by K Marie Alto September 22, 2022 10 min read
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 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.
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.
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.
Let’s get started.
If your fur baby is licking you excessively, you'll probably be tired of it. If they're licking an object excessively, they can wear a hole in the carpet, wear paint off the walls, or leave marks on the furniture. 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.
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.
If you've ever been sick enough to feel like you're about to vomit but can't quite get there, you know how it messes with your entire system. You salivate a lot, you swallow or spit, and you do whatever you can to alleviate that upset stomach.
Your fur baby is the same way; if their stomach or their digestive system is upset, they'll seek oral stimulation to try to alleviate it, usually via licking. This is often accompanied by excessive drooling, too, though it can be hard to tell with certain breeds.
Itching and scratching is another common reason for excessive licking. 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, 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 30K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-).
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