Dogs like licking. They enjoy licking themselves, people and objects. But sometimes a dog licking constantly is their way of telling us that something is bothering them.
HOW TO SPOT IT: Why do dogs lick?
For a dog, licking is a form of communication. “Dogs use body language and gestures such as licking to convey information about their feelings and intent,” says Ruth Hegarty, M.S.E., certified dog trainer and behavior consultant. “Dogs licking each other usually have an affectionate intent. It can be a form of grooming which they will do with dogs they feel close to.”
Dog moms will lick their newly born puppies to clean them and to get them to begin breathing. Puppies may lick their mom to get her to regurgitate food. In other cases, some dogs will lick their own faces to appease another dog, essentially saying “I’m not a threat.” While dog licking behaviors are necessary and natural amongst the pack, it can become excessive and a sign of anxiety in some domestic dogs.
Being bored, stressed, in pain or itchy may cause dogs to excessively lick. “If a dog is obsessively licking a spot on their body it can be a sign of discomfort, such as itching or pain,” says Ruth. “This behavior can also include biting at the area as well as licking.”
She suggests a veterinarian be consulted in these cases. Other potential signals of pain and itching may include licking of the paws. Paw-licking may indicate a range of potential medical conditions, including allergies, a wound or even a form of neuropathy.
If painful or itchy conditions are ruled out, or your dog is licking something else (like you, the carpet, blankets or other surfaces), it could be boredom or anxiety. Changes in a routine or separation can trigger anxious licking and may take some professional help to address. However, sometimes small adjustments to your dog’s environment can help.
“Take a look at how [your dog] spends their day,” suggests Ruth. “Is your dog getting enough exercise? Mental stimulation?” She suggests adding in an extra walk or play session, considering ways to offer more mental stimulation or even taking a class together to keep your dog’s brain active.
THINGS TO CONSIDER: Could this be compulsive?
For extreme licking, a compulsive disorder may be a consideration. “A behavior that is difficult to interrupt may be more likely to be caused by a medical condition that causes distress than is a behavior that is easily interrupted,” writes Valarie V. Tynes, DVM, DACVB over at DVM360.
If your dog is interrupted from licking, she suggests you consider how long it takes them to return to the behavior again. “A dog that immediately returns to licking after a brief interruption may be in physiologic distress or demonstrating a compulsive disorder.”
Talking to your vet and/or dog behavior consultant will help you start to figure out what is happening. To prepare for that conversation, you’ll want to start documenting behavior. Dr. Tynes suggests thinking back to when the problem first began and any changes that may have happened around that time. You’ll also want to start recording when and for how long your dog licks, and their reaction if you try to stop the licking.
FIRST STEPS TO TAKE: Understanding why your dog is licking
There’s a fine line between an affectionate kiss-lick and constant licking of pillows, blankets, your feet and anything else they want to lick! Dogs can be telling you a whole host of things with their licking behavior and the first step is trying to understand what that may be:
I’m in pain. Anything a little different in your dog’s mouth could make them lick or drool. Pain in a joint, skin infection or nerve issues could trigger licking, too.
I’m itchy. A bug bite or allergies can create itchy skin for a dog, which they may deal with by licking instead of scratching in some cases. However, beware that a simple itch might become something more insidious in some dogs. Known as hot spots, dogs have a tendency to lick some spots raw in reaction to something small and itchy—like a scab or bug bite. Other dogs might chew or lick at their tails and hind-quarters when their anal glands are impacted.
My tummy hurts. A study done at the University of Montreal Veterinary Teaching Hospital examined dogs who excessively licked. Of the 19 dogs studied, 14 had gastrointestinal abnormalities identified by an exam, and treating the GI conditions resulted in decreased licking in many cases.
I’m hungry or thirsty. Licking an empty food bowl or lips could indicate your pup is ready for their next meal or a cool sip of water.
My feet feel weird. Peter Dobias is a veterinarian that takes a holistic approach to taking care of animals. In his 2014 article in the Innovative Veterinary Care Journal, he took a closer look at paw lickers. Though paw licking has often been written off as allergies, it didn’t seem to be the case for all dogs. Allergies or not, they still licked.
“I started to look closer at the patterns I was seeing, and began examining the neck and spine for discomfort, muscle spasm, inflammation and tightness,” Dr. Dobias writes. He discovered that front paw lickers tend to have discomfort in their neck while back paw lickers have issues in their lumbar spine.
I’m getting older. Older dogs may develop cognitive dysfunction, a condition associated with many repetitive behaviors, including licking. According to DVM360, “Dogs with cognitive dysfunction may display a variety of repetitive behaviors. But if the excessive licking behavior is a result of cognitive dysfunction, then treatment will be different than it is in dogs without cognitive impairment.”
I’m feeling compelled. As discussed above, some dogs will develop a compulsion to lick.
If you’re not sure what’s causing your dog’s licking, or if it becomes constant, it’s probably best to get to the root of it before it becomes a habit and more difficult to stop.
HOW TO GET HELP: Questions to ask veterinary and behavior professionals
If your dog is licking more than normal, your first step is to contact your veterinarian. Constant licking can be a sign of an underlying medical issue that you’ll want to rule out BEFORE consulting a behavior professional. If you’ve begun recording the licking instances, bring your log with you to have a more detailed conversation.
Things you might ask are:
- My dog is constantly licking [body part or object]. Is there a medical issue that could be causing this?
- Along with licking, I’ve also noticed that my dog is [name any new behaviors you’ve noticed]. Could these be related?
Help! My Dog Licks Everything from DVM360
Excessive Paw Licking in Dogs – It May Not Be Allergies from Innovative Veterinary Care