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Why your dog chews himself and 8 things you can do about it

Approx. 7 minutes read

Most dogs will engage in some kind of grooming behaviour like licking or nibbling on themselves – pawmarily because they don’t have opposable thumbs and can’t use a comb. However, licking, scratching and chewing themselves becomes problematic when it’s incessant to the point of causing your dog harm – where he chews himself until he develops a hotspot, infection or even bleeds.

Let’s take a look at why your furry friend chews on his skin, paws and tail, and how you can stop your dog from chewing on himself.

What does compulsive chewing look like in dogs?

Some dogs are driven to compulsively lick and chew on themselves. It could be on or near their tail, on their paws and legs or on their body in a spot they can reach with their mouth. A little nibble here and there is usually normal to relieve an itch or evict a parasite. But when your dog ends up mindlessly licking and biting himself to the point of self-harm or injury, it can become compulsive chewing, which is a problem that needs to be addressed.

What causes a dog to chew himself?

There are many reasons why a dog will nibble at or chew himself. These reasons may be medical (such as allergy or disease), genetic or emotional (such as a compulsive disorder), mental (such as boredom) or physical (a cut or thorn). What causes a dog to chew his hair off? It could be any of the following:

A cut, splinter or graze

When your pup feels uncomfortable – such as when he’s injured himself, got a thorn or splinter, or cut his skin – he may lick or bite the area as a way to self-soothe. If the thorn or splinter is still stuck in his skin, he may be trying to get it out so that he feels better. In his attempts to get to the offending object, he may even end up pulling some of his hair out.

Allergies

Environmental allergens like dust, grass, pollen and even some garden fertilisers may irritate your dog’s skin and cause him to itch. The condition caused by these allergens – which results in the irritation and itching – is called contact dermatitis. Food allergies may also cause your dog to scratch and chew on himself. At first he may scratch, but persistent exposure to the allergen will simply exacerbate the itch and start to drive him barking mad… or chewing mad! If you find yourself wondering Why is my dog gnawing on his leg?, it’s likely that the itch from the allergy has triggered a compulsion to chew just to relieve the itch and pain.

Dry skin and/or hypothyroidism

Perhaps your dog’s skin needs some moisture and his itch is caused by dry skin, which could be seasonal or genetic. If he’s being bathed too frequently, this can cause his skin to dry out. If he has a condition called hypothyroidism – in which he is underproducing thyroid hormones and overproducing cortisol – some of the many symptoms are dry skin, skin infections and potentially bald spots from chewing and licking his fur and skin.

Parasites

Ticks, fleas and mites can also be the pesky culprits in your dog’s chewing habit. When these ectoparasites bite your dog’s skin, they cause pain, which your pup may try to relieve by biting or chewing. Just like with skin allergies and infections, the biting itself may lead to further infection and irritation, and eventually cause a hotspot (acute moist dermatitis), which creates a cycle of pain, biting to soothe the pain, and a secondary infection – without your dog giving his skin a chance to heal.

Pain

Sometimes dogs bite themselves to self-soothe from pain that is impossible for them to express. Arthritis in the joints may cause your dog to lick and chew in the area on or around the joint to soothe the pain. Watch your pooch after he’s exercised – he may self-soothe from joint aches and pains.

Anxiety, boredom, frustration

If your dog experiences anxiety, stress or frustration, or is bored, under-exercised and over-stimulated because of too much pent-up energy with nowhere to go, he may chew on himself to the point of developing a self-inflicted wound. Without a physical cause, diagnosing his compulsive chewing and putting a stop to the behaviour may prove to be a lot more difficult compared to healing a physical disorder.

So that begs the next question:

How can I stop my dog from chewing himself?

Since there are so many possible causes for your dog chewing on himself, it’s important to get this behaviour diagnosed by a veterinarian. When you know why your dog is biting and chewing himself, the vet will be able to help you find a solution. The purpose of this is not to only stop your dog from chewing on himself, but to address the reason for him doing it in the first place.

Dress his wounds

If your dog is biting himself due to a splinter or an injury, allow the vet to examine his wound, address the cause of the physical injury and treat the wound. This may involve removing the splinter or other foreign body, applying an antiseptic spray or cream, then bandaging or dressing the wound to give it time to heal. Take care that your dog doesn’t continue trying to bite the dressed wound – he may need a cone of shame (or Elizabethan collar).

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Identify and treat your dog’s allergies

It can be tricky and time-consuming to identify the source of your dog’s allergies, since there are many common skin allergies in dogs. Whether caused by food allergies or environmental allergens, as soon as your dog has been treated for his allergies, the itchy skin should stop, which will remove the need for your dog to chew on himself.

Dry skin and/or hypothyroidism

Again, your vet will be able to diagnose and treat your dog’s possible hypothyroidism or other hormonal imbalances. When the itchy skin symptoms are removed, your dog should no longer need to bite, scratch and chew on himself. How can you soothe your dog’s itchy skin? Over and above the use of medication, skin-soothing shampoos and lotions for sensitive skin may provide your dog with relief to his persistent skin itch.

Parasites

Ticks and fleas are easy to see, but how can you tell if your dog has mites? Many of the same symptoms as dry skin would be present: dandruff, hair loss, redness of the skin, lots of scratching, and – if you look closely – you may be able to see the mites themselves! Ectoparasites that irritate dogs’ skin are quickly and easily treated with a range of solutions. From spot-on treatments, tablets and chews, to powders, collars and dips – there’s no need for your dog to experience ticks, fleas and mites at all.

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Pain relief

It’s crucial to get your vet to identify the source of your dog’s pain and to diagnose the condition – whether arthritis, hip dysplasia, or any other orthopaedic problem. With pain management such as medication, heat and/or an orthopaedic bed, your poor pooch will get the relief he needs, and the licking and chewing on and around his joints is likely to stop.

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Anxiety, boredom, frustration

Mental and emotional frustration, as well as physical under-stimulation are very often the culprits behind behavioural issues like barking, digging, chewing up objects and even marking indoors. Some dogs are more genetically prone to compulsive behaviours, but this is usually triggered by a lack of activity, especially for the working breeds with tons of energy to burn. To reduce these boredom behaviours, first start by implementing a routine so that your dog gets accustomed to when it’s time for feeding, exercise, playing and training. A tired dog – especially one who is also mentally satisfied from doing a good job and having his cognitive needs met through work (chasing, locating, fetching, herding, etc.) – is far less likely to chew destructively on himself. Know your dog breed so that you can meet his energy levels and exercise needs appropriately.

Socialise your dog consistently to raise his confidence levels around other dogs and people. This will reduce his stress and anxiety, giving him coping skills to face unknown situations – and thus no need to engage in chewing behaviour. This is especially impawtant for pups who had a traumatic start in life, were removed from their mother too early, or are otherwise anxious in general. Also, socialisation gives your dog the opportunity to engage in play with other dogs and, aside from improving his social skills, it will get rid of some of that pent-up energy.

Maintain a calm space for your dog. Anxious, frustrated dogs can be over-stimulated from a stressful environment. They need less exposure to boisterous children, other pets invading the nervous dog’s boundaries and loud noises. Your dog could also benefit from the use of a calming collar, diffuser, calming chews and other anti-stress products to keep his anxiety levels in check. These are the cherry on the cake while working on solutions like socialisation, training, self-confidence, etc.

Conclusion

A dog’s pawpensity to chew on himself can be because of a simple cause like ticks and fleas, or a complex cause like anxiety and a lack of self-confidence. Take the time to identify the cause, get your vet to diagnose the condition and provide a solution that will take away your dog’s need to scratch, bite and lick himself. If there is an emotional or behavioural element to his compulsive biting, it’s vital to take the time to resolve the issue so that you suppawt your furry friend’s physical, mental and emotional wellbeing – that’s what being a pet hero is all about!

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