Thursday, May 28, 2015

Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog: Excessive Licking

Cats lick themselves all the time; they are big on self-grooming. It's when they stop that you need to worry.

Dogs, though, are not like that. They are mostly happy with their bodies just the way they are.

Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog: Excessive Licking

It's about paying attention.

Every time Jasmine started licking herself, I'd go looking for a problem. When she started licking around her tail, she had a skin infection starting. Caught early enough we could often tackle it with medicated baths. Only couple of times it got bad in a hurry and needed veterinary attention.

Once, her licking the area around her tail, together with a suspicious smell, alerted me to the start of an anal gland infection.

Every time it meant something was going on.

When she licked her foot a lot, an infection was starting there. That happened frequently enough that when I heard more than a couple of licks, I'd grab my flashlight and go searching.

Cookie is the same way. Normally, we hardly ever see her licking herself, but when she does, it’s typically a boo-boo she acquired running through the bushes and brambles. A bit of betadine is usually all it needs.

What would happen if I left it unchecked, though?

Perhaps not much, Cookie is a healthy young girl, but it could lead to a nasty infection, hot spot or eventually a lick granuloma.

When my dog is doing something they don't normally do, I want to know why.

Sometimes it is easy to get to the bottom of it, sometimes it's not.

Yes, Jasmine was licking because of an infection, but what caused the infection? Skin infections in dogs almost always develop secondary to something else.

Jasmine was hypothyroid but her levels were well-managed, at least according to her blood tests. She did test positive for allergies to all kinds of things so it was assumed that allergies were at the root of the problem, as they often are. But none of this was really adding up to me because Jasmine was not an itchy dog.
It was not that she kept fussing with an area and eventually an infection would show up as a result. She was fussing with the area because the infection was already there.

You can see clear evidence of licking. We were looking and looking and couldn't see anything.
It wasn't until after I took the photo and noticed the red spot on the picture. Then we found it.

Being diligent, we kept things mostly well under control.

There were times, though, particularly during her episodes, when she would lick her front feet obsessively and there was nothing visible wrong with them. No wounds, no infections, no nothing.

She did have some arthritis and anatomical abnormalities in her neck, though. The best theory we came up with was that her episodes and licking her front feet as if her life depended on it were related to that.

One thing is for sure. She never licked herself for no reason.

It was Cookie's licking of her vulva that first alerted me to her dribbling problem. As she could feel the urine dribble, she was trying to clean it up. I couldn't see anything wrong with the foot but with thorough observation I discovered what was going on.

The cause might not be always obvious.

Yes, sometimes licking can be a behavioral issue or even a type of seizure disorder. But I believe that more often than not a physiological reason can be found. The first step in diagnosing and treating excessive licking always needs to be a thorough health work-up.

Allergies are a common cause.

Fleas, wounds, insect bites, and foreign bodies are right up there as well, with infections close on their tail. But remember, infections are rarely the primary cause.

If a part of the body hurts, such as from arthritis, your dog might lick that area as well. Or there can be a neurological cause, as there was in Jasmine’s case.

What if your dog excessively licks things other than themselves?

Just recently there was a study that tied excessive licking of surfaces to issues with the digestive tract, including giardiasis, chronic pancreatitis and other conditions.

Dr. Sue Ettinger started an awesome cancer awareness campaign, "See Something, Do Something Cancer."

I believe this rule applies to anything out of the ordinary you notice about your dog.

Excessive licking not only reflects the level of your dog's discomfort, it can also cause additional problems from secondary infections to lick granulomas.

Related articles:
Veterinarians Answer: 10 Main Symptoms To Watch For In Your Dog 
Symptoms: Recognition, Acknowledgement And Denial 
When Is It An Emergency? 
Don't Panic, Don't Panic: Know What Your Job Is  

Excessive Panting
Excessive Drinking 
Changes in Urination/Urinary Accidents 
Changes in Behavior
Bad Odor 
Excessive Drooling  
What Can Your Dog's Gums And Tongue Tell You? 
Excessive Head Shaking  
Lumps and Bumps
What Is That Limp? 
Nose Bleeds (Epistaxis)
Unexplained Weight Loss
Unexplained Weight Gain 
Loss Of Appetite  
Fever (Pyrexia)
What Happens in a Dog's Body with Severe Vomiting?
Gastroenteritis is when ...  

Whats In The Urine? (Part I: What You Can Notice On Your Own)
What's In The Urine? (Part II: Urinalysis)
A Tale of Many Tails—and What Came Out From Underneath Stories from My Diary-rrhea (part I)
Acute Small Intestinal Diarrhea
Acute Large Intestinal Diarrhea (Acute Colitis)
Chronic Large Intestinal Diarrhea
Chronic Small Intestinal Diarrhea

Veterinary Highlights: Excessive Licking Of Surfaces
If You Don't Know What A Lick Granuloma Is, Count Your Blessings!

Do you know what your dog is telling you about their health?

Do You Know What Your Dog Is Telling You About Their Health?

Learn how to detect and interpret the signs of a potential problem.

Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog

An award-winning guide to better understanding what your dog is telling you about their health, Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog, is available in paperback and Kindle. Each chapter includes notes on when it is an emergency.


  1. I can always tell when fleas are bothering Ted because he starts scratching and licking at himself and sometimes so aggressively that he makes his delicate skin raw.

    1. Poor Ted. Often flea bites cause allergic reaction; it can take just one flea bite to put the dog through hell.

  2. Last summer Nelly showed signs of allergies: excessive licking/chewing. We thought it might be a food allergy, and her symptoms cleared up as we changed her food. Sadly she just started licking her paws again, so I think it might be a seasonal allergy. I need to figure out the best way to address them, both to give her relief and if possible prevent future flare ups.

    1. Testing for seasonal allergies is quite effective and there is the option of immunotherapy for those.

  3. We go through this every year when ours blow coat!

  4. Trying to find out what is going on with my Australian Shepherd. She gets these episodes where she licks her vulva,then gets into this uncomfortable position and starts chewing on her legs. After that she starts panting heavily. Been to 2 different vets with no luck.

    1. That is indeed quite unique-sounding set of symptoms. Everything else is normal otherwise? Did you even visit an animal chiropractor? Makes me wonder if some nerve is being pinched some place.