It can be frustrating as a pet parent to watch your pup obsessively lick, chew, and groom themselves. What defines excessive licking and grooming in dogs? Why do our pets do it and what can we do to ease their discomfort?
What Is Considered Excessive Licking or Grooming in Dogs?
Most dogs lick a few common areas—between their toes, along their forearms, over joints, and on their belly. They may lightly lick or even bite or chew these areas intensely.
Excessive licking, however, occurs when a dog experiences negative effects from constant licking. This may include hair loss or bald patches, red areas on the skin, pimple-like lesions, dandruff, skin or coat discoloration, yellow or green discharge, or even limping.
Some pets may also show obvious signs of discomfort while licking or grooming. Signs may include vocalizing, whimpering, moaning, or groaning.
If you notice the following issues, the licking may be excessive:
Your dog has hair loss, skin redness, or oozing anywhere on their body.
Your dog is unable to sleep or frequently awoken because of the urge to lick or chew.
Your dog moans or whines when focused on an area.
Your dog stops playing to lick or groom frequently.
Your dog has mats in their fur close to the skin.
Your dog is otherwise unable to live their life normally.
Causes of Excessive Licking in Dogs
There are many causes of excessive grooming in dogs. Your vet will try to determine the underlying cause, such a skin condition or pain, or a behavioral issue. Because many dogs avoid showing signs of illness at the vet, you can help your vet figure out what’s causing it by bringing photos or videos of your dog while they are constantly licking.
Common reasons dogs excessively lick include any of the following.
Infections and Skin Conditions
Licking and grooming doesn’t automatically equate to being itchy. However, if it is accompanied by scratching or the area is red, infected, or warm to the touch, itching may be the cause.
There are many medications veterinarians can give your dog to treat or mask the itching, but the main concern is WHY your pet is so itchy. First, your vet will do a thorough exam, focusing on the areas of irritation.
Fleas, Mites, and Other Parasites
Your vet may perform a deep skin scrape, which is a diagnostic test that looks deep in the follicles to rule out any ectoparasites like fleas or mites, which are notoriously itchy. Some of the mites your vet will look for are contagious to humans, so it is critical to identify them.
Yeast, Bacterial, and Fungal Infections
With ectoparasites ruled out, your vet may look for yeast, bacteria, or fungal infections on the skin and fur, using a diagnostic tool called a tape prep. Bacterial and yeast infections are typically VERY itchy and accompanied by redness and discharge.
Yeast love warm, moist, dark environments, which is why we frequently see yeast infections between toes, in the groin area, and in the ears. Brownish-red discharge and discoloration are common signs of yeast infections. You may also notice discolored areas where the dog has been licking.
Fungal infections, like ringworm, can be less itchy. They are distinguished by a ring pattern of hair loss and redness on the skin. Special cultures, lights, and follicle tests can be utilized to rule out fungal infections.
Based on these results, your vet can determine the appropriate course of treatment—an antibiotic, an antifungal, an antiparasitic, a steroid, or immune modulators.
If the diagnostic skin tests were negative, it is possible your dog is suffering from allergies. Allergies are one of the most common causes of pruritus, or itchiness. There are generally two types of allergies—environmental and food. A pet with allergies may lick, chew, or scratch, or they may even have secondary digestion problems.
To help treat mild allergies at home, many vets recommend a multimodal approach, which means using a few different therapies that work together. For over-the-counter therapy, using omega-3 fatty acids, a calming shampoo, a topical mousse, or wipes in addition to antihistamines can be very beneficial. Always check with your vet before starting any medications or treatments.
Keep in mind that, many times, your pet may need stronger prescriptions to make them feel better. They may need antibiotics or even prescription anti-itching treatments. All the itching, licking, and grooming can frequently cause a secondary bacterial infection, causing a vicious, painful cycle.
If a food allergy is suspected, your vet may recommend a hypoallergenic food trial using a prescription allergy diet.
Food trials can take 1-3 months before seeing improvement. Because of this, it is essential for any ear or skin infections to be treated at the same time as the food trial.
To perform a food trial, you and your vet would determine the best diet for your pet—hydrolyzed or novel protein are two very common choices. During the trial, your pet cannot receive any other food. The idea is to prevent any other food allergens in the diet.
If your pet does well on this diet trial, you can slowly start to re-introduce, or challenge, their system with one new food item at a time. If your pet begins licking or overgrooming again, your pet is most likely allergic to the new food item. With time and patience, this challenge can be performed over and over to determine your pet’s allergy profile.
Environmental allergies, or atopy, can be investigated as an underlying cause of pruritus after your dog completes a diet trial. It is very common to have secondary infections in the skin or ears, and these must be treated at the same time, just as with food allergies.
There are many medications to help treat atopy, such as Apoquel, Cytopoint, or Atopica, but the best long-term approach to managing environmental allergies, especially in a younger dog, is to perform allergy skin testing and then begin immunotherapy, or desensitization.
If there is no sign of skin infection or allergies, vets will consider arthritis, pain, and wounds as reasons for overgrooming and licking. Dogs will commonly lick painful areas on their body.
Carefully (and safely) examine the area your dog is licking for signs of lacerations, puncture wounds, or even small insect bites. If there is no hair loss, these may be very difficult to see. You may need to clip and clean the area to fully examine it.
Clean the area with a mild soap or dog-specific soap, not household cleaners like alcohol or hydrogen peroxide, which can be harmful to dogs. Most wounds require medical care and possibly surgical intervention.
Excessive grooming over joints could indicate arthritis, soft tissue injury, fractures, or degenerative joint disease. You may also notice joint swelling, joint heat, and limping.
If your pet is licking their lips or the air, carpet, or bedding, or if they are eating grass, this could be a sign they are nauseous. You might also see signs like drooling, vomiting, diarrhea, decreased appetite, increased stomach noises, or lip-smacking.
There are many reasons why a dog may be nauseous or vomit. Some of the more common causes include a blockage of the digestive tract, a dietary indiscretion (eating non-food items), a diet change or sensitivity, inflammation, an infection, parasites, pancreatitis, toxicities, or diseases of other body systems.
Standard diagnostics, such as x-rays and bloodwork, can help determine the cause and treatment for your pet’s nausea. If your pet is lethargic and cannot hold food or water down, seek emergency care immediately.
Other Health Issues
Consider the location of the licking. Long, cracked nails are commonly a source of discomfort. In this case, a simple nail trim could solve the problem. However, autoimmune issues and food deficiencies can also cause dry, brittle nails.
If your dog’s nails are frequently broken, cracked, dry, or brittle, talk to your vet to determine the cause for this combined with the licking. Omega-3 fatty acids and other dietary supplements can help strengthen your dog’s coat and nails, leading to less licking and irritation of the nail and nailbeds.
If your dog is focusing the licking on their rectum or groin, they may be experiencing anal sac, urinary tract, or reproductive organ infections. Your vet may first express your pet's anal glands to rule out infection and impaction. A urine sample will show evidence of infection, blood, urinary bladder crystals, and inflammation. A thorough urogenital exam is especially important in intact female dogs (those who have not been spayed), as they can acquire severe, life-threatening uterine infections.
The final medical step may be a surgical biopsy of the area your pet is licking, chewing, and otherwise traumatizing. A pathologist reviews the biopsy sample to look for abnormal cells and hopefully can obtain a diagnosis.
If all medical reasons have been ruled out—itch, infection, allergies, nausea, or pain—the excessive licking and grooming may be a behavioral issue.
Dogs can lick, groom, and scratch because of boredom. If you notice your pet self-grooming mostly when they are idle, try increasing their daily exercise or giving them a job. Many dogs need mental stimulation such as fly ball, agility, or obedience classes. Keep their brain busy with time-released treats or puzzles with hidden treats.
If anxiety is an issue, over-the-counter therapies are a logical next step.
The Thundershirt is a vest that applies gentle, constant pressure to decrease anxiety, fear, and overexcitement. This gentle hugging produces a dramatic calming effect, similar to swaddling a newborn.
Adaptil uses pheromones to decrease stress and anxiety. Calming treats, such as Composure, work well with dogs exhibiting nervousness, hyperactivity, or anxiety, and for those responding to environmentally induced stress.
Many pets also benefit from prescription antianxiety medications like Prozac. Prescription medications can take time and patience to determine appropriate strength and combinations.
Licking and overgrooming can be painful and stressful. Since dogs aren’t able to talk, it is up to pet parents and veterinary professionals to work together to act as detectives. Using the many tools at our disposal, it is possible to put the puzzle pieces together and resolve the underlying issue so your dog can get back to living their best life.
Featured image: istock.com/onandter_sean