All dogs lick, and in most cases, licking is a normal, and is no reason for concern. However, if you notice the behavior is becoming excessive or out of character, there could be a more serious underlying issue. So why do dogs lick you, themselves, and everything else so much – and at what point should you contact your vet?
What Does it Mean if a Dog Licks You?
The good news is that a licking dog is usually a happy dog. So if your dog's licking is starting to worry you, it's important to know that licking is a natural instinct. In fact, studies have shown that licking releases endorphins in Fido's brain. These endorphins create feelings of happiness and relaxation — and who doesn't need more of that?
Why Do Dogs Lick People?
To Show Affection
If you like to think of your dog's licks as "puppy kisses," you're onto something. Dogs show affection by licking. This instinctive behavior is traced back to the comfort they felt as puppies when their mom licked them.
Licking actually plays a significant role in how dogs bond — you've also got those endorphins we mentioned above to thank for that.
To Get a Taste
Dogs can taste when things are bitter, salty, sweet, and sour. But they don't have many tastebuds, so they use their sense of smell more often than their taste when deciding what to eat or lick. Licking helps enhance their sense of smell. This is why you may have noticed that your pooch likes licking the parts of your body with strong tastes and smells, such as your face, feet, and hands.
Dogs are naturally curious. Lucky for them, their tongues are loaded with sensors to help them explore. Dogs' sense of taste and smell are closely linked — which is why you notice your dog smell and taste so many things when they're on a walk or somewhere new.
They can taste and smell a massive range of things after they lick something, including who else has recently made contact with the object. This is also why your dog sniffs other dogs' rear ends. They can smell where the other dog has been, what they've eaten, what they've played with, and so on.
You can thank the dog's cool older cousin, the wolf, for its licking-to-communicate feature. Wolves lick their mom's faces when they want to be fed. As you've likely noticed at the dog park, dogs lick the mouths and faces of new canines they meet.
Fido uses this extra-friendly screening process to discover the intentions of other dogs — and people — they meet.
As a Way to Groom
Sometimes, your dog may lick you to groom you. After all, their sense of smell is way better than ours, so they may be alerting you to dirt or leftover food that's on your skin. Finally, a way to tell if you have spinach in your teeth!
What do you do when your dog licks you? You probably stroke them, greet them, pet them, or otherwise make a fuss over them. Licking is an excellent way to get your attention! And Fido knows this.
Why Do Dogs Lick Themselves?
Some dogs may not only lick people, but they may also be obsessed with licking themselves. Whether your dog keeps licking its lips or its paws, a dog that's constantly licking itself can make you worried. But dogs lick themselves for many of the same reasons they lick their pet parents and other animals, including for grooming and tasting purposes.
Your dog licking itself may have turned from its natural way of expressing and soothing itself into a bigger issue if you've noticed excessive and incessant licking.
Call your vet to rule out the following possible conditions if your pup is licking itself more than usual:
- Anxiety: Dogs can suffer from anxiety just the same as humans. Licking is a way for dogs to self-soothe, and some may choose to do so when feeling anxious.
- OCD: Obsessive-compulsive disorder often manifests as excessive licking in dogs. Compulsive lickers spend hours licking themselves, the floor, furniture, and you.
- Allergies: Medical causes for licking may include allergies that cause the pup's skin and paws to itch. These allergies can be airborne, like pollen, mold, or food allergies.
- Infections: Bacteria, fungi, or parasites can cause infections that make the dog's skin itchy. Flea bites can also cause skin damage, making the dog prone to infections.
- Boredom and behavioral issues: A bored dog may start licking itself for something to do.
- Pain: Underlying pain from injury or arthritis is another reason dogs lick. This licking is usually confined to the area above a joint. Your veterinarian can prescribe a trial of arthritis or pain medication to help you better determine whether underlying joint pain is causing the licking.
- GI or stomach issues: Upset stomach, nausea, and reflux could be behind your dog's licking. Although it may seem like a random link to you, a recent study found that up to 60% of dogs with excessive licking behaviors suffer from a gastrointestinal disorder.
When your dog licks themselves too much, they put themselves at risk for developing hot spots. Excessive licking can irritate the skin, creating hot spots, areas of the skin that become inflamed and infected. Sometimes these hot spots are hard to find because they are hidden under the dog's fur.
What to Do About Excessive Licking
You should never expect your dog to stop licking completely. But if their licking has turned excessive, there are a few things you can do:
- Move away when they lick you instead of giving them positive attention.
- Distract them. If you're looking for a sign to buy your pup a new toy, this is it. Chew toys, treats, and games are great ways to keep your dog occupied so there's less time for licking.
- Try training Fido to sit or do a trick — something to redirect their licking that gives them the reward of your affection and attention (and maybe a treat or two).
- Get active. Ensure your dog is stimulated and gets enough exercise to reduce stress, keep them busy, and help them burn off any excess energy they may direct toward licking you.
- Give them lots of positive affirmation and praise when they do things you want them to. Focus on rewarding good behavior with positive attention rather than negative attention when they misbehave.
- Stay consistent. Don't confuse your dog with mixed messages about licking. Stay consistent and clear about what you want them to do — and what you don't want them to do.
- If you think your dog's licking is allergy-related, keep them away from the allergens. So, for example, ensure they stay inside when the lawn is being mowed during the spring if they're allergic to pollen.
Since there are so many different causes of licking in dogs, it’s a good idea to talk to your vet if the behavior persists or is causing concern.
There is a myriad of reasons your dog could be licking you, your house guests, your other pets, and themselves. The good news is that most of the time, a dog licking things is natural and normal. In the rare instance where the dog is excessively licking, it may be a sign of a more significant issue. As with everything, give your veterinarian a call if your dog's licking has become unusual and excessive. A quick checkup can rule out or diagnose any underlying conditions that are leading to the licking.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why do dogs lick your feet?
Before we can answer this question, we need to do a quick anatomy lesson.
Humans have two types of sweat glands:
- Eccrine: These glands secrete a thin, odorless, clear fluid made of salt and protein. They're found on the soles of the feet, palms, forehead, cheeks, and armpits.
- Aprocine: These glands secrete a much thicker fluid and react with skin bacteria to produce body odor. They're found in the armpits, groin, ear canals, eyelids, and nostrils.
These two glands work together to create a sweaty, salty stew that is mouthwateringly good in your pup's eyes!
Your dog's foot fetish can also be attributed to your ticklishness. When you laugh as your dog licks your feet, you are providing them with positive reinforcement. This teaches them that when they lick your feet, they get positive attention from you.
Why do dogs lick your face?
Think of all the things your face comes into contact with on a daily basis — a kiss from your spouse, an egg sandwich, the subway, an envelope you lick, your lipstick and foundation, your face wash, sweat from your pilates class, etc. Can you really blame your pup for wanting to learn more?
Your face also contains both types of sweat we went over above. The eccrine glands on your cheeks and forehead leave a salty flavor that your pup can't resist. You may not be able to smell the mild odor that the apocrine glands in your eyelids and nostrils produce, but your dog's super sniffer sure can!
It's also an instinct for dogs to lick faces. They lick each other's faces for mutual grooming, affection, and submissive communication. So as slobbery as it may be, your dog licking your face is a true sign of their love for you. Aww.
Why does my dog lick my hands?
You use your hands to touch everything as they collect all of the smells and flavors you come into contact with each day. Your dog likely wants in on the action, smelling and licking them as part of their investigation into where you've been all day. Not to mention the sweat that's produced in the palms of your hands, leaving behind a little extra treat for Fido.