Licking can be a way to get attention, but also both a symptom and a cause of serious problems.
A listener, Geri, wrote me about a friend’s dog. Molly is a 6-year-old Golden Retriever who licks people to the point of annoyance and beyond. This week’s topic is licking – when it’s normal, and when it’s a sign of a serious problem.
What is Normal Doggy Licking?
Dogs lick the floor clean when we drop the yogurt; they lick their chops after they’ve eaten something tasty; they lick our faces, or try to, when we come home. Once, my older dog turned her head on a crowded sidewalk and licked the knee of a woman headed in the opposite direction. I’ve no idea what prompted her. She’d never done that before, and she’s never done it again.
It’s not unheard of for a dog to like the taste or smell of lotion and seek to lick it off the skin of the person using it. And dogs crave attention; if they don’t get enough while hanging around in a quiet, unobtrusive way, they often learn to get it by barking, stealing shoes, or engaging in other obnoxious behaviors, such as persistent licking.
But licking can be a sign of trouble, too. Molly, the Golden Retriever my listener wrote me about, licks all the time. She can be occupied with a toy or chewy in her mouth. But otherwise, she’s licking; if she’s not licking people, she licks and grooms her paws. When one behavior takes up that much space in a dog’s life, we can be sure that something’s wrong.
Medical Causes of Excessive Licking
Some of the possibilities are medical, so if your dog repetitively licks a particular body part or parts, get a vet check pronto. The dog version of hay fever -- inhalant allergies to pollen, dust, grasses, even human dander -- can make the skin miserably itchy. Other possible itch culprits include fungal and bacterial infections of the skin.[ Persistent licking has also been associated with cancers, bone fractures, and pain caused by thorns or other objects stuck in the flesh.[i Some veterinarians think there may be a link with chronic gastrointestinal distress. Worse yet, the licking can cause new medical problems. Dogs who lick one spot on their bodies over and over again often develop acral lick granuloma, a weeping sore that can reach all the way down to the bone.
Stereotypies and Compulsive Disorder
Since I haven’t met Molly and I’m not a veterinarian, I can’t be sure her particular brand of licking started without a medical cause. But her history may suggest another possibility. Geri explained that Molly had spent much of her first two years chained to a concrete slab with a doghouse. The people whose legal property she was had gotten tired of her. It’s no stretch to imagine that Molly was desperately lonely and bored. Under these conditions, she may have developed what’s called a stereotypy -- a single, nonfunctional behavior repeated over and over again.[ii Animals kept in sterile environments, where they can’t meet their basic behavioral needs, commonly develop stereotypies. For example, you may have seen a lion or tiger endlessly pacing its barred concrete cage in an old-fashioned zoo. Stereotypies can take many forms, including feather plucking, ear pulling,[iv] and overgrooming.
[[AdMiddle]Stereotypies can change the animal’s brain chemistry, and they don’t necessarily evaporate when the animal enters a richer, more appropriate environment. At that point the stereotypy qualifies as a compulsive disorder. Even now that Molly’s in a good home, she’s licking; she just has more surfaces available to lick.
Other Compulsive Behaviors
Of course, most dogs with compulsive disorders haven’t spent years on a chain. Anxiety can play a part: thunderphobic dogs sometimes lick themselves compulsively and may develop lick granuloma as a result.[v] Many breeds have a genetic predisposition to specific forms of compulsive disorder: Mini Schnauzers repeatedly “check” their hindquarters, whereas Doberman Pinschers may suck their flanks. Some dogs snap at the air as if trying to catch invisible flies. Trainer lore has it that nobody should ever invite their Border Collie to chase a laser pointer unless they want him compulsively chasing any moving light. . Stressful life changes, like those that come with a new baby, can set off problems even in apparently stable, happy dogs.[v
If your dog licks or performs any other behavior more often than seems normal, get help right away – that gives you and your dog the best chance of success. Treatment for compulsive disorder generally combines medication, stress reduction, and a full, interesting life with plenty of mental and physical exercise. You can also learn to spot your dog’s triggers so as to derail compulsive incidents before they start.