Lots of dogs love smothering their dog parents with wet kisses. Dogs also like to lick their fur, favorite toys, other dogs, and even the walls! So, why do dogs like to lick everything?
Why do dogs lick?
Licking is a natural behavior for dogs. Mamma dogs lick their pups to groom them, and the pups lick their siblings as they roll around in their litter together. Their wolf ancestors also lick each other to politely ask alpha members of the pack if they can get in on a meal. There are many reasons for licking, including the 14 listed here.
1. Something is itchy
Dogs tend to lick at itchy skin to help stop that scratchy feeling, which could be caused by flea bites, allergies, or other common skin problems. Dogs who lick around the base of the tail and drag their rump across the carpet could have an anal gland problem.
2. Something is ouchie
Dogs lick to soothe irritated skin, which can be caused by a skin issue, allergic reaction, or injury. Additionally, it can be a way to deal with pain from conditions like arthritis. Unfortunately, all of that licking can lead to more irritation and complications like infections.
While dogs don’t have the magical grooming powers of our feline friends, they still find their tongues useful for a quick bath. Some dogs over-groom their fur, which can result in bald patches and irritated skin. Obsessive grooming can be caused by a health condition or brought on by anxiety, frustration, or boredom.
If your dog is smacking their lips or licking the empty food bowl, they might just be trying to say, “Hey, I’m hungry. Feed me fast!” Some dogs also lick with excitement when they know that a meal is on its way.
Dogs who are thirsty or dehydrated might lick to combat a dry tongue, mouth, or throat. That licking can help stimulate the salivary glands, but better yet, it might cue their pet parent in on the problem so they can get a refreshing drink!
6. Mouth Problems
Dogs who have something that feels strange in their mouths, like a chipped tooth or a gum injury, might be tempted to lick that spot. Dogs with gingivitis or dental disease may also lick in response to pain. You can help avoid these issues by brushing your dog’s teeth regularly and scheduling an annual cleaning at your veterinarian’s office.
An annual dental cleaning can be covered by an ASPCA Pet Health Insurance plan with added preventive care coverage.
A queasy tummy caused by an illness or eating something harmful can make your dog’s mouth water and leave a yucky taste in their mouth. A dog might lick to try to spit out some of that extra saliva or get rid of the bad taste.
8. Cognitive issues
Excessive licking can be a sign of a cognitive disorder in older dogs. Other symptoms include pacing around the house, sleeping more than usual, and becoming withdrawn. If you suspect your dog is experiencing cognitive issues, you should talk to your veterinarian to see if there are any medications or treatments that could help.
9. Stress or boredom
Some dogs lick because they are bored or anxious, which can be due to a change in routine, separation anxiety, or a new pet in the family. If you suspect boredom is to blame, you can try spending more time with your dog and also leave a treat-filled puzzle toy to help them pass the time when you are away. Anxiety issues can be more difficult to address, and you might want to seek advice from your veterinarian or a certified animal behaviorist.
Similar to chewing, licking can be a way for dogs to check out their surroundings. This is especially true for young puppies who use their mouths to explore the world like human babies.
11. Attention seeking
Do you reward your dog’s licks with lots of praise? Then it’s no wonder your dog loves to lick! You have trained them that licking equals positive attention. If your dog’s licking is becoming a problem, you’ll need to do a little retraining. When your dog tries to lick you, keep your face away from that tongue and wait until your pup settles down before praising them. Make sure everyone in your house is onboard with the new “no face licking” policy otherwise your dog will get confused.
As our puppies grow up, they are taught not to bite when they roughhouse with other dogs or people. Some dogs may take to licking their “opponent” instead of using their teeth.
13. An expression of love
Those licks could be your dog’s way of smothering you with love. And, let’s face it, an outpouring of wet kisses can really brighten the day. Licking can also be a sign of respect and a way of letting you know that you are the trusted pack leader.
14. Just because
Dogs just like to lick. Do they always need a reason?
Should you let your dog kiss your face?
It’s something lots of us do—when our dogs want to give us a slobbery greeting, we bend down and let them cover us with wet kisses. But this is not healthy for you or your dog. For instance, a study in Japan showed that gum disease-causing bacteria can be transferred from dogs to humans and vice versa from those kisses.*
Dogs also tend to put their noses in some rather yucky places, like the garbage can or things they find along the side of the road. Plus, they lick and eat things you wouldn't dream of putting near your mouth, such as rotten food or dog poop. This means those kisses could put you at risk for getting sick.
When asked if you should let your dog lick your child’s face, our veterinary expert Dr. Mary Beth Leininger said, "The short answer…no." She went on to explain, "Because dogs frequently lick around the anus, they can harbor parasite eggs in the saliva."+ These parasites along with bacteria or viruses can be passed to humans through those loving kisses.
It’s also a good idea to wash your hands with soap and water if you end up with a handful of dog kisses. This can help prevent transferring bad microscopic stuff from your hands to your face and mouth.
Did you know that ASPCA Pet Health Insurance covers diagnosis and treatment for behavioral conditions? Get a free quote to learn more.
What can you do about excessive licking?
If your dog licks excessively, you should visit your veterinarian to see if there is a health condition or skin issue at the root of the problem. Your veterinarian can help figure out what is going on and recommend treatment. Constant licking can lead to bald patches and painful trauma to the skin, so it’s good to take care of it sooner rather than later.
You can also try providing your dog with distractions from licking, like a treat-filled puzzle toy or long lasting dog chew. If the licking is due to anxiety, you can seek help from your veterinarian or a certified animal behaviorist.
* Oral Biology Journal, "Distribution of periodontopathic bacterial species in dogs and their owners"
+ Medical Daily, "Does Your Dog Or Cat Lick You? How Common Diseases Spread From Pets To Owners"