Why Do Dogs Lick?

When your dog licks you, do you think, “aw, sweet,” or “ew, gross!”? Whether they love the slobbery affection or prefer a dry snuggle, most pet parents are familiar with the phenomenon of enthusiastic licking. So, why do our dogs lick so much? And why does it sometimes seem as if dogs never want to stop licking?

We asked veterinarian Dr. Karla Frazier for the reasons why dogs lick us—and themselves. Dog licking falls into two overall categories: behavioral and medical. Sometimes reasons for licking constitute perfectly normal behavior, while others do not. Here’s some insight as to when you should seek additional consult or medical care.

Dog licks girl’s face – Why do dogs lick?
Flickr/Mikey Tapscott

Why Dogs Lick Humans

Behavioral causes of licking stem from the fact that dogs are pack animals. and interact with each other by nature. Licking can express:

Communication, as in the case of a mother dog and her pups
Submission from one dog to another
Adoration, as when one dog licks or “grooms” another’s face/ears
Some pets transfer these behaviors to their owners, and treat us as they would their fellow dogs—hence, all the slobber.

Besides these three main reasons, don’t forget, our salty skin can simply taste good to dogs, especially after a sweaty workout.

Why Dogs Lick Themselves

It only takes one flea for a flea-allergic pet to be licking like there is no tomorrow.

Medically speaking, skin lesions are the most common culprits behind excessive licking. Other causes that necessitate medical intervention:

Wounds: Dogs lick their wounds by nature. However, this can cause secondary damage in the form of additional inflammation, which can lead to infection. Wounds are treated based on their severity, often times requiring collars that prevent further licking of the area.
Fleas: Don’t underestimate these pests! Exposure to fleas causes itchiness that leads to licking and chewing. If your pet is licking over their tail base (where the tail joins the body), especially to the point of hair thinning or hair loss, they are likely to be allergic to fleas. Do yourself a favor and administer superior quality flea control to your pet every month of the year. It only takes one flea for a flea-allergic pet to be licking like there is no tomorrow.
Environmental allergies: Allergic pets will lick due to itchiness. Paws, armpit areas, flanks, and groin are the major areas of licking in this case. Often these are seasonal in nature. Seek medical attention for undue licking, especially if the skin is red or irritation.
Dermatitis: A dog’s skin can be inflamed for a host of other reasons as well: mites, hormonal disease, food allergies, auto-immune diseases, non-allergy irritation, “hot spots,” and others. A good rule of thumb is to have your pet examined if their skin appears red/irritated, or if they are showing hair thinning or hair loss.
Other: Though skin disease comprises the lion’s share of causes for licking, here are some unrelated (and uncommon) causes: pica (licking or eating non-food items; often a sign of GI disease), seizure-type behavior (incessant licking at the air or smacking of the lips), and pain (licking at an area of a specific joint).
Bottom line: If it is an unusual behavior for your pet, have it checked out.


Staying Clean or Getting Anxious?

If it’s not medical, then what are some other reasons that dogs lick themselves? Dog are overall clean animals, and will often “clean up” after being outside, including paw licking. They also groom the genital area after voiding.

Some dogs will lick themselves out of boredom, which tends to be a benign behavior. However, abnormal licking can stem from anxiety and other obsessive behaviors.

Remember that our pets are individuals who react to the world differently. If your pet is obsessively licking and/or seems anxious, it’s time to seek professional advice to address the underlying problem.

Dog licking has many root causes. As an owner, it’s your responsibility to try to determine whether your pet’s licking is normal. and when professional help is needed. Watch your dog’s signs and body language to figure out what they’re trying to tell you!

Dr. Karla Frazier is a veterinarian serving the areas of Clemmons, Mocksville, and Advance in North Carolina. She is a graduate of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. She opened Hillsdale Animal Hospital in 2000.

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