Cats lick themselves all the time; they are big on self-grooming. It’s when they stop that you need to worry. Dogs, though, are not like that.
That is not to say a dog won’t ever lick themselves—sure they do. Some of that has to do with keeping themselves clean too. However, when they lick themselves incessantly, there is a problem behind it.
All of my dogs have always been more likely to lick everybody else than themselves. I am not talking about a few licks every now and then but about consistent licking of one spot or area.
I learned to go looking for a problem every time Jasmine started licking herself.
Jasmine had her share of surgeries. Keeping your dog from licking their incision is one of the most important things to allow it to heal. Jasmine’s vet used to say that twenty minutes of licking [an incision] undoes two days of healing. Protecting the wound is essential whether you use the cone of shame or other means.
Wounds and infections
When Jasmine started licking around her tail, it turned out she had a brewing skin infection. Caught early enough we could often tackle it just with medicated baths. Only a couple of times it got bad in a hurry and needed veterinary attention.
Licking the area around her tail, together with a suspicious smell, alerted me to the start of an anal gland infection.
When she licked her foot a lot, an infection was starting there. That happened frequently enough that when I heard more than a couple of licks, I’d grab my flashlight and go searching.
Every time I noticed her licking more than usual it meant that something was going on.
Cookie is the same way. Normally, we hardly ever see her licking herself, but when she does, it’s likely a boo-boo she acquired running through the bushes and brambles.
Pain or itch
Whether pain and itch have enough in common or are substantially different, they can both make your dog miserable. You want to figure out which it is and address it.
What would happen if I left it unchecked?
Perhaps not much, Cookie is a healthy young girl, but it could lead to a nasty infection, hot spot or eventually a lick granuloma.
When my dog is doing something they don’t normally do, I want to know why.
Sometimes it is easy to get to the bottom of it, sometimes it’s not.
Yes, Jasmine was licking because of an infection, but what caused the infection? Skin infections in dogs almost always develop secondary to something else.
Jasmine was hypothyroid but her levels were well-managed, at least according to her blood tests. She did test positive for allergies to all kinds of things so it was assumed that allergies were at the root of the problem, as they often are. But none of this was really adding up to me because Jasmine was not an itchy dog.
It was not that she kept fussing with an area and eventually an infection would show up as a result. She was fussing with the area because the infection was already there.
Being diligent, we kept things mostly well under control.
There were times, though, particularly during her episodes, when she would lick her front feet obsessively and there was nothing visibly wrong with them. No wounds, no infections, no nothing.
She did have some arthritis and anatomical abnormalities in her neck, though. The best theory we came up with was that her episodes and licking her front feet as if her life depended on it were related to that.
One thing is for sure. She never licked herself for no reason.
It was Cookie’s licking of her vulva that first alerted me to her dribbling problem. As she could feel the urine dribble, she was trying to clean it up. I couldn’t see anything wrong with the area but with thorough observation, I discovered what was going on.
The cause might not be always obvious
Yes, sometimes licking can be a behavioral issue or even a type of seizure disorder. But I believe that more often than not a physiological reason can be found. The first step in diagnosing and treating excessive licking always needs to be a thorough health work-up.
Allergies are a common culprit
Fleas, wounds, insect bites, and foreign bodies are right up there as well, with infections close on their tail. But remember, infections are rarely the primary cause.
If a part of the body hurts, such as from arthritis, your dog might lick that area as well. Or there can be a neurological cause, as there was in Jasmine’s case.
What if your dog excessively licks things other than themselves?
Excessive licking of surfaces (ELS)
Excessive licking of surfaces got the attention of the researches only recently.
Is your dog obsessed with licking floors, carpets, walls, furniture? Is it psychological or does it have a physiological cause?
Just recently there was a study that tied excessive licking of surfaces to issues with the digestive tract, including giardiasis, chronic pancreatitis, and other conditions.
74% of dogs with ELS hd some form of gastrointestinal diseaseDr. Karen Becker
Would that cross your mind? It just comes to remind you that when dealing with a changed, new or weird behavior, you should always look past it for an underlying medical problem first.
There are, of course, bonified behavioral reasons for excessive licking in dogs. These include
- showing affection
- anxiety or boredom
- calming behavior
- soliciting food
- liking the taste
For example, many dogs lick their people because they seem to like the salty flavor of human skin.
Cookie is an affectionate licker as well as it calms her when she’s excited or upset. She’s been the only “licker” among our dogs.
Excessive licking not only reflects the level of your dog’s discomfort, but it can also cause additional problems from secondary infections to lick granulomas. Put excessive licking of self or surfaces on the list of things to ask your veterinarian.
Reasons Why Dogs Compulsively Scratch, Lick, or Chew