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Why Do Dogs Lick?

Why Do Dogs Lick?

               We all know dogs like to lick things-people, objects, themselves. But, why do they lick? Is licking a normal behavior, or can it indicate a problem? Let’s explore some reasons that dogs may lick, when licking may be a problem, and how to stop the behavior if needed.

               The most common reason dogs like to lick people or other dogs is affection.  Dogs say “hello” and often greet people by licking them. This is often a learned behavior due to mother dogs licking and grooming their puppies.  It can become a habit or reinforced behavior when our dogs lick us as we often respond by laughing or petting them. Returning positive attention for licking reinforces the behavior. Dogs may lick to gain attention, to show affection or even because they like the taste of your skin! Yep, dogs may lick us because we taste salty or have some other taste they want to explore (like scented lotion or soap).  Licking can sometimes also be a way for your dog to calm himself down similar to a baby sucking a pacifier.  Licking can release endorphins, and some dogs use licking as a self-soothing behavior.

               These behaviors are not generally harmful and, if they don’t bother you or if you enjoy being licked by your dog, no action is needed.  Dog mouths do harbor a lot of bacteria and they can also have parasites that can be passed to humans, so make sure that you do not allow dogs to lick open wounds or lick you on the mouth. Otherwise, puppy kisses are fine!  However, if your pup’s licking is getting out of hand, there are ways to deter your dog from excessive licking.  Basically, you need to deny your dog attention when he or she starts licking.  If your dog starts licking you and you want him or her to stop, stop touching or looking at your dog, turn your head, or stand up and walk away.  When your dog stops licking, reward your pup!  You can also try distraction techniques such as redirecting your pup to playing with toys, taking your dog for a walk or play time in the yard or training your dog to do something else besides licking.

               Licking can sometimes indicate a behavioral or medical problem.  If your dog licks people, surfaces or herself excessively, it could be an indication of underlying anxiety or compulsive behavior and may require intervention with behavior modification and sometimes anti-anxiety medications.  Dogs may also lick objects or themselves if they have gastrointestinal disease to try to relieve abdominal pain, they may lick other areas of the body if they are having pain such as licking one or more joints due to arthritis and, of course, dogs lick themselves or excessively groom if they are itchy due to allergies, if they have external parasites like fleas or if they suffer from other skin conditions or infections.

               Minor licking is rarely a concern, and it’s OK to let your pet lick you on occasion to say hello. However, if you feel your dog’s licking is excessive or if he is licking himself and has red, irritated skin or signs of pain or infection, don’t hesitate to check with your vet.  Medical causes of licking can range from mild to serious, but treatment to reduce the licking is most likely available once the underlying cause is identified.

               This blog brought to you by the Patton Veterinary Hospital serving Red Lion, York and the surrounding communities.