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What is Excessive Licking?

Excessive licking is a compulsive behavior which can affect any dog, of either gender, of any age and of any breed.  While it is a behavior which can drive a pet parent crazy, it is not without its serious side.  Many canines who lick compulsively do so from anxiety reasons, there are also some underlying systemic causes which must be addressed to protect your pet.

Excessive licking is the compulsive licking of any surface for a period of time which is longer than is needed for exploratory or investigative purposes.

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Symptoms of Excessive Licking in Dogs

The symptoms of excessive licking are precisely what the name suggests -- compulsive and extreme amounts of time spent licking and it can be virtually anything in sight or within reach.  Here are some things you might notice in this area:

  • Excessive licking of air, your face, the furniture, his paws, other animals, his genitals, the tile, the carpet -- virtually everything within reach
  • The licking is prolonged - It lasts longer than is required to explore or investigate the object
  • The licking may begin intermittently and increase in frequency and intensity as time goes on
  • Scratching and biting often accompany the excessive licking
  • Hot spots, red and abraded areas that are painful

Types 

There are two types of excessive licking categories:

  • Licking of surfaces in his environment - This type is called Excessive Licking of Surfaces and can include anything and everything within reach in your canine family member’s world
  • Self-licking - This type generally results in Acral Lick Dermatitis; it can begin as an allergic reaction or simply as a particular area that your canine family member just keeps licking, biting and chewing at until an abrasion or lesion is created which causes him to keep up the behavior

Causes of Excessive Licking in Dogs

The excessive licking behavior in dogs has been, for many years, attributed to anxiety and stress release.  While this may be the case for some canines, recent research has suggested that gastrointestinal issues may actually be a major factor in the development of the behavior for many canines.  One such study was done in Montreal using 19 canines who were suffering from excessive licking of surfaces.  Fourteen (14) of the nineteen (19) were found to have gastrointestinal issues, like:

  • Infiltration of lymphocytes and plasma cells and other inflammatory cells into gastrointestinal tissues
  • Delayed gastric emptying
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Chronic inflammation of the pancreas
  • Gastric foreign body
  • Giardiasis - an infection caused by the giardia parasite

Diagnosis of Excessive Licking in Dogs

Since this behavior could be behavioral or neurological as well as systemic, a multi-step diagnostic approach may be required by your veterinary professional.  Of course, your input will be very important as he assesses your family pet’s condition.  Your input will be needed regarding your pet’s dietary regimen, husbandry habits, health history and vaccinations (if that information is not readily available to the attending vet),  exercise routine and frequency, urinating and defecating habits and behaviors and any changes in any behaviors noted and the duration of those changes. Behavioral changes are generally a signal that your pet could be sick or that something is amiss in his life. 

Your vet will perform a physical and neurological examination and will need to order some testing based on his findings in that examination. He will also need to do some testing to rule out as many of the systemic causes for any potential skin infections or deeper internal abnormalities as possible.  You should expect him to order blood testing, urine and fecal samples, perhaps tissue scrapings from abraded areas and even some imaging studies like x-ray, CT scanning or MRI studies.  Depending on his assessment, he may also need to order an emotional evaluation of your pet to assess the anxiety issue.  

With the newer research into the gastrointestinal component, your vet may wish to do a gastric work up on your pet to look for those causes. It is important to note that, if your pet is licking carpet, furniture and other fibrous surfaces, he may be ingesting fibers and hairs which can cause digestive issues that can range to intestinal blockages.  Your vet may wish to look at that issue as well.

Treatment of Excessive Licking in Dogs

Once your veterinary professional has completed his assessment of your family pet, an appropriate treatment plan will be developed and initiated.  The treatment plan will, of course, be dependent upon the findings in the various examinations and testing of your pet.  If underlying systemic causes are found, expect that your vet’s primary concern will be to treat those underlying systemic diseases and conditions for the safety and health of your pet.  These steps might include:

  • Administration of antibiotics for any bacterial infections found or antifungal medications for any fungal infections found
  • Dietary changes if a food allergy is suspected.  This might include a commercial elimination diet to isolate the food component which is causing the problem
  • Treatment of any parasitic infestation, infection or other parasitic involvement
  • If a gastric foreign body is found, surgical removal may be necessary
  • If a gastric blockage is found, surgical removal of the blockage will be required
  • Exercise routine changes may be suggested for those canines found to be responding to built up anxiety and stress
  • Changes in grooming products or shampoos may be suggested if contact dermatitis is found
  • Changes in household cleaning products may be required if contact dermatitis is suspected
  • Hormonal supplementation may be required if a systemic hormonal imbalance is found
  • Retraining of both the family pet as well as the family may also be required if the excessive licking is determined to be just a compulsive or attention-getting behavior

Recovery of Excessive Licking in Dogs

Excessive licking in dogs is definitely a health concern as well as an annoying behavior for pet parents.  If you have a canine family member who is afflicting with this behavior, it is important to understand that it may not completely go away forever.  If there is an underlying health condition which needs to be addressed, and that condition is addressed, then the prognosis is better for improvement in the behavior.  If it is determined to be a result of ongoing home care or changes in home routines, changes could be temporary if those ongoing recommendations aren’t continued.  The important point here is to get your family pet evaluated so that the important conditions are found and treated.