Why Do Dogs Lick The Air?

PetMD Editorial
Updated: February 15, 2018
Published: January 26, 2018
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By Nicole Pajer

Dogs engage in a variety of behaviors that perplex us, and one of them is licking the air. We caught up with the experts to get to the bottom of this odd behavior. Here are five potential reasons why your dog is licking the air.

Something Is Stuck to the Roof of Their Mouth

One reason that dogs may appear to be licking the air is because they have something lodged inside of their mouth or stuck to the roof of it. “I find they are usually not licking the air but licking at a physical sensation, such as peanut butter on the roof of the mouth or something stuck in the lip, like a bit of a treat or toy,” says Katenna Jones, an animal behaviorist with Jones Animal Behavior in Warwick, Rhode Island.

If you notice your pet licking around at nothing, you might want to open his mouth and make sure that nothing is stuck inside, she suggests. If the issue is caused by residue leftover from a peanut butter snack, then the situation is harmless, Jones says. But if you find something seriously stuck inside your dog’s mouth, you can try to remove it yourself or take him to the veterinarian. 

They May Be Stressed Out

Licking is a common but often overlooked sign of stress or discomfort, according to Jennie Lane, a registered veterinary technician and associate applied animal behaviorist at Synergy Animal Behavior in Portland, Oregon. “To explain why an individual dog is doing it, one must look closer at that individual,” she says.

A dog who licks the air frequently may have a compulsive disorder. “It may be a habit due to anxiety,” explains Dr. Shari Brown, a veterinarian with Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center. If the behavior appears to happen in a stressful situation (e.g., lots of people around, loud noises, new places), a behavioral issue may likely be the culprit, she adds.

“Pay attention to what is going on around you when your pet is doing the behavior,” Brown says. “Look for other signs such as hiding, urinating/defecating in the house, etc., that could help hint that your pet is anxious.”

If the problem persists, Lane recommends bringing your dog in for a consult with a certified animal behaviorist.

It May Be a Skin Issue

“Dogs with certain pruritic (itchy) dermatologic disorders will sometimes lick the air,” says Dr. Mike Petty of Arbor Pointe Veterinary Hospital in Canton, Michigan. Dogs with skin issues are much more likely to lick at their paws, but may take to licking the air “if they have been admonished in the past for licking themselves,” Petty says.

They May Be Trying to Take in a Strong Scent

“A dog that appears to be licking the air could be doing what is referred to as a flehmen response,” Jones says. “This occurs when the dog's nose comes into contact with certain molecules (often pheromones, urine, blood, or feces) and he makes a motion with his mouth that pushes those molecules over what is known as a Jacobson's organ or the vomeronasal organ.” When an animal does this, you may see his lip curl back as he wrinkles his nose, opens his mouth a little, and breathes out. When dogs do this, they  sometimes look like they are licking the air, drooling, or foaming, Jones explains. But really, they are just trying to take in a potent smell.

There May Be a GI Issue

The medical term for excessive licking of air and other surfaces is called “Excessive Licking of Surfaces” (ELS), notes Dr. Erin Wilson, outreach veterinarian at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine and former medical director of the ASPCA Adoption Center. ELS appears to be strongly correlated to gastrointestinal disorders. “A Canadian study in 2016 concluded that 60 percent or more of dogs with ELS have an underlying gastrointestinal disorder, and some studies indicate that it could be as high as 75 percent,” she says. This could be a sign of a condition like reflux, esophagitis, or pancreatitis, Brown adds. “Nausea and reflux can cause lip licking and some dogs may lick the air instead of licking their lips.”

Aside from lip licking, other symptoms of GI disease may include painful abdomen, decreased appetite, vomiting, and diarrhea, Brown says.

When to See a Veterinarian

If your dog is continuously licking the air, you should schedule an appointment with your veterinarian, our experts advise. This could mean that your pet has a compulsive disorder or a more serious internal issue. The quicker you address the problem, the better. “If the licking is due to chronic pancreatitis, esophagitis, or focal seizures, for example, those can cause other issues in the long run if left ignored,” Brown says.

To help your veterinarian make a proper assessment, it’s helpful to jot down the time, date, and conditions under which your dog’s unwanted behavior is occurring, Lane recommends. “Logs are always helpful in the treatment of medical or behavioral conditions.”

Pet parents should try to determine a pattern or frequency of the behavior, Brown adds. “They can start a journal log of when they see it occurring, if anything maybe stimulated it, how long it lasts, and if they are able to stop it by distracting their pet,” she says. It would also be very helpful to your veterinarian if he or she could see the behavior. Try using your smartphone to capture it on video.

Ultimately, your vet is in the best position to determine the significance of your dog’s licking and whether further testing is required. If your veterinarian rules out an underlying medical issue, she may suggest working with a certified animal behaviorist to curb your dog’s unwanted behavior, Lane says.

If your dog occasionally licks the air, there is no need to worry, Wilson says.

“Occasionally licking of air or other surfaces should not be a concern,” she says. However, “if it’s happening regularly or for more than a few days, a medical evaluation is indicated.”