Every dog owner has noticed it. Whether they only do it occasionally or seem intent on making it full time job, all dogs spend time licking themselves. From a human point-of-view, this activity may seem strange, unsanitary, and somewhat self-indulgent, but licking is a natural canine behavior that serves a variety of purposes.
From birth, dogs learn that licking in general is a fundamental part of life. Mother dogs lick their newborn pups to stimulate breathing, keep them clean and warm, and facilitate elimination until the pups have the ability to eliminate on their own. When they are old enough to start eating food, wolf pups lick their mother’s mouth to stimulate regurgitation.
Young and submissive domesticated dogs will engage in this same mouth licking to show subordination and respect to older and more dominant dogs. Dogs will lick each other’s’ bodies as a form of mutual grooming, which serves to strengthen bonds. Considering what a significant role licking plays in canine interaction, it is no wonder that dogs will lick themselves.
Most commonly, a dog will lick his own body in order to groom his coat and skin. Dogs also have a propensity for licking wounds, which is an important instinctual behavior. Although a dog’s tongue is by no means as effective as an antiseptic rinse and some triple antibiotic ointment, bactericidal enzymes found canine saliva do help to minimize the risk of infection. Licking also helps to clear dirt, debris, and unhealthy tissue from the wound. Dogs may also lick in order to relieve the itching sensation often associated with a healing wound.
Unfortunately, certain medical and behavioral conditions can lead to destructive grooming behaviors. Allergies have become increasingly common in dogs, and pruritic – or itchy — skin is one of the most common clinical signs of an allergic reaction. Affected dogs will lick, chew, and scratch themselves to the point of self-mutilation in an effort to find relief. Common causes of allergies include proteins found in food and treats, external parasites, skin contact with irritating substances, and environmental allergens, such as pollen, mold, and smoke. It can be very difficult to accurately determine the cause of an allergy, but your dog’s comfort and quality of life depend on a thorough and successful investigation.
Compulsive behavior and stress responses can also manifest in excessive self-grooming. The grooming a pup receives from his mother is extremely calming and many dogs continue to associate licking with comfort in adulthood. When faced with stressors they do not know how to cope with, some dogs will revert to a puppy-like state of mind and start to lick as a means of self-soothing. Dogs that are highly sensitive to stressors or prone to compulsive behavior can quickly develop a potentially dangerous habit of licking themselves for hours on end, often in one specific area.
While short self-licking sessions are healthy and normal, grooming for extended periods of time can be harmful. When dogs groom one spot to excess an acral lick granuloma will develop. These lesions start as a barely noticeable area of hair loss and skin irritation, but they can quickly grow into severe wounds that affect even the deepest layers of skin and pose great risk of infection. Acral lick granulomas are notoriously difficult to treat. The more severe the wound becomes, the greater the urge to lick, which further exacerbates the wound. Attempting to protect the affected area often results in the dog licking a new area until another acral lick granuloma develops. Treatment of this condition involves a combination of intense wound care and behavioral modification. Dogs will have to wear an Elizabethan collar — or e-collar — during this time to limit their ability to lick themselves.
As with any abnormal behavior, excessive licking cannot be effectively treated until the cause is fully understood. With so many potential culprits, it can take a long time to narrow down the list. Even if the initial cause is discovered to be a medical condition, proper treatment does not guarantee an end to the excessive licking. Once your dog develops a habit of over-grooming, he may continue to engage in this behavior long after the original cause has been resolved. The most successful approach when dealing with compulsive self-grooming will take all aspects of the dog’s health and lifestyle into consideration. It is unfortunate and frustrating when a normally healthy and natural behavior becomes self-destructive, but you must not give up. Your dog is depending on you to help him return to a state of physical and mental health.