Dogs 🐶sure are fascinating animals, aren't they? Among their many adorable (and less adorable) behaviors, one we all know to love is the lick.
We like to call it puppy kisses, but is that really accurate?
Our fur babies love to lick us when they're having fun or when they miss us, but the jury is still out on what the licks actually mean.
You may be wondering, is excessive licking a problem? The key word here is excessive, and the answer is yes. Pretty much anything in excess is going to be a problem, and licking is one of those things.
As usual, this post comes with a short educational video 📽️. Check it out at the bottom, this is a must watch if you want to learn how to train your dog to stop licking you and others.
Pet parents looking for more dog care resources, you can either skip all the way down to the bottom to the more dog care guides, or visit the toe beans pet parents blog, which by the way is loaded with resources, and you can search by topic.
If they're licking themselves too much, they can wear away at the fur and leave red, raw, irritated patches on their skin. That's when you know you have a problem on your hands.
“Dogs use body language and gestures such as licking to convey information about their feelings and intent.” - Ruth Hegarty, M.S.E.
Some people theorize that dogs lick us just because we taste good to them, from the natural oils, salt, and other stuff that builds up on our skin. Of course, plenty of folks believe licking is just a sign of affection.
The trouble is, there's a difference between a few slurps when you've finished a meal and forgotten a few crumbs or when you've come back from the gym and are covered in delicious salty sweat.
When your fur baby is licking excessively – at you, at themselves, or at an object – it may be a sign that something's wrong.
Our job as a pet parent is to identify the cause of the excessive licking so we can help correct the underlying issue. We’ll start by looking at some of the most common causes of excess licking and then talk about how to address the underlying issue.
Some dogs get bored easily and will seek out pretty much any kind of stimulation they can find to alleviate that boredom and the frustration that comes along with it.
Often, it starts with licking anything and everything, just to explore the world around them with new senses.
Eventually, it can lead to obsessively licking the same object or spot on the carpet over and over.
That place you spilled spaghetti five years ago? You may not remember, but the carpet does, and it's better than nothing to a bored pop.
Anxious pups can exhibit all sorts of behaviors. Licking is often a soothing behavior for puppies, and when your furry friend is anxious, they may turn to those behaviors to try to alleviate it.
This is more often self-grooming (which can lead to painful hot spots) or licking you, depending on the dog.
To help identify anxiety as the cause, try to observe when the licking behavior occurs. Is it during a thunderstorm? Or perhaps when their favorite person leaves the house?
Have you ever had a dry mouth? When your tongue feels sticky, and your cheeks are rough, and you'd do anything to get a bit of water?
A thirsty dog can feel the same way. Licking helps stimulate the salivary glands to produce a little moisture, and when they're thirsty enough, even that little bit can be blessed relief.
Dogs don't have hands, don't have access to pain meds, and don't have enough of a language to be able to talk about when something hurts.
They just do the best they can to let you know if something is wrong, and they soothe it in any way they can. Often, that means licking.
Licking, when caused by pain, unfortunately, tends to result in more pain if they end up with a hot spot.
Internal pains leading to licking can leave your fur baby patchy and sore. Pain after a surgery leads to licking, too – hence the cone of shame – and even tooth pain can cause licking as your poor pup does anything they can to distract themselves.
It's pretty much just the same as when you have an itchy spot from a bug bite or a rash. You want to scratch it or rub it to alleviate the itch, though you try to hold off, knowing you'll only make it worse.
With dogs, itching can come from small scrapes and scratches, bug bites, parasites like fleas, ticks, or worms, or even allergies.
Dog allergies can be especially difficult to diagnose and control. Often, your first sign of them is excessive nibbling and/or licking of an area that has been exposed.
Infections, just like wounds and bug bites, often result in both pain and itching, which results in licking to try to alleviate them.
An infection is usually easier to spot, at least. Be sure to keep an eye (and a nose) out for unusual smells that can indicate something else is going on, too.
8. Cognitive Problems
Older dogs can experience a variety of issues as they age, and their brains get old and tired.
Sometimes they start to bark at nothing, sometimes, they forget their tricks or their training, and sometimes they just fixate on something and start licking it.
They may not realize how long they've been licking or remember why they're licking; they just know they enjoy the behavior and they'll keep doing it.
10. Inadvertent Training
When you come home from a long day of work and your pup, happy to see you, hops up on your lap and gives you some licks on the face, what do you do?
If you laugh, you pet them, you praise them, and you give them a treat, guess what? You've just used positive reinforcement to encourage the behaviors that got them rewarded.
They don't realize you're just as happy to see them as they are to see you; they just know that their licking got them treats and praise.
This is one of the more common causes of excessive licking. It's also easy to handle if you can work on training in the other direction, but it may take some time.
Check out this short educational video on how to train your dog to stop licking you.
How to teach your dog to stop licking you | 3:40 min video
How to Deal with Excessive Licking
As we’ve said, if your fur baby is licking a lot, like, a lot, a lot, it's probably a problem. How you deal with the problem depends on why they're licking.
First, you'll probably want to consult with your vet. Many of the reasons why dogs lick excessively, especially on themselves, are related to pain or illness.
You may want to closely monitor your dog and keep a mental or written journal on a few things before you contact your vet.
When did the excessive licking start?
When does it seem to happen?
For how long does your pup excessively lick?
Does your dog seem to be easily distracted/stopped from the behavior?
If yes for the above question, does your dog go right back to it?
For pet parents that have indoor cameras, does your dog engage in this behavior when no one else is around or does s/he do it just in front of others?
Have there been any changes in your dog’s environment? Perhaps there is a new member of the family? Or somebody visiting? Or perhaps you recently moved your furniture around? Or maybe there are new noises coming from outside?
Armed with these important information, and anything else you may have observed, your vet will be able to help diagnose what's wrong and can offer you treatment options.
These treatments can be as simple as anti-parasitic medications to get rid of ringworm, a flea treatment to get rid of fleas, or antibiotics to help handle an infection.
In other cases, it may mean you need to have a few teeth pulled, or you may need to have them wear a cone (or an alternative) to prevent them from licking at or worrying at a wound, surgical site, or irritated patch of skin.
Remember, licking from let’s say boredom can lead to a physical issue such as a hot spot. Continued licking is just going to make the problem worse.
When you begin medical or behavioral treatment, you’ll also want to prevent your pup from continuing to lick at the irritated area.
In more extreme cases, your pup's excessive licking might be the first sign of something worse going on under their fur coat.
These issues can range from digestive problems stemming from eating something they shouldn't have, to issues with foods, internal damage or pain, a broken or inflamed joint or limb, or even something like an irritating lump.
Your vet will be able to diagnose these issues and can guide you through the next steps, where relevant.
Here are some things you can do to reduce/manage the incidence of excessive licking.
You might also need to get in the habit of brushing your pup's teeth. Polishing up those canine canines (get it?) can help stave off tooth decay and mouth issues, which is an important part of their overall health.
In the case of something like allergies, you'll need to figure out what your pup is allergic to. If it's food or a treat, you'll need to switch it out for something they can handle. If it's environmental, you'll need to figure out what. Are you using a cleaning product that irritates them? Is it pollen season, and some plant they brush up against is getting them? Once you find out what it is, you can help remove it from your routine. I personally know some pups that have been prescribed allergy meds because some irritants you just can’t avoid.
For those older pups with declining cognition, well, there's not a lot that can be done. It's a sign of things to come and a sad one, so if you don't already have preparations in place, you'll want to get started. Just do your best to tolerate declining training and behavior, and make them comfortable for as long as you can before they pass over the rainbow bridge.
What about other cases? There are plenty of reasons why your fur baby might be licking that don't stem from an easily vet-treatable problem.
In these cases, you generally need to do two things: redirect the behavior and work on training.
Redirecting dog behavior means watching for when they're spending a lot of time licking at something and then distracting them with something else.
It can be a complex toy with a treat inside, it could be a rousing game of fetch with a ball, or it could be working on training a new trick. After all, your fur baby won't be licking if they're too busy catching a ball or learning how to high-five.
Training simply means positive reinforcement of non-licking behaviors. We've written about training before, in the context of nail trimming or recall training, and the concept holds true for lick training too.
As a last resource, you can also consider anti-lick tools if your fur baby is licking themselves or an object they shouldn't be.
Anti-lick strips are small strips or bandage alternatives that are unpleasant to lick. Some of them use static electricity to tingle the tongue, while others use cayenne to make it a bit of a spicy taste, deterring the behavior. Unless your fur baby loves the hot sauce, but most don't.
Anti-lick sprays generally use a bittering agent to make a surface extremely bitter and disgusting to taste. These are best used on objects, so if your fur baby is licking at the carpet, furniture, walls, or ceiling, bust out the spray to convince them it's not really as tasty as they think it is.
If your pup has licked an area of skin raw, and your vet has ruled out health issues, it’s time to get into intense observation mode and close surveillance to see if you can identify a pattern of when the licking behavior occurs.
If you think situational or separation anxiety are at play, consider some natural options like CBD for dogs. You can also consider some aromatherapy options, compression jackets, or in extreme cases you can talk to your vet about prescription options.
We mentioned about thirst being a potential cause of excessive licking. Be sure your pup always has fresh water to rule this issue out. Also be sure to bring water on hikes or hot days at the doggy park.
One thing to avoid at all cost though, is punishment or negative reinforcement. As you likely well know already, punishment doesn't work, and aversive behaviors get much harder to effectively train away.
Plus, if you misdiagnosed the problem, you end up punishing your pup for itching or pain that isn't their fault, and that just makes everything worse.
Tell Me About Your Pooch
Do you have a dog that has a licking problem or had one in the past? What did it turn out to be, and how did you handle it?
I'm always interested in new solutions (including things I can add to my store if they're effective and natural), and of course, I always love hearing about your adorable furry children.
Additionally, if you are feeling like getting a little special something for your fur baby that is unique, made right here in the USA (or anywhere but in China) , 100% pup and cat safe, USDA certified organic and brought to you by a US company, check out Toe Beans online pet supplies store!
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K Marie Alto
K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer (https://www.amazon.com/author/kmariealto), and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 45K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-).