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Dogs lick themselves, that’s a fact of life, but when does it get to be an issue? You may catch your pooch bathing daily to keep clean. This is an innate behavior in the animal kingdom. But there are times when licking can become excessive and can be a clinical sign of an underlying illness.

Allergies are the number one cause of excessive licking in dogs. Owners may note that their dog licks in between the toes (sometimes leading to staining of the fur due to enzymes in the saliva), they may lick and chew at their hind end and their inner thighs.

Environmental allergies are caused by dusts, danders, pollens, and other airborne particles which lead to build-up on the skin and fur of the dog and in turn cause itching. Allergies to flea bites and certain proteins in pet food can cause similar signs.

Cleaning your dog’s paws with doggie wipes or a warm washcloth after walks outside can help to decrease environmental allergens. Owners should seek veterinary attention for their dogs if the skin is changing color, if there are wounds, pimples, or crusts noted on the skin, if there is excessive scratching associated with the licking, and/or if fleas are seen.

Licking can also be a sign of nausea in some dogs. If your dog is licking abnormal places, such as the floors or the walls, or if your dog is licking his/her lips frequently, these can be a signs of gastrointestinal upset. Some dogs will also smack their lips or drool excessively when they feel nauseous.

If your dog is showing these signs and they last more than 24 hours, or if they are at all associated with vomiting, diarrhea, or lack of appetite, it is important to contact your veterinarian.

Addressing quality of life is the first step. There are shampoos that can help calm the itching as well as veterinary prescribed anti-histamines to keep your dog comfortable.

Your vet may also recommend some diagnostic tests, such as a fecal panel, blood testing, and/or x-rays, to rule out causes of belly upset. Your veterinarian can often prescribe or administer medications to help control and sometimes eliminate the nausea for your pet.

Dogs can also have behavioral causes of excessive licking, such as anxiety or a type of obsessive disorder where they over-groom themselves. Some studies have shown that the act of licking increases endorphins in the brain which calms the dog while it is licking. Loud noises, separation anxiety and/or change in environment can lead to this behavior.

It is important to intervene to lessen or stop this behavior before the dog licks off all of its fur (usually confined to one site on the body, such as a leg or the abdomen), which can lead to skin infection (hot spots) and acral lick granulomas (which are masses that occur secondary to chronic abrasion with the tongue and inflammation to the area). These infections and granulomas can be painful to the dog.

If there is trauma to the skin, your veterinarian will treat the skin infections and/or granulomas caused by the excessive licking and then determine if the licking is a medical disorder or something that can be alleviated with behavior training.

Diversion techniques can be instituted if your pet is over grooming. This entails close monitoring and side-tracking your dog when he starts to obsessively groom. Give him/her a favorite toy or treat to focus on, go for a walk, or even spend some quality time brushing your dog. This can help get his/her mind off of the compulsions.

If your veterinarian determines after examination (and possible diagnostic testing) that your dog is licking due to compulsive behavior or anxiety, there are some natural calming products that can be instituted. These include calming drops for the water, calming treats, pheromone collars, and thunder shirts. Very dilute apple cider vinegar can also be sprayed on the skin to deter licking but should be discussed with a veterinarian first to be sure it will not irritate the skin further. These natural products tend to have little to no side effects and are safest when starting a treatment plan.

Keeping a low stress environment for anxious dogs can be very helpful also; quiet, low lighting, and slow movements. Still, sometimes natural products are not enough to calm your dog and stop excessive licking. This is when a thorough discussion should be had with your veterinarian about behavior modification drugs such as Fluoxetine and Clomipramine. However, these medications can have side effects and are usually only given for chronic conditions. It is important to discuss all of the pros and cons with your veterinarian prior to starting your dog on these medications.

Quality of life is the most important thing when it comes to our pets. Excessive licking can cause that quality to decrease over time. If you think your dog is excessively licking, it is pertinent to discuss these signs with your veterinarian. Together you can determine if the signs are something to be concerned about, or if your pet is simply taking his/her daily bath. 

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