in between bones that protects your dog from painful bone-on-bone contact. For overweight or large dogs, this can happen sooner in life. Joint supplements work to slow down the process, reducing the speed at which enzymes wear down the cartilage.
👉 Check out our favorite veterinarian-approved joint supplements that can help relieve your pup’s aching joints.
Parasites or bug bites
Fleas, lice, and mites are all parasites that may take in interest in your furry companion and make them miserably itchy.
- Fleas usually leave behind small, black spots that look like black pepper, called flea dirt. You may also see clusters of small, red bumps around the base of the tail and lower back. Hair loss, especially around the lower back and base of the tail is also common. If you look carefully, you can see fleas with the naked eye. They’re dark brown and about the size of a poppy seed.
- Lice leave their mark in a similar way to fleas. Itchiness, hair loss, and dry skin are all symptoms of a lice infestation. However, lice are a bit bigger and tan in color.
- Mites come in various species, but Scabies (or Sarcoptes) 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
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. For help identifying the problem, read our guide to identifying bug bites on dogs. 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. As a coping mechanism, they may begin to obsessively groom themselves, including licking at their paws. In addition, they may uncontrollably shake, urinate, defecate, pant, or whine. Their behavior may become aggressive, lethargic, or restless. 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! The quickest way to eliminate this kind of anxiety is to reduce exposure. If that’s not possible or practical, you can try calming supplements, medication, or positive reinforcement techniques.
- Separation anxiety. Unfortunately, you probably can’t spend every waking moment with your pup. 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.
👉 Learn how you can soothe your dog’s anxiety with our favorite calming supplements for 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. Eliminating and preventing obsessive nail biting
- 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. On the other hand, excessive walking can painfully wear down paw pads. All of these conditions can lead to persistent nail-biting. When it comes to exercise, the key is balance, and that balance varies from dog to dog. Consult your veterinarian if you aren’t sure how much exercise your dog should be getting.
- 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.
- Avoid walking your dog on harsh terrain or in extreme weather conditions. Exposure to hot pavement, ice, or rocky terrain makes paws more prone to dryness and cracking. On warm days, do a touch test of the pavement before going on a walk– if it’s too hot for you, it’s too hot for your dog.
- 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.
Dog nail hygiene 101: tips, tricks and what to avoid
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.
Nail trimming basics
Overgrown nails are both painful and more prone to breakage and splintering. Healthy dog nails should point at the ground, not curl back inward toward the paw.
The material inside a dog’s nail is called the “quick” and is composed of blood vessels and nerves. The sensitive quick doesn’t extend for the full length of the nail, which is why we’re able to trim them without causing your pooch any pain. But trim too short and you’re likely to hear a yelp and see some blood. For dogs with light nails, you can easily see the quick through the outer shell. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to know exactly where the quick stops on dogs with black nails.
Don’t panic if you accidentally trim the nail too far. Though it may break your heart, a healthy dog will recover quickly from an over-trimmed nail. And with regular trimming the quick will actually recede over time, making the process less accident-prone. Though nail trimming may make you and your dog equally nervous, it’s not so bad with the proper tools and preparation.
🛠 Tools you’ll need for nail trimming:
- Nail trimmer. electric grinding tools and traditional guillotine clippers both work well.
- Styptic powder. stops bleeding when pressed into the nail. You can find this at any pet store. If you don’t have any on hand, cornstarch will work too.
👉 Pro-tip: if your dog is anxious, try having a second person comfort and distract them while you work. Treats and petting tend to be great distractors.
When to consider paying a groomer to trim your dog’s nails
If the process becomes nightmarish, there’s no shame in turning to a groomer. Of course, you want the experience to be as quick, painless, and anxiety-free for your dog. You might consider groomer intervention if:
- Your dog is extremely anxious. It’s difficult to cut the nails on an aggressive or restless dog. If you can’t get your dog to calm down or hold still, sedation may be necessary.
- You’re uncomfortable or not confident. It’s okay if you can’t bear the thought of accidentally cutting a nail too far. Groomers trim nails every day, so the odds of an accident are much lower.