Occasionally, dog owners express concern over their pet’s obsessive licking habits. Some dogs choose to lick inanimate objects in their environment, while others concentrate their oral fixation on their own bodies. The licking behavior itself is not likely to cause harm to your pooch, but he may inadvertently ingest harmful items in the process. For example, if your dog loves to lick the carpet, he may ingest fibers and hair, which may cause intestinal obstructions.
Ancestral Reasons for Licking
Modern dogs retain some of the tendencies of their ancestors, even though they are no longer necessary. For example, young puppies often lick their mother’s lips, which historically caused the mother to regurgitate food for her young. Modern dogs benefit from pet owners who provide puppies with soaked dog food during the weaning process, eliminating the need for the mother to regurgitate. Dogs also lick things, people or animals when they are curious or when being submissive. Additionally, dogs lick themselves to stay clean, and remove meal remnants from their face and coat. Mothers lick their newborns to clean off the fetal membrane, and to stimulate the pups’ elimination. These examples are natural, and not indicative of obsessive licking, which may be a problem.
Recognizing Obsessive Licking
Obsessive licking is easy to recognize and distinguish from purpose-driven licking. Dogs that are curious or find some tasty residue will lick an object a few times and then move on; obsessive licking often persists for extended periods. Many times, the object of their attention offers no obvious attraction, like being salty or wet. While you may be able to get your dog to stop temporarily, he may resume the behavior or select another object on which to concentrate. Objects that frequently draw the attention of dogs include walls, floors, chair legs, metal brackets and concrete -- some dogs may even lick the air, rather than an object. Be sure to distinguish obsessive licking from pica -- a condition in which your dog eats non-food items that can harm him.
Medical Causes of Obsessive Licking
Veterinarian Valarie V. Tynes suggests that when licking behavior begins suddenly, independently of external stimuli, a medical problem may be the cause. Tynes also suggests that when owners are not able to stop the behavior by distracting the dog, or are only able to do so briefly, a medical cause is likely to be at play. In some cases, neurological disorders cause dogs to lick surfaces obsessively. Nausea may cause excessive licking, so be sure to examine any potential sources of nausea when looking for a potential cause.
Anxiety commonly causes a variety of behavioral problems, such as repetitive licking. A new pet, changing schedule or the addition or removal of a family member may spark such obsessive behaviors. The ASPCA cautions owners not to punish or scold their dog for such behaviors. Obsessive licking is not an example of disobedience; it is a symptom of pain, anxiety or some other distress. Punishment will exacerbate the situation. However, it is also important to avoid giving your dog attention during or right after such behaviors, which the dog may interpret as praise. If your pup is licking because of anxiety, increased exercise may help him to relax, which may stop the licking.