Why is my dog rubbing its face and licking its paws? Why is my dog scratching all the time?

Why is my dog rubbing its face and licking its paws?  Why is my dog scratching all the time?

Karen Helton Rhodes, DVM, DACVD (veterinary dermatologist)

Terri Bonenberger, DVM, DACVD (veterinary dermatologist)


These are common skin problems in the dog.  Itchy skin in the dog can be constant throughout the year or you may actually see just a seasonal flare.   Sometimes pet owners will attribute these behaviors to a habit or excessive grooming.  PROBABLY NOT.  Your pet is likely having an allergic reaction!


What are dogs allergic to??  What makes dogs itch?

Dogs can be allergic to the exact same things that you can.  Environmental (outdoor) allergens such as grasses, weeds, and trees tend to cause seasonal problems.  

Testing can help identify the offending allergen(s).   (www.HealthySkin4Dogs.com for more info on testing) Food allergies are also a problem in the dog but they are NOT as common as internet conversations would lead you to believe.  Yes, your dog can be allergic to food but the incidence rate of actual food allergy is much much lower than environmental allergies.  Food allergies would be a consideration in those dogs that scratch constantly all year round. 


The clinical signs or symptoms of a dog’s allergic reaction are quite variable.  There are, however, some typical and characteristic behaviors of dog allergy that will help confirm your suspicions that your dog might be suffering from allergies.  Remember, the symptoms of allergy in the dog are exactly the same for both environmental (indoor & outdoor) and food allergens.  The old saying that food allergy shows as “itchy ears and rears” is incorrect.  All allergy patients can exhibit those signs.

The 3 most common clinical signs of canine skin allergies are excessive paw licking, scooting (anal itching), and head shaking due to ear inflammation.

#1 Paw Licking is one of the most frustrating behaviors a pet-owner endures. A dog licking their paws is one of the most common signs of allergies. They are not just “cleaning” their paws, as you would expect from a cat! Nor are they chewing their nails from boredom! Licking and/or chewing the paws can be a feature of ALL types of allergy- both food allergy and environmental allergies. 

Worse during certain times during the day? Typically, allergy patients suffer most during the morning and evening hours and will exhibit excessive licking. Of course, this is when most pet-parents are home and trying to relax. Instead, you spend time trying to alleviate your dog’s discomfort. The slurping of paws in the middle of the night is always welcome!

Age of Onset: Allergies typically develop between the ages of 1-6 years of age and will often worsen with time. This is the opposite of what most people expect, as we tend to see lessening of our symptoms over time. We now know that dogs are similar to humans with eczema. Dogs absorb the allergens through their skin explaining why dogs’ feet are a common trouble spot. After all, dog feet come in contact with a lot of stuff! Once the allergens enter through the skin they elicit inflammation then resulting in itch (foot licking or chewing), redness & possibly secondary infection with yeast and/or bacteria.

Therapy Options: Treatment must involve controlling the itch (so the feet are not continually traumatized) and treating any secondary infections (bacteria and/or yeast) that may develop. While seasonal allergies may require less aggressive therapy, non- seasonal symptoms are often treated with a combination of medications and allergy testing/allergy vaccine therapy. For additional information, please check out our educational articles and recent video on this topic @ www.HealthySkin4Dogs.com.

#2 Scooting... so Embarrassing!!

Believe it or not, researchers have actually looked at this! An abstract presented at The North American Veterinary Dermatology Forum (NAVDF) in April 2014 addressed the underlying causes of dog scooting. The medical term for this is anal pruritus. In the study 250 “client-owned” dogs were evaluated. The researchers found that allergy (food allergy or atopic dermatitis-environmental) was the primary reason for dog scooting! In addition, the study found that food allergy was not more likely to be associated with dog scooting than atopic dermatitis (environmental allergy.) This finding debunked the myth that if your pet was primarily itchy in the anal region that you are likely to have a food allergy. Not true! Anal sac impactions and infections were also found to be an unlikely primary (sole) cause of persistent anal itching or scooting. Unfortunately, we often see patients in our dermatology offices that have undergone anal sac removal surgery in a failed attempt to resolve scooting. 

Chronic irritation of the skin can cause marked thickening and hyperpigmentation. The medical terminology is lichenification although the colloquial term is “elephant skin”. The thickened skin is a great environment for yeast and bacterial overgrowth. The yeast and bacterial organisms contribute to continued inflammation and pruritus and help perpetuate the problem. We suggest having your veterinarian evaluate your pet for allergies if you notice symptoms of discomfort in the anal region, especially if coupled with scratching/itching in other areas (ears, face, feet). There are a number of therapeutic options available to help control “scooting”. Food trials, allergy testing for environmental allergens, and numerous medications are well-recognized beneficial options.

#3 Why is my dog head-shaking & face-rubbing?? Ear infections!

Ear infections (otitis) will typically cause a dog or cat to shake their head and scratch at the ears. It is a common myth that only droopy-eared dogs get infections. Not true!

 We can see ear problems in all breeds of dogs. Ear infections affect approximately 20% of all dogs and are the most common symptom of allergy.

Aural Hematomas or blood clots of the ear-flaps (pinnae) can occur with trauma from violent head shaking. The pinnae will look thickened or swollen. Sometimes the blood can be extracted by syringe from the region but at other times surgical intervention is required.

Bacterial and yeast organisms readily colonize an inflamed “allergy ear”. It is that secondary infection that causes the horrible odor and discharge. The lining of an ear canal that has been damaged by an infection is more likely to be susceptible to repeat or recurrent infections. Contact your veterinary dermatologist for help in identifying the underlying problem, eliminating the current infection, and formulating a plan to prevent recurrence. 

Ear Cleaning:  Remember; avoid the use of cotton swabs since they can contribute to impaction of debris in the canal and cause damage to the eardrum. Dark brown discharge in the canals does not always mean ear mites are present. Normal earwax as well as some microbial infections can be dark brown or reddish color. Contact your veterinarian before a simple problem becomes serious. Some infections from the external canal can spread to the middle ear by passing through the tympanum (ear drum). In advanced stages of otitis, we can see infections involving the inner ear, which can then affect the pet’s balance, cause a head tilt, a droopy eyelid and lip. 

Chronic Ear Infections:  Ear Infections should not be ignored. Chronic or recurrent ear infections are serious medical problems. If left untreated, the canals can become proliferative (cauliflower appearance), stenotic (completely closed), and even mineralized (cartilage becomes bone). The ultimate disaster is the need for surgical removal of the ear, called a Total Ear Canal Ablation (TECA).