After rolling around in the dirt, or after a refreshing splash on the beach, your dog wants to be clean. He may lick himself or groom himself with varying regularity, depending on how gritty your dog likes to be. Even after everyday tasks like going to the bathroom or lying down in the grass, you may notice that your dog has a series of cleaning routines that he performs on itself. Humans don’t always think of dogs as clean creatures. They don’t wash their hands before dinner or use toilet paper, after all. Sometimes dogs lick in places that make their owner think twice before going in for a doggy kiss. The reality, however, is that dogs hold themselves to a natural level of cleanliness. Here’s how to monitor your dog’s hygiene habits, and when your dog might be indicating that something is wrong.
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The Root of the Behavior
Cats are notorious for constantly licking themselves clean, but dogs engage in this behavior too. You may not always associate your dog’s licking with hygiene, and to be fair, it may not always be a grooming lick. That being said, most licking that dogs do on themselves is a cleaning, healthy process. Dogs are able to use their tongues to clear dirt, sand, debris, dead tissue, and other impurities from their coats. This includes the regions that make dog owners a little uncomfortable sometimes. Although it can seem disgusting to humans, the tongue is a dog’s only way to wipe after going to the bathroom, and it is a behavior usually taught to dogs by their mothers. Thankfully, dog saliva contains antibacterial chemicals that also act as cleaning agents, while always keeping your dog’s mouth (relatively) clean.
Dogs have several other methods of cleaning themselves that don’t seem effective to the human eye. Perhaps most recognizable is the extremely forceful full-body shake, usually performed by wet or muddy dogs. A less obvious example would be when your dog rolls around in the grass to comb through their fur. Similarly, you may watch your dog roll around on the carpet after playing outside or drag his face along the ground after eating. All of these actions serve to keep your dog’s coat free of debris and dead hairs. Nibbling achieves this same effect, and it also stimulates oil glands that help keep skin and hair clean. Whenever you see your dog nibbling at a certain area, it may be because your dog is slightly irritated by debris, and the action takes care of both the problem and the irritation.
Being clean feels good, and your dog would agree with you. For this reason, some dogs have a hard time knowing when to stop self-grooming, and this may cause irritation or complications like dermatitis. Most veterinarians preemptively prescribe dog cones (the cone of shame) after an operation so that dogs don’t like the wound and make it worse. If you notice that your dog is licking himself with increased fervor and frequency, it is likely that there is something else going on. Emotional and behavioral problems can also cause unhealthy grooming habits, similar to when humans fall into the habit of biting fingernails too frequently or brushing hair so often that the hair becomes thin and loose.
Encouraging the Behavior
While dogs do have natural grooming abilities, they could still use human help to stay cleaner and healthier than they could on their own. You should have an active role in your dog’s grooming habits, and you should regularly wash and brush your dog according to breed guidelines and coat type. As is the case with humans, there are different shampoos and hair solutions for different dog breeds and coat types. If your dog has skin conditions or infections, consider working with your veterinarian on finding grooming solutions tailored to your dog. Finding a healthy schedule of grooming is a great way to keep your dog clean, and to establish a deeper bond with your dog.
In addition to being an active part of your dog’s grooming patterns, you should be watchful for signs of irregular or unhealthy grooming habits. If your dog is licking at his paws repeatedly, examine the paw and try to determine if something is causing your dog pain. In most cases, the irritation or condition will be red, swollen, bleeding, or obviously sore. That being said, dogs will lick themselves even if the problem isn’t apparent. For example, joint pain could cause your dog to lick his legs without any apparent irritation or symptoms. Be aware of changes to your dog’s grooming habits and you may help your dog to quickly resolve pain and health problems.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Dogs that clean themselves too much, especially by licking, can be suffering from a condition called canine compulsive disorder. The act of licking, nibbling, or self-grooming in general releases endorphins in a dog’s brain, which in turn combats anxiety, pain, and stress. Dogs who experience chronic boredom, pain, stress, or irritants may overstimulate themselves and begin to lick compulsively as a means of coping with the discomfort. Compulsive licking or grooming can lead to a myriad of other health complications. In these cases, the best course of action is to closely monitor your dog and provide alternate endorphin-releasing behaviors whenever they begin to self-groom. Over time, you will redirect the stress and teach your dog new coping mechanisms. If all else fails, bring your dog into the vet to make sure that there are no other underlying conditions causing compulsive behavior.
The desire to feel clean is present in all animal life, and your dog is no exception. You might wash your hands and face after a greasy, saucy meal. Your dog might run his nose and face on the carpet after enjoying a similarly savory meal. The key to maintaining optimal cleanliness in your dog is knowing when and how often to clean and groom. Just remember to stand clear when your wet, muddy dog gets ready to do a full-body shake.