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What is Licking?

Should your dog be licking, you will observe his tongue moving repeatedly along his or her body or along his paws. Some licking is normal, however, excessive licking may mean your dog is experiencing an underlying physical or emotional issue. There are a variety of reasons that your dog may be licking, to include:

  • Skin problems (these can be caused by allergies, fleas and other skin irritations)
  • Injuries and/or experiencing pain
  • Emotional problems

How serious your dog’s licking is will depend on the reason for his doing so. Should he be excessively licking as a result of fleas it will be relatively easy to resolve. Bringing your dog to the veterinarian for an examination is important so that it can be determined whether the licking is the result of something minor or a more serious health condition.

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Why Licking Occurs in Dogs

The reason for your dog itching excessively will depend upon its cause. For example:

Skin Problems

Should your dog have allergies, he will likely have itchy skin which will lead to his repeatedly licking and chewing. In an allergy, your dog’s immune system will release a histamine in response to what it views as a foreign substance, leading to the excessive itching. Your dog will lick in an effort to resolving the itching and discomfort he feels.

If your dog has been bitten by fleas, he can experience significant itching leading to his repeatedly licking his skin. If your dog is allergic to flea bites, he will likely be even more itchy (and thus engage in more licking).

Other skin problems may include mange, ringworm, or hives, all of which can lead to your dog licking his skin excessively in order to get relief.

Injuries or Other Causes of Pain

When your dog is experiencing pain resulting from an injury or illness, it may lead to him licking excessively. When dogs are injured, they tend to lick their wounds often in an effort to heal the injury by increasing blood flow and creating moisture, which will create a topical anesthesia upon evaporation.

Your dog may lick any sore spots regardless of whether there is an open wound; for example, a pulled muscle or sore joint.

Dog collars may lead to nerve damage in those that supply the front legs of your dog, particularly if he pulls often on his leash. The nerve damage may lead to an odd sensation in his feet which may cause frequent licking of his front paws.

Emotional Problems

Your dog may lick excessively due to emotional problems, like boredom, anxiety, and stress, which may turn obsessive over time and can even result in bald skin and lesions.

What to do if your Dog is Licking

Should you notice that your dog is excessively licking himself, you will want to contact your veterinarian. Your veterinarian will conduct a physical examination of your dog, looking closely at his skin to determine if he is experiencing any skin problems. A sample from your dog’s skin may be taken for viewing under a microscope. This will allow your veterinarian to see if your dog has fleas or mites on his skin. If your dog has skin symptoms and there are no organisms present, your veterinarian will consider other causes for his symptoms, to include allergies. When a food allergy is suspected your veterinarian may recommend a novel diet, where his current food is substituted for something different (usually very bland) for at least 90 days. Should the symptoms resolve themselves over that time, it will point to a food allergy. Once old food items are introduced one at a time, if the symptoms return, the source of the allergy will be confirmed. For non-food allergies, your veterinarian may recommend allergy testing. 

During the examination, your veterinarian will also look closely at your dog for signs of an injury or pain that is resulting from an underlying condition, as these issues may cause your dog to excessively lick himself. Depending on the results of the exam, further testing may be ordered to include X-rays, a complete blood count (CBC) and a urine and fecal exam.

Should no physical symptoms be observed during the examination, your veterinarian will consider the possibility that your dog’s excessive licking is the result of emotional problems. It will be important for you to answer your veterinarian’s questions about your dog’s lifestyle, so that your veterinarian can get an understanding of whether your dog may be experiencing anxiety, stress or boredom and discuss with you how to help him to emotionally so that he does not continue to excessively lick himself.

Prevention of Licking

There are things that you can do proactively to avoid some of the conditions that can lead to excessive licking in your dog. Administering flea medication as directed will help your dog avoid the organisms that may cause a great deal of itching and discomfort. If you notice any skin symptoms in your dog, having them looked at right away can help your dog receive relief prior to his starting to (or getting in the habit of) excessively licking. Ensuring that your dog gets plenty of exercise will help his emotional health as well as his physical. Providing him with toys and spending time with him will help him to avoid licking out of boredom.

Cost of Licking

Treatment for this symptom can vary greatly in cost. For example, should your dog have fleas, treatment will average around $350 (depending upon where you live and the extent of his condition). If the skin symptoms are the result of an underlying condition, the cost of their resolution will depend on the exact condition. Should your veterinarian determine that there is no physical cause for your dog’s excessive licking, making simple lifestyle changes will involve minimal cost.