From the time they give birth, mothers communicate with their new puppies by licking. They do this to stimulate breathing and to clean them when they are born. Dogs are therefore taught to lick right from an early age because it’s very important for their survival. That said, there are many other reasons why your dog licks you, herself or her other canine friends. The next time your dog starts licking, try to see if you can relate the habit to any one of the reasons given below.
Jump to Section
One of the most common reasons why a dog licks you is to show their gratitude, adoration and to seek attention as well. Some dogs will lick your nose and mouth as a form of greeting to let you know they’re there and don’t mind being petted. They’ll also lick your hands when you pat them or give them a treat to show their gratitude.
When your pup licks your lips it’s because they’re attracted to the taste and smell of food around this area. Dogs have a very fine-tuned sense of smell and can tell when you’ve eaten something even after wiping your mouth. It’s the same with your hands – they’ll lick them clean if there are traces of food or oil there. Another reason why they lick us is that they like the salty taste on our skin when we sweat and in some instances the taste of wax from our ears.
Dogs that spend time outdoors passing through thickets, undergrowth and splashing about in puddles pick up a lot of debris like pollen, thorns and grass seeds from the field. Being clean animals by nature they spend time cleaning up once they’re back home. You will often observe them licking their paws or licking one area over and over again – it’s their way of staying well-groomed and is perfectly natural behavior. Sometimes your dog will lick her genitals after voiding to clean the area.
When licking becomes excessive, this could be the sign of an allergic reaction. When your dog comes into contact with substances such as wool, dyes, metals, rubber or even plants this can cause itching and she may lick herself repeatedly to gain relief – this is termed as contact dermatitis. She may also suffer from atopic dermatitis – in reaction to something that she’s inhaled such as mold, pollen or dust mites.
If your dog is attracted to a particular scent she may lick over that area repeatedly. The scent of substances like dog shampoos, deodorizers or flea treatments triggers a dog’s olfactory senses causing the dog to lick the source of the scent. Licking is a dog’s way of exploring the source of the scent, which when done continuously becomes a pleasurable act in itself that turns into a cyclic habit.
Some dogs lick themselves out of boredom, which can be fairly harmless. This behavior is predominant among dogs that are more advanced in age – usually six years and over. Canines that are obese, or whose lifestyle is more sedentary are also prone to licking themselves excessively. If this habit goes unchecked it can lead to acral lick dermatitis, a condition whereby hair loss occurs around certain pressure points, especially the lower joints of the legs. Since licking is self-gratifying to your dog, she may continue with the habit to the point where sores develop on her body.
Licking of wounds is a primal response in many animals including cats, rodents and primates, and your dog is no exception. Saliva contains enzymes which promote blood clotting and kill off bacteria, aiding in preventing infection. For dogs which get into habitual licking, this compulsive behavior can lead to reopening of wounds leading to slower healing.
Abnormal licking can sometimes be a symptom of anxiety, much like the way some people bite their nails when they’re stressed. This could be due to a sudden change in the dog’s environment -for example, moving to a new home, separation anxiety, physical abuse, or your dog joining a new pack. If you notice that your dog licks an object repeatedly and that she does so whenever she’s nervous or scared, it may be time to get professional help for her. Although licking can be a healthy outlet for stress, obsessive licking may end up reinforcing these stress factors, making a problem even worse.
When your pup licks or nibbles on your nose, it’s not just an affectionate gesture. Puppies are trained to lick their mother’s mouths when they’re hungry, so if your pup does the same to you it’s likely she’s giving you the same signal. Sometimes they learn to lick and bite the tongues of adult dogs as a way of making them throw up their stomach contents for the pups to feed on. Over time this behavior becomes a greeting ritual for pups and subordinate dogs towards their caregiver.
Dog packs have a hierarchy where there are leaders and followers. The more subordinate members of a pack will lick the pack leaders during their interactions, especially when soliciting for resources like food or toys. They do this to get an invitation from their superiors to dine or play in a ritual that is very important in maintaining pack harmony. Dogs also look out for other members of the pack. Sometimes a dog can lick his canine pal’s muzzle because he has a wound or tumor that requires medical attention.
In the same way that dogs lick their dog pals to convey all messages like: “Can we be friends?” or “I’m hungry” or “I submit to you” they also do this with humans, even though we may not be able to interpret the message. Whenever your dog begins licking you intensely, try to find out if she’s in need of something. It could be that her food bowl is empty, or the doggie door is locked.
According to Dr. Karen Becker a wellness veterinarian, if your dog friend is obsessed with licking things, she might have a condition called “excessive licking of surfaces,” or ELS. She describes ELS as “a dog’s relentless, repetitive licking of floors, carpets, walls, furniture, his owner’s legs, hands, or arms, and even his own lips.” However, ELS does not apply in cases where dogs engage in self-licking, usually due to an itchy, irritated, or inflamed skin.
Dr. Becker cautions that ELS can result in a very serious intestinal blockage – sometimes requiring surgery – if your dog swallows enough hair or fibers from the objects he’s licking.
Dog experts warn that once the habit of excessive licking is established it can be very difficult to eradicate. Short-term fixes like bitter sprays and other over the counter remedies may not be the solution; in some cases, the dog quickly gets used to the bitter taste and the licking might even increase as the dog becomes keen to explore the source of the new scent.
One of the courses of action to take when you notice excessive licking behavior is to ensure your dog gets more exercise. Increasing the amount of time your dog spends outdoors and introducing lots of play and training into her daily workout can go a long way in reducing your dog’s licking habit.
Obese dogs can turn into couch potatoes and fall into the habit of licking out of sheer boredom. To combat this problem explore with your vet the best options to cut down your dog’s weight and improve her diet. Some dog experts recommend natural home prepared diets as opposed to processed pet food as the best method of in keeping your dog in good health.
You can also try channeling your dog’s energy towards a suitable toy that can be licked or chewed without exacerbating the problem. Getting your dog a chew toy, a comfort toy or a fetch toy like a frisbee may be just what is needed to keep her off destructive habits.
One of the other things you might want to do if your dog develops sores from excessive licking is to place a light bandage on the wound and use an Elizabethan collar (a cone around the neck) for a short period of time to keep your dog from licking, scratching or removing it. In severe cases, your vet may prescribe an antidepressant, although this should be restricted to the most severe cases when all other interventions have failed.
If your dog’s licking habit is out of control, a more sustainable solution is to get her examined by the vet to rule out any neurological disorders. If the problem isn’t a neurological one, consult a holistic vet and explore alternative treatments like acupuncture and massage to help her relax. Holistic treatments can also be helpful in treating GI disorders that may arise from a dog’s licking habits.
Another option is to try swimming or water therapy for dogs. This can help soothe your dog’s mind even as you work on her obsessive licking behavior.
Your own behavior towards your dog should cause you to pose and reflect. Could you be an enabler of your dog’s excessive licking habits? Dr. Patty Khuly a practicing vet says that dogs incorporate licking more and more into their daily behavior when they learn that licking their owners gets them more attention. If you’ve been condoning your pup’s attention-seeking antics, then you need to quit this habit and only give her attention when she’s calm and submissive.
According to PetMd the mouth and the intestines of pets can harbor bacteria and parasites that can be passed on to humans and create various medical conditions in humans. These complications which are caused by parasites can result in intestinal disease, skin problems, blindness, and brain disorders. Most of the time you may not be able to tell that your dog is harboring parasites as they live with them in their intestines without exhibiting signs of illness. The eggs of these parasites are passed on to the pet’s feces and can infect humans during facial licking.
When not writing about himself in the third person, Andy spends much of his time walking his dog Mr Wox, aka Soxy Woxy. A leading authority on dog-related topics, Andy is highly respected, deeply appreciated and widely admired.