Excessive Limb Licking in Dogs – Misdiagnosed as Allergies?

Allergies are becoming increasingly common in dogs.  It seems that every other person you speak to will profess their dog either has food allergies or allergic reactions to the environment e.g. grass or dust. The excessive licking and nibbling is stressful for both dog and owners, leaving owners feeling helpless to offer relief. Unfortunately veterinary medicine is often only able to treat the symptoms without actually addressing the core issue.

As an Animal Kinesiologist I began receiving an increasing amount of referrals from vets who had simply drawn a blank with regards to treatments for allergies. In all cases the dogs were not responding to medication for the symptoms and were now presenting frequently with secondary issues such as infections caused by the excessive licking. It had become a vicious cycle.

In as much as 90% of cases referred to me from vets, the spleen and thymus gland (immune system) appeared to be functioning normally and not ‘unbalanced’ in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) terms.  The problem therefore had to originate somewhere else in the body. My investigations found one common factor across all of the cases, namely tension, inflammation or spasming muscles along the spine. The muscles groups running the length of the spine all had points of irritation causing a pinching effect on the spinal nerves which extend laterally from the spinal chord.

Spinal Muscles

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Spinal Nerves

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Irritation of the spinal nerves due to muscle tension results in abnormal sensations being felt down the legs and feet.  These sensation changes may be experienced as numbness, pins and needles, or a sharp burning pain.  Dogs who licked or chewed their front feet all had irritation points in the neck and shoulder area. Similarly, dogs who licked their back feet had tension and irritation in the lumbar and sacral area (lower back and hips).

Symptoms

The dog may experience a variety of sensation changes in the limbs from tingling through to searing pain. If we, as humans, were to experience this, we would be rubbing our legs or scratching in an attempt to alleviate the discomfort.

Spinal Tension or Allergies?

Dogs deal with the sensation changes by licking or chewing the affected limbs. This excessive licking quickly leads to red and irritated skin, which can resemble an allergic skin reaction, hence the frequent misdiagnosis.

It must be an allergy as the symptoms increase after my dog has been walking on grass – right?

Not so. Again this is something I hear frequently. Symptoms can indeed get worse when the dog has been exercised in a grassed area, but this is because the exercise of the walk is aggravating the spinal muscle tension.  As with any muscle strain, exercise initially makes it feel better, but boy do you pay the price afterwards! It is during the rest period immediately after the walk that the spinal muscles begin to spasm, causing the sensation changes – thus the licking or nibbling begins. Too often we assume it is related to the grass or another allergen in the environment.

How Can I Tell the Difference?

One simple way to check the condition of the spinal muscles is to use your thumb and forefinger, one each side of the spinal vertebrae.  Starting from the above the shoulder blades, begin running your fingers down each side of the spine with a medium to firm pressure. As your fingers slide down, note any tension or inflammation.  You will often notice the muscles flinch or jump if you get to an area of pain.  Your dog may also sit or move to avoid pressure in a painful area.  All of these reactions will indicate muscle tension and may well be the root cause of the problem.

What Are The Treatment Options?

I treat the tension with Bowen Therapy which is a fascia release modality.  I then use the Emmett Technique to rebalance the muscles. This releases tension which improves blood flow, lymph drainage and reduces inflammation.  I then use Kinesiology to balance any emotional issues related to the tension.  The dogs show significant relief from the symptoms almost immediately. In chronic cases an optimum of three sessions is required to rebalance the muscles and eliminate the symptoms.

Causes of Tension

Tension in spinal muscles is very common, especially in the field of dog sports due to the exertion required.  Agility dogs jump and turn in a split second, not to mention impact shock absorbed from landing heavily. Poor conformation and referred pain from joint problems can also contribute. Improving fitness and using conditioning exercises can help prevent injuries.

Dogs presenting with ‘allergies’ now represent a large portion of visits to my clinic. Using a combination of Animal Kinesiology, Bowen Therapy and the Emmett Technique, I have fine tuned my approach to get fast, effective and lasting results. I always advocate using a holistic approach to wellness, bringing the body back to natural balance. Masking the symptoms of imbalance with medication may cause further problems further down the line.

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38 thoughts on “Excessive Limb Licking in Dogs – Misdiagnosed as Allergies?”

  1. I have just seen this article regarding paw licking and we feel we have reached the end of our search for our springer spaniel. She can hardly ever have a walk nowadays and is constantly being bandaged at the vets. Please can we talk? Regards sue brooket

  2. I would like to learn more. Our French bulldog licks constantly but has also had degenerated disc syndrome and four surgeries due to because of ruptures. Please any advice would be helpful

    1. Hi Melissa,

      It sounds like your French it’s linking may certainly be linked to its spinal problems. A good physical therapist such as a Bowen Therapist or Emmett Technique practitioner would be able to work on releasing tension along scar tissue and other points of restriction. These modalities are very gentle and will not cause pain or further damage to the vertebrae. I hope this helps. Xx

  3. this sounds exactly like my dog, however she has had extreme hair loss starting at her back hip area and tail would this be a symptom as well? she has been on allergy meds for 2 years now.

    1. Hi Suzanne. It may be another symptom of spinal muscle issues as lack of blood flow to the area can cause hair loss. I suggest trying the back palpation technique mentioned in my blog, and if you can see her muscles spasming then I would have it checked out by a Bowen Therapist or Emmett Technique Practitioner near you.

  4. My 11 yr old Golden Retriever has been treated all his life for ‘allergies’ indoor dust and grass pollen. He loves being massaged and has always suffered with unexplained ‘flare ups’ throughout the year which involve nibbling, licking, sore patches, pink rashes on underside and has been treated mainly with steroids to alleviate the vicious cycle. We did try ‘homeopathy’ but it didn’t have a lasting effect. Unfortunately, he has been recently diagnosed with bowl cancer – I have alaways thought his problems were diet related-and right now he’s enjoying fresh raw rabbit, cooked chicken and prescription diet food to try to help. If I had known sooner that all his symptoms could be muscle related we would’ve done things differently. He’s always wanted to be active (a working strain goldie) – I just hope others will read this and give the alternative a go.

    1. Hi. Thank you for reading my blog. Interestingly, one of the muscles associated with spinal stability and balance is linked, in traditional Chinese medicine, to the bowel. I suspect if there was an issue with his spinal muscles then this lack of energy flow has also compromised his bowel. The main acupoint also relating to the large intestine is on the dogs belly and I often see flare ups around this point when the bowel is struggling to cope. Give your Goldie a hug from me!

      1. Hi. My experience is that the flea treatments interfere with the whole nervous system and this shows up when muscle testing, but I have not seen it lead directly to limb licking as I describe in my article. Tight muscles pinching the nerves and restricting impulses and flood flow down the legs is what causes the sensation changes such as pins and needles. This is what the dogs are reacting to. The flea treatment certainly irritates the skin and it is often seen to be red and inflamed at the site of application. This can spread, but the irritation is at a skin level and would not cause tight muscles I don’t think.

        I hope this helps.

        Claire Oats
        Animal Energy Therapies

  5. Very interested in holistic treatment. Our rescue boxer mix, Cam, started gnawing on and furiously scratching his hips,shoulders and tail. Vet advised it was environmental allergies. Gave him a steroid shot, with a tapered pill regime. He also advised benadryl. After finishing the steroid pills he is still suffering, we are giving him benadryl twice a day. Does this sound like it could be muscular?

    1. Hi Mia. I suggest maybe trying the palpation technique down his back. If you see any of his muscles spasming then it is something I would have checked out by a Bowen Therapist or Emmett Technique Practitioner. It just seems very odd that an environmental allergy would only affect areas along his spine from shoulders to tail, therefore it is definitely something I would have checked out physically.

  6. I have a 6 year old female beagle who is a little overweight (55 lbs.) but she is a larger than average beagle (about 17 inches tall and long more like a basset hound) although her parents were average size purebred beagles! She seems to lick her back left paw which causes pink irritation between the pads and some times she limps on that back leg! I have had her to the vet numerous times and only get allergy pills and pain pills along with powder to put between her pads! It doesn’t seem as bad as it was a while ago but she still licks that one back paw! If you could give me a idea as to what to do! She is so sweet and I don’t want her to be uncomfortable! Thank you so much!!

    1. Hi Georgia. Your poor Beagle! The fact that she is a bit podgy and long in the back makes her very susceptible to back tension. It sounds to me as though the tension may be in her sacral ares which may be causing sensation changes down her back leg. I would question the allergy diagnosis as it seems highly unlikely that an allergy would only affect one leg and paw! I highly recommend some physical therapy and I am pretty sure that will fix her up no problem.

  7. My french bulldog has these symptoms as well. I spent a small fortune at the dermatologist on allergy testing and treatments. Then, by chance, he had an MRI and turns out he has a severe case of syringomyelia. This is a very common condition in the French bulldog breed, as well as other brachycephalic breeds like pugs and CKCS, yet often goes undiagnosed.

  8. I have 2 Westies. Millie and Hamish. 8 and 3
    Millie is constantly kicking her paws and her ears.
    Have taken her on many occasion to get as she gets ear infection as well. I’m told this transfers onto their feet. Keeping thinking it’s diet related or from wet grass or weeds. She also shakes her head slot and scratches at her ear. I even try and make sure the grass is mowed so as I believe the irritation could be caused by the weeds. I’m told also it can be an allergy to protein and I need to give Millie a specific dog food. She seems to have more issues during the night. I try so many things and it still happens. Hamish licks a little but nothing like Millie. I’m also told they become more susceptible to the allergic reaction as they get older. Please if you offer another solution I would be very grateful.
    Michelle

    1. Hi Michelle. I don’t think your westies problem is muscle related. I would think it is likely to be a dietary issue, most probably a yeast overgrowth in her system. You may want to research a wheat free natural diet. Allergic reactions very rarely only show up in ears, in fact this makes almost no sense. An environmental allergy would affect the skin closest to the allergen, not the skin hidden in the ears! I hope this helps. xx

  9. My Pomeranian is diabetic and with thst came excessive oaw licking. If he gets infections it is so hard to get it healed because of the diabetes. His vet ssys its allergies. I will check hus vack but any other suggestions?
    Thank you!

  10. Hi there. I’m so thankful I ran across this article! My little Lola girl is a Chihuahua Boston terrier mix. I do know that she suffers from Kentucky seasonal allergies. Her eyes get watery, sneezes, etc. it’s the same exact time as I go through it. Ha. However, she chews and licks at her feet and bum constantly. It recently got so bad that when I would run my hand down her back her skin would crawl. I took her to the vet and they said she had an infection. They gave her an antibiotic shot and a steroid shot and sent us home. She’s on grain and dye free food.

    I still feel like it’s something else. She’s not nearly as bad as it was a few weeks ago. So my question is: we live in the middle of no where Kentucky. We do not have access to any vets out side of general vets. Do you have any suggestions on types of therapies we can try at home?

    1. Hi Dee. It does sound like allergies in your dogs case, but have some work done to release tension in the spine is so beneficial for many reasons. It improves blood flow and improves nerve transmission down the spinal chord. It may even be possible that a pinched spinal nerve linked to the spleen is what is adding to her over active immune system (allergic response). If you don’t have any access to a body work practitioner then you can’t beat just a good old massage.Work from the top of her head down to the base of her tail. It will be very beneficial. I hope this helps.

  11. Have you seen dogs with chronic genital/anal licking? Our rescue Maltese is miserable! We adopted her 1 year ago & have tried Chinese herbs, laser therapy, chiropractic & acupuncture care with a holistic vet; several special diets; medications all with little to no effect.

    Thank you for your important work! If you have any ideas, we’d love to identify what’s going on with our fur baby!

    1. Hi Wendy. Thank you for reading my article. Whilst it may be a sacral spinal nerve issue affecting your dog, it would be very difficult to say without doing a kinesiology balance to pinpoint the root of the problem. If you would like to discuss this further please feel free to contact me directly at animalenergytherapies@gmail.com

      Kind regards

      Claire Oats
      Animal Energy Therapies

  12. My 5 year old boxer will stick his whole paw in his mouth and suck in it. It drives me crazy. I had noticed the muscles on his hips appear to be a little swollen some times. I guess I could start massaging his hips and maybe the would help with the paw sucking.

    1. Hi Anita. If his muscles look swollen at times then there is undoubtedly an underlying issue there. Foot sucking also falls under an obsessive compulsive behaviour and it may be worth looking at the emotional drive behind this behaviour using kinesiology. If you would like to explore an option to work on both then please feel free to contact me directly at animalenergytherapies@gmail.com

      Kind regards

      Claire Oats
      Animal Energy Therapies

  13. Our Golden Doodle, Jack, started picking one frobt paw tgen tge orher and now all 4 and rsbdomly jumps up and just digs and digs at himself. We have had him on grain fee food for his whole life with no improvement and have used all the meds the vet hivrs to no relief, only worsening . Could you please recommend at sowcialist near us!

  14. Could this be the same in cats? My cat has licked most of his hair off his back legs and some off the front. How much he licks and how often seems to come and go with no reason I can figure out

  15. I have a 6 month old puppy that gnaws on his limbs and sides of the spine incessantly. He has actually caused some hair thinning on his thigh. He goes to the Chiro regularly, has since he was 8 weeks old. Ruled out food allergies and since it began somewhat while snow was still on the ground we’re pretty sure it isn’t environmental. We’re stumped….🙁

    1. Hi Lori. I would have him checked by an animal physiotherapist or better yet, a Bowen or Emmett Technique practitioner. Kinesiology is derived from chiropractic work, but it addresses muscle tension and releasing it as a way of re-alingning the spine. As a kinesiologist I often work with chiropractors in cases where vertebrae adjustments just aren’t enough. It could also be problems with the energy meridians running down his back and legs. In that case my remote kinesiology sessions may be of interest. Link below.
      https://animalenergytherapies.com/2017/07/22/what-is-animal-kinesiology/

      Kind regards

      Claire Oats
      Animal Energy Therapies

  16. My 11 year old lab keeps licking his front legs, and has now started on the inside of his front legs. My vet has prescribed anti depressants, but prior to the medication being given, I would not think he was a stressed boy. Any ideas

    Regards

    Jan

    1. Hi Jan,

      I would question the use of anti-depressants and suggest he visits a practitioner who can check his muscles. It could easily be a trapped nerve. Saying that, it could be emotional, but you would want to resolve that emotion instead of covering up the symptoms with medication. Either way it is good to keep asking questions to find a resolution. I can offer remote connection kinesiology sessions to explore the root cause of the problem. Please see more info below.

      https://animalenergytherapies.com/2017/07/22/what-is-animal-kinesiology/

      I hope this helps.

      Claire Oats
      Animal Energy Therapies

  17. My staffie cross, is constantly gnawing at her limbs, tail and is always scratching her rear. She had a rash on her belly and now also has dandruff, would this be allergies or could it also be related to spinal nerve issue?

    1. Hi Ivete,

      This sounds to me like it could be a muscle problem. If muscles are tight then blood flow to the area is really restricted. Without blood and oxygen to nourish the skin it can become dry and the hair lacklustre. I don’t think an allergy would only affect the back half of her body – that sounds unlikely to me. I really recommend seeing a physical therapist who can check on your dogs muscles.

      Kind regards

      Claire Oats
      Animal Energy Therapies

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