If you've ever experienced the slobbery kisses of your furry friend or been baffled by your pup licking the carpet incessantly, you may have wondered what the meaning is behind a dog’s licks.
Dogs have their own ways of interacting with the world, and licking is a multitool in their behavioral toolkit. While generally a normal dog behavior, licking can also indicate underlying health problems in your canine companion.
Licking Starts at Birth
From the time they’re born, puppies receive countless licks from their mothers.
Not only does this form of care strengthen the parent-pup bond, but it also helps the newborn accomplish some essential tasks. For example, according to a study published in Journal of Small Animal Practice, licks from mom help the new pups find where to suckle in the first three weeks of life.
Research has also found that a dog mom's saliva has antimicrobial properties that may protect the vulnerable puppies from getting sick (but no, this doesn’t mean that dog’s mouths are cleaner than human’s).
Why Do Dogs Lick You?
Beyond parent-pup purposes, licking is one of several canine behaviors that triggers the release of oxytocin in the brain – the same hormone that bonds human moms and their newborns.
So, when your dog licks you, it's probably not just a random action. It could be a way for them to express love, affection and deepen their feeling of connectedness with you.
Dogs also exhibit a remarkable sense of empathy towards their human counterparts. When you're feeling upset, your dog might shower you with comforting licks. Their actions may stem from a desire to alleviate your distress.
Licking can also be a strategy for dogs to grab your attention – especially if they’ve learned that the behavior leads to positive attention. If your furry friend gives you incessant licks, they are likely seeking interaction, playtime or a good belly rub.
Why Do Dogs Lick Themselves?
Dogs, like many animals, instinctually lick themselves to stay clean. Self-grooming is an essential part of a dog's hygiene routine, helping them remove dirt, debris and excess fur. It also serves as a way to maintain their coat and skin health.
However, experts note that this self-grooming behavior should only occur for a few minutes a day.
Licking can also serve as a stress-relief mechanism for dogs. In addition to oxytocin, licking releases endorphins and dopamine, which are feel-good chemicals that help your dog relax.
Read More: Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads to One Side?
Why Do Dogs Lick Excessively?
While licking is generally a harmless, endearing and sometimes useful behavior, excessive or compulsive licking can be a red flag for underlying issues.
Dogs may resort to repetitive licking if they are anxious, stressed, uncomfortable or in pain.
For example, a sudden onset of seemingly uncontrollable licking of random surfaces can indicate gastrointestinal problems. Or excessive licking of the paws or a patch of skin can signal itchiness caused by allergies or parasites.
However, if there is no physical reason for the licking, the problem might be psychological. Licking is a common fixation in dogs with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which can be the source of serious distress. In some cases, the licking itself can cause new medical concerns. Like when excessive licking of the same spot on the body leads to a painful skin condition called acral lick dermatitis.
Read More: Dogs May Be Smelling Our Stress
When to Visit a Vet
It's essential to pay attention to changes in your pup’s licking habits. If excessive licking becomes a problem or if you notice sudden changes in your pup's demeanor, it may be time for a vet visit.
A professional evaluation can identify underlying medical or psychological issues and determine the best course of action, which may involve behavior modification, medical treatment or a combination of both.