If your dog just keeps licking something, it might seem a bit humorous at first -- at least if you're not familiar with obsessive-compulsive canine behaviors. It's no laughing matter, though; obsessive or compulsive behaviors in dogs can become disruptive or dangerous when they interfere with normal activities or cross the line into self-mutilation.
Dogs like to lick. Along with their keen sense of smell, it's a key way they explore their environment. Licking is, in most cases, natural and innocent. If there's an understandable cause -- crumbs under the table or on the couch, scented lotion on your skin or some other appealing scent, for example -- your dog's licking wouldn't be considered obsessive or compulsive. If the behavior has no sensible cause, though, it may be compulsive. Such behaviors are purposeless, frequent and repeated to the point of excess. Your dog probably becomes fully engrossed while licking, and may continue licking to the exclusion of other normal activities.
Compulsive licking is, in many instances, a psychological problem with environmental triggers. Severe under-stimulation and boredom is a common cause, as are other forms of significant and ongoing stress or anxiety. Excessive confinement, restraint or isolation may be to blame, as may abuse or lack of socialization. Obsessive or compulsive licking should resolve with meaningful changes to the way your dog is kept. Daily exercise and interaction with people is essential. Your dog shouldn't spend more than a few hours per day alone or in confinement. Supply a variety of toys for stimulation. Train her, too. If you're unable to provide enough exercise and stimulation, hire a dog walker or sitter or enroll your pet in a reputable doggy daycare facility. Canine pheromone simulators, massage, aromatherapy, constriction jackets and medications can also help with stress management.
Doberman pinschers, Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers, as breeds, have an increased susceptibility to compulsive licking. This implies a genetic factor, but any dog can develop a problem with obsessive or compulsive licking for any number of reasons. While psychological causes are more likely to prompt compulsive licking of surfaces or objects, physiological causes are more likely to make your dog lick herself. Anything causing significant itching or irritation to the skin may lead to this behavior. Parasites or severe dry skin can do it, as can contact dermatitis, eczema or other allergic skin conditions; food allergies can also cause itching. If your dog experiences pain in a particular location, she may feel compelled to keep licking it for lack of any other recourse. Hormonal imbalances, cognitive decline and neurological disorders also cause canine compulsive licking. Treatment of the underlying physiological problem is necessary to stop the behavior.
Diagnosis of any problem, including compulsive licking, should come from your veterinarian, as should a treatment plan. Take your pet to the vet when you notice the behavior. Provide a detailed accounting of when it started, whether there are obvious triggers, whether you've seen other possible symptoms, what or where your dog compulsively licks and other aspects of what you've observed. Obsessive or compulsive licking may seem harmless at first, but it doesn't stay that way. Some dogs stop eating, exercising or socializing because of the behavior. Others develop lick granuloma or acral lick dermatitis or other complications if they lick themselves often and repeatedly. If there's an underlying medical cause, it too can lead to other complications if left unchecked.
Eric Mohrman has been a freelance writer since 2007, focusing on travel, food and lifestyle stories. His creative writing is also widely published. He lives in Orlando, Florida.