We’ve all seen our dogs lick themselves: their paws, their bodies and other, more personal, areas. For many owners, it seems such an obvious trait that they don’t even question it. But, if you do, you will find that there are all sorts of reasons for this behavior, sometimes good, sometimes bad; and to be the best pet parent that you can be, it is beneficial to understand this behavior. You never know, it could be a sign of something serious.
It is often thought that there are two types of causes for licking in dogs. The first is the behavioral causes of licking. There are many understandable and harmless behavioral reasons that dogs might lick themselves.
It feels like we dog owners are always defending just how clean our dogs are to non-dog owners. Although they love to run in the mud and jump in ponds, dogs are very clean animals who take grooming very seriously and licking is a common way that they demonstrate this. They particularly concentrate on their paws and genitals but may also lick all over to keep themselves clean.
Licking is also a means of communication for dogs. This stems from their past lives as pack animals and is one of the ways that they interact. It can show subordination, adoration, and maternal care. While this often occurs between dogs, as a result of this pack mentality, it can spread to owners and some other humans. Although many enjoy their dog’s attention as an expression of love, it is possible to train your dog out of excessive licking if it is problematic.
Quite simply, sometimes we taste pretty good to our pets. Not due to any wolf-like carnivorous urges, but our skin can be quite salty, which dogs like. This can encourage them to lick us. This might explain any enthusiastic licking you’ve experienced after a run, or on a hot day.
Occasionally, your dog may lick themselves simply because they are bored. This is fine from time to time, but regular boredom may cause excessive licking to become an unhealthy habit.
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The second main reason for licking is medical. Licking can be a symptom of many different health issues, so paying attention to any changes in your dog’s normal licking behavior can be a fantastic way to notice potential problems sooner, rather than later. Notable health issues that can cause excessive licking could include:
- Skin Lesions and Wounds
- Fleas, Mites, Ticks and Other Parasites: In particular watch out for licking at the base of their tail. One parasite is all it takes, so be thorough with anti-parasite medicine.
- Allergies: Dust, pollen, flea bites, and certain proteins in pet food can all cause allergies. Keep an eye on excessive licking of paws, armpits, flanks, and groins, and be aware of any seasonal changes in behavior.
- Dermatitis: This can happen due to mites, auto-immune disease or hormones.
- Pain Relief: Repetitive licking of the same area, particularly joints, might indicate pain that needs to be addressed, particularly in older dogs.
- Nausea: Licking, along with lip-smacking and drool, can be a sign of gastrointestinal upset. Persistent nausea, additional vomiting, diarrhea, and a lack of appetite could be more serious, so contact your vet.
- Urinary Tract Infection: A fairly common explanation that primarily causes dogs to lick their private parts, UTIs can be easily treated with antibiotics.
- Hormonal Imbalance: A lack of thyroid hormone or too much cortisol can result in skin infection.
- Dry Skin: This may be seasonally affected, or due to fatty acid deficiencies.
As a basic rule, if you notice hair thinning in many areas, you probably have a problem, so you should visit the vet. Depending on the cause of the licking, your vet may prescribe antibiotics or other medicine, or they may just suggest a collar to limit the licking to prevent further inflammation and wounds.
Becoming a Behavioural Problem
Unfortunately, medical explanations of licking are not the only potential problems that may explain the behavior. Behavioral causes of licking can also have a negative impact. Psychological problems, namely anxiety or obsessive disorders, could explain your dog’s licking.
Licking can release endorphins for dogs, which has a calming effect on their mood. So, if your dog licks themselves after negative experiences, such as car journeys, visits to the vet, or loud noises, you should consider that they may suffer from anxiety. It may not be immediately obvious, so you may need to pay attention. Dogs can get anxious about many things you might not consider, such as high-pitched sounds that you may not be able to hear.
Ultimately, you know when your dog’s behavior is odd. But, don’t take any chances, you don’t want anxiety to cause lesions, wounds or any other damage.
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The obvious solution to any strange behavior and medical concerns is to take your dog to the vet. However, even without a medical emergency, there are things you can do to help your best friend:
- Help with Cleaning: Using special doggie wipes or a warm washcloth on their paws after they go outside can help with any allergies and any need for cleaning.
- Choose Your Shampoos Carefully: Many shampoos can calm itching, and some prescription and medicated shampoos have anti-histamines, which can increase their comfort.
- Behavior Training: You can attempt ‘diversion’ training, which involves you monitoring your dog’s behavior and distracting them from their attempts to obsessively groom by giving them a toy, a treat, taking them for a walk, or carefully brushing them yourself.
- Cider Vinegar: Dilute solutions of cider vinegar can be sprayed onto a dog’s skin to discourage them from licking. This needs to be done carefully, however, and possibly with advice from a vet, to make sure it won’t irritate the skin.
- A Low Stress Environment: Avoid loud noises and other activities that your dog doesn’t like. You may be able to train them into liking some necessary activities, such as car journeys, but you need to work at it.
- Natural Products: Naturally calming treats and pheromone collars can be bought which could help your dog to relax.