You get home from work and are greeted with doggy kisses. You wake up in the morning to the same thing. Your dog licks you as often and as much as you allow. Did you ever wonder why?
The main reason your dog licks is that it comes naturally to him. One of his first experiences was being licked by his mother to assist his breathing, to clean him, and to prompt nursing. Dogs explore their world with their mouths and licking is part of that experience literally from the day they are born.
Licking is a natural instinct but it is also a learned behavior. If your dog receives attention from you (good or bad) every time he licks, he will continue the habit.
In this article, we are going to look at the reasons behind your dog’s licking-
- Behavioral Reasons
- Medical Reasons
- Why does he lick…?
- How do I get him to stop?
A basic definition of behavior is the way in which an animal or person acts in response to a particular situation or stimulus. Dogs lick for many behavioral reasons. We will look at several of them here.
Dogs lick for affection. This is actually the main reason your dog licks you. You are the one who takes care of him. You mean everything to your dog. He wants to show you affection, and he does this through licking.
Licking releases endorphins inside your dog. An endorphin is a hormone that is naturally released by the brain in order to reduce pain. Endorphins help block the pain signals that go through the nervous system to the brain. For many, they also seem to produce a feeling of euphoria similar to the feeling caused by opioids. When your dog licks you it releases endorphins into his system that calm and comfort him.
He wants to show you love, and he thinks that you will enjoy being licked just like he does. Sometimes he may even lick you to try to cheer you up if he senses you are sick or sad.
Sometimes your dog will lick you to get you to pay attention to him. He wants you to pet him so he licks your hand. You then pet him so he will stop licking. He then associates licking with getting pet and will lick you everytime he wants you to pet him, which is almost all the time, right?
He may also lick you to let you know he is hungry or wants to play. Basically anytime he thinks he needs something or feels ignored he will try to get your attention through licking.
Your dog can’t talk to you so he has to find other ways to let you know what’s on his mind. His mother licked him when he was a puppy to induce nursing. This was one of the ways she communicated with him. He then licked her and his siblings to let them know certain things- “I’m hungry”, “Let’s play”, etc.
Dogs also learn to lick each other to show submission. In packs, wild dogs will lick the alpha dog for permission to share in the food. They will also lick to show respect. This natural instinct is also in your dog.
We look for sounds and body language to communicate so we tend to pay attention to barking and how our dog moves. They use licking to communicate too. If your dog is earnestly licking you take a look around and see if he needs anything. He may be telling you his bowl is empty or he needs to go outside. The more time you spend with your dog the more you’ll be able to understand his signals.
Sensory Tool/ Exploration
Your dog doesn’t have hands to touch with so he often uses his tongue to feel. For your dog licking is touching. Tongues have millions of sensory cells so your dog can feel a lot through licking. This helps him to explore places and identify people. He uses it to gather information about his surroundings and the people and other animals around him.
As mentioned earlier in this article, one of the first experiences a puppy has is his mother grooming him with her tongue. Dogs groom themselves just like cats do. They will also groom each other to show submission. Sometimes your dog will even groom you.
Occasionally you may notice your dog excessively grooming his anal area. All dogs have glands on each side of their anus that carry an odorous fluid. This fluid is what marks your dog’s stool with his own scent. Many dogs express themselves (secrete the fluid) when they poop, but sometimes they need help. You may notice your dog scooting across the floor or licking his anal area. This means that it’s time to have his anal glands expressed. Many groomers will do this as part of their regular service, or your vet can also perform this task. It is important to have this taken care of as the anal glands can rupture if ignored.
Many times your dog licks you just because he likes the way you taste. Dogs like the salty flavor that we carry in the oils on our skin. He also likes your distinctive taste because you are his master.
Sometimes you can change your taste by using a new soap or scent. If you find one that your dog doesn’t like then he may not lick you as much.
Your dog still carries all of his wolf-pack instincts. Licking is a submissive gesture. A dog will lick to show that he will submit to and respect his pack leader. In the home, that pack leader is you. Licking is his way of letting you know that he will obey you and follow your lead.
This reason falls between being a behavioral and a medical issue. Does your dog lick the same object or area repeatedly and often? If he does, he may have an obsessive disorder.
Some dogs compulsively lick when they are scared or anxious. It may be a reaction to loud noises, being left alone or changes in their environment. Your dog may excessively lick an object or he may lick himself on his muzzle, chest or hips. This can lead to hot spots, which are red, wet, irritated areas on the skin. This can be painful for the dog.
Dogs that have this compulsion must be watched closely. Anytime you notice him starting to lick, try to divert his attention. Take him for a walk, play with him or give him a toy. Try to keep him in a non-stressful environment. If this doesn’t work, there are naturally calming products you can use. In severe cases, your vet may have to prescribe medication.
Sometimes your dog is licking for medical reasons. Sometimes you will need to take him to the vet to have these treated.
Your Dog’s saliva can actually be very helpful for him.
One example is that it helps to prevent canine cavities. Your dog’s saliva is slightly alkaline, which means it helps to reduce the acids produced by some bacteria that cause tooth decay. This helps to keep your dog’s teeth healthier.
His saliva also helps with digestion but not in the same way ours does. A dog’s saliva helps his food travel down the esophagus and into his stomach. Unlike humans, there are no enzymes in the dog’s saliva that initiate digesting the food.
A dog’s saliva is antibacterial. There are enzymes in his saliva that help to kill off bacteria. When he licks himself it helps to remove dead tissue and to clean dirt from any wounds. Sometimes the dog will overdo this medicinal licking and reopen the wound, so keep a close eye on any sores your dog may have.
Your dog may want to treat your wounds as well. This is not a good idea. Remember that your dog eats any food that he finds in the trash, licks himself all over, and may even eat feces. He can transfer this harmful bacteria to you, so don’t let him lick your wounds.
Your dog can have allergic reactions to many different things, such as pollen, dander, dust, and other airborne particles just like you can. These particles can accumulate on his skin and fur and make him itch. He can also be allergic to flea bites and certain proteins in his pet food.
These allergic reactions usually affect the paws, armpits, flanks or groin area of your dog. You may notice him licking his paws or licking and chewing his hind end or inner thighs. If he is allergic to fleas he will probably be licking around his tailbone. Watch for signs of dermatitis in the form of red, irritated skin. Dermatitis is a skin disease associated with allergies. You may need to see a vet to find the appropriate treatment for any allergic reactions your dog may have.
If your dog isn’t producing enough thyroid hormone, or if he is producing too much of the cortisol hormone, then skin infections can occur. This can result in bald spots caused by him licking and scratching the area. Your vet can help you find a remedy to help prevent these issues.
Sometimes your dog will lick himself if he is in pain or is physically uncomfortable. A dog will lick his joints if he is experiencing pain caused by arthritis or hip dysplasia. Hip dysplasia is a disease where the hip’s ball-and-socket joint is malformed. Because of this malformation, the ball and socket do not come together as they are supposed to which causes the joint to rub and grind instead of moving smoothly.
Sometimes you may find your dog licking his paw. This could mean he has something stuck there. Check his paws for any cuts, scrapes, thorns, etc. Remove or treat anything that may cause him discomfort. It can also mean he is having issues with his dewclaw. The dewclaw is the toenail located on the inside part of the dog’s foreleg. Some dogs never use it but others use it as a kind of thumb. It helps them hold on to toys, bones, etc. This nail needs to be clipped regularly like his other nails. If his dewclaw isn’t kept short it can catch on things and become irritated. If you notice your dog licking or pulling at his dewclaw it may need to be clipped. If it looks inflamed then you should have your vet look at it to see if there is an infection.
Your dog may lick certain areas if he has an infection there. Maybe a cut or wound hasn’t healed correctly. He may also have a parasite that is causing issues. (See my article on How Do Dogs Get Worms, if you think this might be the issue). There are also several types of bacterial or fungal infections that can cause your dog to lick. If you see signs of an infection, such as red, irritated skin, oozing, or the dog is running a fever, take him to the vet for treatment.
If your dog is licking strange surfaces like the carpet or the wall, he may have a gastrointestinal issue.
Many dogs with this issue are first diagnosed with ELS, Excessive Licking of Surfaces. He may lick the bare floor, carpet, furniture, etc. This can be harmful to your dog as over time he may ingest large amounts of hair and fibers from these surfaces, which can cause blockages that may have to be surgically removed. This excessive licking behavior was once thought to be an obsessive/compulsive disorder in dogs.
However, several recent studies showed that anywhere from 60% – 75% of dogs with ELS actually had a gastrointestinal issue that was causing the licking. Causes can include pancreatitis, inflammatory bowel disease, ulcers, and others. The licking can be a sign of nausea caused by these gastrointestinal issues. Some of these dogs may also lick, smack their lips, or drool a lot. If your dog shows these signs, and has diarrhea or is vomiting, have your vet check him for any gastrointestinal issues.
Why Does My Dog Lick…?
Some dogs lick all the time others only lick occasionally. As mentioned above they lick for all sorts of reasons. But why do they lick certain places?
Our other dog, a feisty Maltipoo named Max, loves to lick faces. He will lick my face all day long if I let him. I have often wondered about why he does this, and it was interesting to find that one of the reasons my dog will lick my face is to show submission and to acknowledge that I am the head of his pack.
Your dog may also lick your face if he is hungry. In pack dogs, when the puppies were weaned but not ready for solid food, they would lick their mother’s face to get her to regurgitate food for them to eat. This instinct is still present in your dog, so he may lick your face to tell you he is hungry and would like for you to get him something to eat. Luckily you don’t have to regurgitate food for him, just provide him with something.
Your feet have lots of sweat glands. This means there are many interesting smells and tastes on your feet. Often your dog is gathering information from the tastes on your feet.
He may also just be looking for attention and your feet are the closest area to lick.
Again, licking your feet is another way of showing submission. He is telling you that he is happy in his position in the family and he accepts the social order in his home.
Your dog may lick your ears or the ears of another pet in the home. The main reason he licks other’s ears is for mutual grooming. Ears are a difficult place for a dog to reach by himself. He may feel like he is helping you or another pet by grooming their ears for them.
However, there is another simple (and somewhat gross) reason your dog licks ears as well. Some dogs find earwax to be a yummy treat. They just like the salty taste of it.
How do we usually show our dogs affection? By petting them of course. Your dog licks your hand to let you know that he wants you to pet him. He wants your affection.
Another reason is that we often have traces of foods and oils on our hands and he likes to sample the different tastes.
Dogs are often seen licking their noses. The main reason for this is to clean them. They are trying to keep any food or mucus out of the area. They can also taste any scent chemicals that have gathered in the mucus and sample them as well.
Your dog will often lick his lips when he is feeling stressed or confused. This is an appeasement gesture. If he experiences loud noises, is in a large group of people, or if he is feeling threatened, he will lick his lips.
There are several reasons that your dog may lick the air. A basic one is that there is something stuck in his mouth. Was he just eating peanut butter? There could be traces of food that he is trying to get to. Maybe there is something stuck in his tooth or in the roof of his mouth. Check inside his mouth for food or possibly a twig stuck inside and remove it.
Maybe he is stressed. Licking the air can be a compulsive behavior that your dog does when he is feeling tension or is scared. Watch for other symptoms like hiding or peeing in the house.
Sometimes your dog will lick the air because he has been admonished for licking himself too much. If there is an itchy place on his skin but he doesn’t want to get in trouble for licking it, he will sometimes lick the air instead.
He may also be trying to track down a potent smell. Your dog can taste scent markers on his tongue. If there is a strong smell in the area he may be trying to taste it.
This can also be a sign of a gastrointestinal issue. I mentioned licking strange surfaces earlier, but licking the air can also be a sign of these issues. If he is vomiting or suffering from diarrhea have him checked by the vet.
Lastly, licking the air can be part of a neurological issue. Your dog may have a seizure complex. Many dogs will lick the air during a partial seizure. A partial seizure only affects a small part of the brain and only part of the dog’s body is affected. These seizures could be a sign of epilepsy or other brain disorders. Watch for signs of a seizure. If your dog’s legs are spasming and he can’t walk or seems frozen he may be having a seizure. If you observe him having seizures take him to your vet. There are medications he can be put on that can help minimize and sometimes even eliminate the seizures.
How Do I Get Him to Stop Licking
If your dog is licking for a medical reason then treatment help him to stop licking. However, if he just wants your time and affection there are a couple things you can do to minimize the licking. The main thing is that you don’t give him what he’s looking for. If he wants your attention, don’t give it to him. When he starts licking, ignore him and walk away. He will soon learn that licking doesn’t get him what he wants.
You can also try to divert his attention. When he starts licking, give him a toy or take him for a walk.
Don’t punish your dog for licking. After all, he is just doing what comes naturally.
Who knew there were so many reasons that our dogs lick? If you think there is a medical reason behind your dog’s licking then please take him to your vet for treatment. However, most of the time he just likes to lick. The main thing to keep in mind is that licking is part of your dog’s nature. He wants to show you love and be loved by you.
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