Dogs attacking their own feet is just the kind of thing that makes it in funniest animal videos. If you have observed your dog biting his feet, you probably haven’t thought much about it and have even dismissed it as just another quirk. But is this behavior funny at all? According to vets and animal neurologists, when your dog attacks his feet, this is not merely a quirk nor is it funny. It is a serious condition which could be caused by physical, neurological, or psychological reasons and should therefore be taken seriously. Discussed in detail below are some opinions from dog experts about why dogs bite their own feet and what you can do about it if your dog behaves this way.
The Root of the Behavior
When dogs attack their feet, they seem to do so for no apparent reason. One moment your dog could be lying peacefully then suddenly he attacks his own legs or paws, pulling and tugging at them as though he doesn’t know they are attached to him. Involuntary twitching in the legs may also occur, which Dr. Curtis Dewey, a professor of neurology in Veterinary Medicine, cautions could be indicative of a focal seizure. Seizures cause the brain’s neurons to misfire, triggering involuntary movements or twitching. As the frequency of the seizures increases, the twitching movement will continue and appear as though your dog is fighting his feet. According to Dr. Sophia Yin, since the involuntary movements are not in your dog’s control, he will lunge at his legs to make them stop.
Dr. Yin also maintains that this reaction is the same as that observed in animals such as cats when they attack their own body parts if foreign objects are stuck on them. She says for example that if a cat has a cast, he will attack his own leg to get it off. This also brings another angle raised by Dr. Dewy, who suggests that discomfort or a painful sensation may cause your dog to lunge at his legs or paws if he has cut his paw or has something lodged in his foot. As well, if the nerves originating from your dog’s spine are impacted, he may experience jolts of pain which will trigger sudden movements, yelps and biting.
Animal experts also diagnose this behavior based on when it seems to occur. For example, Chris Bern, a Veterinarian from Georgia, says that a dog that attacks his legs during mealtime is most likely exhibiting symptoms of food protectiveness. For such a dog, anything in his field of vision, including his legs, is seen as an enemy that wants to take away his food. Food protectiveness can be dangerous because it results in aggressive behavior such as biting people and other pets.
Encouraging the Behavior
No matter how amusing it is to watch your dog attack his legs or feet repeatedly, you should not encourage the behavior. You also shouldn’t ignore it just because he is not hurting himself or others. His vet should examine him in order to rule out obvious causes such as injuries to the legs, paws, and back. If foreign objects are found to be the cause, they can simply be extracted and treated with mild painkillers. If the source of the pain is related to the nerves or is caused by a deep cut, the vet will commence a treatment regimen of painkillers. If the cause is neurological, treatment with anticonvulsants will control the focal seizures.
Additionally, you should seek behavioral therapy if a vet determines that the behavior is related to food guarding. The fact that your dog attacks his own legs just to guard his food means that his anxiety levels are so high that he doesn’t even differentiate his own body parts from a real enemy. Veterinarian Chris Bern also recommends doing the following to minimize the likelihood of injury to other pets and people by a dog that has food guarding behavior: One, do not allow him to come into possession of things he likes to guard. Two, when you give him food, ensure the portions are bite-sized. Big portions will encourage guarding while he will finish small portions quickly. Three, keep him off your furniture in order to assert your dominance. Four, let him work for everything. That is, only give him treats and toys when he obeys commands as this reinforces your authority.
Other Solutions and Considerations
According to animal behaviorist Michelle Callard-Stone, the possibility of dogs attacking their own feet as part of attention-seeking behavior should not be ignored. She says that if physical and psychological tests yield nothing conclusive, it is highly likely that your dog wants your attention or is eliciting a response from you. If you laugh, look amused, pet your dog, or give him treat every time he attacks his legs, he may have come to associate this behavior with these rewards. The only way to stop the behavior is to sever the connection with the expected reward. So the next time he attacks his own feet, instead of rewarding him, ignore him and walk out of the room. Eventually, he will stop when he realizes that the behavior is no longer amusing you and that he gets nothing out of it.
Most dog behaviors will never make sense to you and some may even be contrary to what you expect. It’s best to always bear this in mind, otherwise you will dismiss your dog’s reactions even when he is in danger. Now that you know your dog is not trying to be funny by attacking his feet, you should take appropriate steps to get him the treatment he needs.
By a Golden Retriever lover Maryanne Gaitho
Published: 04/13/2018, edited: 01/30/2020