All dogs lick themselves, whether it’s for grooming, comfort, or showing affection. But obsessive licking can be an indicator of a problem.

By Lucy Wendel
Updated October 15, 2020
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For dog owners, a pup who likes to lick things isn't unusual. In fact, this type of behavior is just as common as tail wagging, head tilting, and barking at a squirrel. If you notice your dog licking its lips when you bring over a bowl of food or when you give them a treat for completing a trick, there's definitely no need to panic. They're just excited for a snack! However, excessive licking can sign some concerning issues, including pain, anxiety, and allergies. If you notice your pet suddenly licking excessively, make sure you call your vet and schedule an appointment for the check-up. In the meantime, you can learn about five common reasons why dogs start licking things more.

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1. Pain

Licking can be one way to alleviate pain. If your dog is consistently licking the same spot, there’s a good chance something is bothering them in that area. Check for bumps, lesions, and foreign bodies, and monitor how she moves to see if arthritis or an injury may be the issue. Contact your vet if you think your pup might be in pain. They will be able to help diagnose any problems and provide options for medication.

2. Allergies

Itchy skin can trigger obsessive licking in a certain area as well. Inspect your pooch for hives, rashes, or fleas that might be bothering them. If she’s recently been outside, it could be a reaction to an environmental allergen, particularly if the issue is on or near their feet. Treat them to a nice warm bath to remove any potential irritants and soothe their skin.

3. Anxiety 

Occasional licking to relieve anxiety is perfectly normal. But if your dog continues to lick, it could turn into an obsessive-compulsive habit. Licking carpets or blankets is another indication that the behavior is rooted in anxiety. "OCD in pets is caused by stress, so it’s important to try and figure out what environmental stressors could be causing the excessive licking," says Jennifer Freeman, DVM, a Florida-based veterinarian. (The COVID-19 pandemic, and all the changes caused by it, could definitely be one of them.) Another reason your dog might be licking things other than themselves is early maternal separation. Freeman says that dogs who are separated from their mother too soon can develop compulsive licking later in life.

4. Dietary Issues

Dogs have sensitive digestive systems, and licking may be an indicator of nausea or gastrointestinal discomfort. Many dogs have an intolerance to grains, starches, and soy. They can even be negatively affected by the diet of the chicken or beef in their dog food.

Talk to your vet about switching your dog to a grain-free, non-GMO food with grass-fed meats, like Nutro Wholesome Essentials Dog Food ($45, Chewy). Any changes to their diet should be made gradually. Mix in the new food with their regular food over several days, increasing the ratio until she’s used to the new flavors.

5. Habit

“If you have ruled out medical issues as the cause of your dog’s licking, the root may be behavioral,” says Whitney Miller, DVM, director of veterinary medicine at Petco. “Dogs use licking as a way to release endorphins that make them feel good. Dogs also groom their fur by licking and often express affection by licking their pet parents, just like their mothers did to them. For some pups, licking is just a behavioral impulse.”

Plus, dogs lick people because they like us! Tasting our salty skin is one way that dogs experience the world around them. We respond to their “kisses” with attention; positive reinforcement trains them to continue this behavior.

Comments (3)

October 29, 2020
Agree with the above. Whoever updated this article should have examined the grain-free myth again in light of recent findings concerning grain-free food. Definitely check your dog for allergies but don't immediately decide to go grain-free. Talk to your vet.
October 29, 2020
Why are you recommending a grain-free dog food when this has been shown to cause heart problems in dogs? This should not be the first line of defense in dog allergies as the consequences can be fatal.
October 29, 2020
Why are you recommending a grain-free dog food when this has been shown to cause heart problems in dogs? This should not be the first line of defense in dog allergies as the consequences can be fatal.