If you have a dog, you've probably seen them lick everything in sight! Dogs seem to love the taste of everything, and they'll lick just about anything. But why do dogs lick things? What is it about licking that dogs find so appealing? And is licking an indication of a health issue? Let's look at the reasons for dog licking, and we'll try to answer the question once and for all: why do dogs lick?

Two bulldogs lick their pet parent's feet.

Why do dogs lick so much?

Licking is part of canine life. It's hard-wired into our domestic dogs from their wolf ancestors, who would lick in submission to ask the alpha wolf to allow them to partake of the pack's meal. Dogs lick instinctively from the very beginning of their lives. Mother dogs lick their puppies after birth to encourage them to breathe, then to clean and protect them. Then, the pups lick their mother and siblings as they learn to identify their new surroundings.

Licking is an excellent way for dogs to identify the objects around them. A dog's licking behavior allows him to taste the things and helps identify those people or items. However, there are many more reasons why dogs lick everything. Here are some of the most common causes of canine licking behavior.

A dog lick's a young girl's face.

They are attention-seeking and want affection.

One way canines show their affection for dog owners is by licking them. Licking a person demonstrates trust and releases feel-good hormones in the body, making it beneficial to both parties involved. Grooming is an essential part of how dogs show their love and dedication to the pack. This behavior helps establish a stronger bond with you, making it easier for them to feel comfortable around people.

However, before you get too emotional, keep in mind that dogs may also lick your face or hands because you have scents or remnants of the last snack you ate on them!

Dogs may also lick you frequently to get your attention. Your dog may be licking you often simply because he has realized that it brings him attention. If every time your pup licks, you immediately stop to look at him, he has received his reward: your attention.

A Beagle licks at his paws.

They are itchy and uncomfortable.

Suppose you notice excessive licking behavior by your dog around his paws, legs, tail, or other parts of the body. In that case, it could indicate that there's something wrong. This behavior is often a sign that the dog has allergies, especially when a dog licks excessively at his paws.

Seasonal allergies often affect dogs, resulting in skin problems (hot spots), sneezing, and ear infections. Other symptoms that might indicate allergic reactions include eye discharge or congestion with nasal discharge.

Unfortunately, frequent itching in these areas may also indicate that your dog is in pain. Dogs suffering from nerve damage or arthritis may express discomfort through a constant licking behavior around their tail, lower back, and joints.

They are grooming their fur.

Your furry friend may lick his fur frequently to clean and groom himself. While dogs don't have the grooming skills that cats do, it still helps them stay clean. However, some pups take this process to excess and lick their fur too much. Excessive grooming often leads to bald patches, rashes, hot spots, irritated skin, skin infections, missing fur, and even types of skin disease, such as acral lick dermatitis.

A terrier licks a plate clean.

They are hungry or thirsty.

It's not just humans who express hunger with sounds and gestures. Your dog could be saying "Feed me!" when he licks you or his empty food bowl in anticipation of a meal. Some canines may even lick their chops with excitement when they know it's dinner time.

If your dog is thirsty, they might lick because they are dehydrated and experiencing a dry throat, tongue, or mouth. A dog licks when thirsty because the action stimulates the salivary glands, producing more saliva in the mouth.

They are exploring the world around them.

Just like they do with chewing, dogs explore their surroundings through licking. This behavior originates in young puppies who need to learn about their surroundings and how things work. Licking is a fundamental way for dogs to investigate their world and gather more information about what they are tasting.

They are feeling unwell.

If dogs have an illness or nausea, they might start licking objects to alleviate this sensation. Nausea and gastrointestinal upset can leave a bad taste in your dog's mouth and general mouth discomfort. Licking an object might help relieve these uncomfortable feelings.

Licking items and objects excessively may also signify pica, an abnormal craving for non-food items that often leads a dog to eat anything, even if there's no nutritional value in the article. A dog with pica may manifest a need to lick metal, rocks, clothes, hair, and dirt. Although scientists are still determining why some dogs develop pica, they suspect it is due to behavioral issues, stress, anxiety, or digestive issues, such as ulcers.

A Yorkie puppy licks the camera.

They are experiencing "cleaning syndrome."

You may be the guilty party when it comes to your dog's licking habit. If you leave traces of food crumbs on chairs and floors, you are tempting your dog to use his tongue to swipe up those little pieces and eat them.

"Cleaning syndrome" is when a dog licks floors, chairs, couches, and beds where food has been consumed, and crumbs have been left behind. Your dog is happy to clean up after you if he gets to lick up leftovers, but this means he may also develop a habit of licking objects frequently in search of those crumbs. If not addressed, this habit can quickly become a compulsive disorder.

They are suffering from stress, anxiety, or compulsive behavior.

A dog who suffers from stress and anxiety, such as loud noises and separation anxiety, may turn to licking behavior to calm down. Licking releases endorphins to ease a pup's anxiety and stress.

If you notice your dog is continuously licking himself, it might be worth checking in with their vet. There's a chance that they're just feeling anxious due to new adjustments in the home or family. However, it may also indicate a severe health condition, such as compulsive behavioral issues.

Canine compulsive behaviors include destructive behaviors such as dogs who lick excessively. While this action could be due to a compulsive disorder, this condition is not always an indication of mental health issues in dogs. Still, it is a situation that requires further investigation.

In most cases, a dog who licks compulsively will get better with adequate exercise, mental stimulation, and extra attention. In severe instances, their condition may be linked to fear or stress, which may require veterinary advice and prescribed medication.

A terrier eats ice cream.

They have developed cognitive issues.

When your dog starts licking excessively, it could be because of cognitive issues. In this case, the dog doesn't understand why they continually perform this action because their thought processing has been affected. Most commonly found in older dogs and elderly dogs, the symptoms of canine cognitive dysfunction can be similar to those seen in humans who suffer from Alzheimer's disease.

Canines affected by this condition may repetitively lick themselves and other body parts. They may suffer from restlessness, an inability to understand commands, and general confusion. 

Canine cognitive dysfunction is a progressive disease that cannot be cured. However, it may be managed through behavior modification, drug therapy, and dog environment changes.

A dog licks a puppy.

They are playing.

When dogs play, they often lick their lips or lick any object they contact. This action most likely happens because playing feels exciting and satisfying to a dog. Our dogs are often taught not to bite other dogs in play as puppies. Licking is an acceptable alternative to greet and show affection to other canines your dog plays with.

Licking is a dog's way of showing that they love their toy, canine friends, and even their pup parents! They may not be able to speak, but this behavior shows how much dogs care for these things.

A dog licks a cold window.

When is dog licking a problem?

Licking is normal canine behavior, but if it becomes obsessive, there may be a medical condition developing. If your pup starts to lick an object over and again obsessively, that's a sign of a problem. Contact your veterinarian immediately if you notice any damage to the skin around your dog's mouth or if he is licking himself and causing injury.

You can treat your dog's compulsive licking at home based on the cause of the behavior. Try to space out meals over the day for dogs who lick when they are hungry, so they stay fuller, longer. Dogs licking due to anxiety and stress need a calm environment and a structured daily schedule to know what is happening and when.

A woman sits behind her Corgi dog.

Lick dog health emergencies with pet insurance.

Sometimes our pups develop odd behaviors, and an unplanned trip to the veterinarian is necessary. Those vet visits are costly and can add up fast, especially once you factor in medications and a supportive treatment plan. A pet insurance plan can assist you in paying for your dog's unexpected medical care with reimbursements up to 90%, depending on the provider and the plan.

Not sure where to start? No problem! Pet Insurance Review is here to help you find the best dog health insurance policy for your pup and your finances. Get a free quote today so you don't get licked with expensive vet bills, and your dog gets top care for his condition.

References:

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  4. Animal Allergy & Ear Clinic. (2021). Are Allergies Making Your Dog Lick Their Paws? Retrieved from https://animalallergyandearclinic.com/are-allergies-making-your-dog-lick-their-paws/
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  7. Easter, F. (2016). Pica in Dogs May Be More Than Just a Behavior Problem. Retrieved from https://www.dogtrainingnation.com/dog-behavior-2/pica-in-dogs-behavior-problem/
  8. Meyers, H. (2020). OCD in Dogs: Can it Happen? Retrieved from https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-dog-behavior/
  9. Texas A&M Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. (2021). Cognitive Decline in Aging Dogs: What to Know. Retrieved from https://vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk/cognitive-decline-in-aging-dogs/
  10. Ringo, A. (2022). My Dog Wants to French Kiss Your Dog: Why Dogs Lick Other Dogs' Faces. Retrieved from https://www.rover.com/blog/why-dogs-lick-other-dogs-faces/