Why Do Dogs Lick So Much?
Why do dogs lick themselves? Not to mention, why do they lick their human and canine friends, their favorite toy, the carpet, and any number of other objects?
Licking is a natural behavior for dogs. It was learned as puppies, when their mother licked them in order to clean and groom them. Continuing into adulthood, licking is a social behavior that can express affection and camaraderie. Licking can also signify submissiveness or respect to a pack leader.
However, too much licking can be a sign of a problem. Below, we’ll cover some of the most common reasons why dogs lick themselves and others, when this behavior may be a concern, and how to decrease a dog’s licking.
Why Does My Dog Lick So Much?
Reasons can range from social to hunger to medical conditions. Here are twelve of the most common reasons why a dog might lick themselves, people, other dogs, or objects:
1. Grooming. Although dogs don’t groom themselves as extensively as cats do, self-bathing and grooming is still a normal behavior for dogs. For example, you may notice your pup licking their paws after spending time outside to remove dirt and debris.
2. Itchy skin. A dog may lick due to allergies, skin parasites like fleas or mites, dry skin, skin infections, or anything else that causes itchiness.
3. Pain or discomfort. For example, a dog with arthritis may lick the skin over their achy hips or another joint that is bothering them. A dog with full anal glands may lick their rear end, in addition to scooting their bum on the ground. A pup may lick a skin wound. And a dog with a urinary tract infection may lick their genitals more than usual.
4. Exploration. Since dogs don’t have opposable thumbs, they explore the world with their mouths. Their amazing sense of smell contributes to this. For example, a dog may lick the kitchen floor, furniture, or their pet parent’s hands because they smell food particles that are undetectable to us.
5. Hunger or thirst. If a dog is excessively licking their owner, that can also be their way of telling us they need something. Check if their food or water bowl needs to be refilled. Some experts have even theorized that licking a person’s face could be a way of asking us to regurgitate our last meal for them—similar to how a wolf cub would like their mother’s face. For many wild dog species, the mother regurgitating a meal for her pups is normal and natural.
6. Behavioral causes. Licking may be a way to pass the time if a dog is bored, such as if they’re home alone for much of the day or if they don’t get enough physical or mental activity. Anxiety-related licking could be due to a stressful event (loss of another pet in the home, a child going back to school, or moving to a new house) or storm phobias, separation anxiety, etc. Licking is self-soothing and can make a pet feel better in the moment. Eventually, this can turn into a learned habit or compulsive behavior.
7. Cognitive dysfunction. Older dogs may develop this condition, which is similar to dementia in people. Excessive licking is one of many possible symptoms. Other common signs include disorientation, pacing, wandering around the home at night, potty accidents, sleeping more, and less interest in interacting and doing their usual activities.
8. Nausea. Dogs who are feeling nauseous may lick (themselves, others, or objects) more often due to increased saliva/drooling or trying to relieve the uncomfortable feeling or bad taste in their mouth. Often, this licking is accompanied by ‘lip smacking’ or other symptoms like a decreased appetite.
9. Dental disease or another issue inside the mouth. A painful tooth or gum disease/gingivitis could cause a dog to lick more. It may be their way of trying to relieve the discomfort or deal with something that feels abnormal, such as a broken tooth.
10. They like the taste. A dog may lick their human companions simply because they like the taste of our skin. Dogs don’t sweat (other than a little from their paw pads), but humans have sweat glands over their whole bodies. This means our skin can have a bit of a salty taste. Dogs may also enjoy interesting-smelling lotions and odors of their owner’s previous meal.
11. Attention. If a pet’s licking is met with affection, praise, laughter, or other positive signs, they could learn that licking is a desirable behavior that results in attention. Even “negative” attention (such as saying “no”) could be a reward to pups who are bored or looking for interaction with their favorite person.
12. A sign of affection. Since licking is a social behavior, it could be your dog’s way of showing you they care about you. They could also be showing you respect as their trusted “pack leader.”
Can a Dog’s Licking Be Harmful?
Most of the time, licking is perfectly normal and safe for a dog. However, over time, this behavior can damage the skin, leading to problems like hair loss, wounds, and infections. Some dogs develop chronic swellings and wounds known as “lick granulomas,” most commonly on the forelimbs.
Additionally, licking the wrong thing could get a pup into trouble. Objects on the side of the road, or garbage in the trash can, could smell very enticing to a dog. But putting those things into their mouth can make them sick. And licking where another dog has defecated could lead to worms or other internal parasites.
Is It Safe to Let My Dog Lick My Face?
In general, it’s best to avoid a dog licking your face—especially for children. At the very least, try to avoid your dog licking your mouth, and clean your face after your dog licks it.
One potential health concern is parasites, since dogs may become exposed by eating another dog’s poop or licking their own backsides. Keeping your dog on regular parasite prevention will greatly reduce this risk. However, it is still possible.
Additionally, dogs can carry bacteria in their mouths, which can be especially pronounced if they have dental disease. Plus, dogs often put gross stuff—like garbage, roadkill, or poop from another animal—into their mouths. And we probably don’t want those sorts of things on our faces.
Some dog owners find it’s simpler to let a dog lick their hands rather than their face, then wash their hands right afterward.
How to Reduce a Dog’s Licking Behavior
Whether your pooch is licking themselves, you, or anyone/anything else, much of the process will be the same:
- Start with a veterinary consultation. This will help to rule out any medical condition, pain, or behavioral issue that needs to be treated. If your dog has a behavioral cause of overgrooming, such as anxiety, this may require additional training techniques, anxiety medications, or referral to a veterinary behaviorist.
- Provide enough physical and mental enrichment for your dog. This helps prevent boredom and anxiety. The amount of physical activity needed (and physical capabilities) varies from dog to dog. But short walks or a little extra playtime are usually a good place to start. Also, consider your dog’s mental and emotional health. Dogs are smart. They enjoy puzzles and learning. This could mean a puzzle feeder that distributes food or treats slowly. Or, it could mean training or another fun and interactive activity.
- Train your dog to not lick. This can be as simple as ignoring your dog when they lick you, then giving praise and attention when they sit next to you calmly or demonstrate any behavior you’d like to see. You can also train your pup to do things like “hug” instead of lick.
- Wipe your dog’s paws after a walk to remove pollen, dirt, and other debris. And if your dog has any additional grooming needs (anal gland expression, wiping their skin folds, etc.), talk to your veterinarian about the best way to help your pet.
When to Call the Vet
Any time your dog seems to be licking excessively, it’s a good idea to call your veterinary team or set up a telehealth appointment. This is especially true if you notice other symptoms in addition to licking—like skin lesions or signs of illness.
It’s important to rule out a medical condition before implementing other techniques to reduce licking. Otherwise, treatment of a medical issue could be delayed, and the condition could get worse.
Whether or not you want your dog to lick you, it’s important to know what’s normal for your furry friend, so you can be aware if something changes that may require medical attention.
After that, it’s up to you whether or not you prefer doggy kisses as part of the bonding time with your pup.