Dogs do a lot of strange things. While most behaviors are harmless, some may seem out of place and raise concern. Licking is one of those behaviors. While it can be normal for your furry friend to lick his paws, any excessive licking should always be examined a bit closer.
You might notice your dog lick at the air, lick at the floor, and even drool as he licks. He might seem uncomfortable or anxious too. Yet, when you inspect your dog’s mouth, everything appears to be fine. You can’t see anything visible, so you assume he just has a hair stuck on his tongue, or something along those lines. Granted, the behavior seems a little weird, but how do you know if it’s something more?
Though there may be nothing visible to see in your dog’s mouth, he might actually be trying to communicate something to you by licking his lips. While a stray hair on his tongue isn’t unheard of, the behavior could stem from a more serious problem and it’s up to you to crack the code.
Why Does a Dog Lick His Lips?
Normal lip licking behavior occurs when a dog’s lips feel dry, when he gets something stuck in his mouth, or when he’s hungry and about to eat. When it comes to your dog licking his lips when he’s hungry, dogs have salivation glands that are activated before mealtime. Excess saliva may trigger your dog to lick his lips. Note that food doesn’t even have to be present for this to happen. Sometimes all it takes is you shaking the bag of dog food or cracking open a can and your dog is licking his lips and salivating.
However, there are several instances where lip licking may be less normal and more of a cause for concern.
Your Dog is Nervous
Sometimes a dog licks his lips out of stress and canine anxiety. Perhaps he’s feeling confused or frustrated, or he’s trying to communicate that he’s scared of something in his environment. For example, your dog might avoid eye contact and lick his lips when another dog comes near. If your dog is fearful of the other dog, these behaviors are his way of saying he’s no threat. They let the other dog know he doesn’t want to fight. When a dog licks his lips out of nervousness or fear, it’s sometimes referred to as an “appeasement gesture.”
However, the canine psychology experts tend to think that a dog licking his lips or licking at the air is more of a pacifying behavior, perhaps a remaining vestige of self-soothing mechanisms left over from puppyhood. This odd behavior is particularly prevalent when a dog is in a state of emotional distress or trapped in some other kind of negative emotion.
Your Dog is Dehydrated
There are a variety of medical-related conditions that can cause your dog to lick his lips frequently. Dehydration is a common issue, even when it’s a mild case. If your dog has accompanying symptoms like canine vomiting or diarrhea, it could be a warning that your dog has something else going on, such as a virus or tummy bug. Whatever the reason, dehydration will make your dog’s lips and mouth feel much drier than normal. To combat the dryness, your dog will lick instinctively as a way to stimulate the production of more saliva.
Your Dog Has Been Injured
Your dog may also lick his lips because of some sort of trauma. Dogs can be injured in all kinds of ways. They can get hit by cars, get in fights with other animals (like the neighbor’s cat), get hurt by kids who don’t know how to behave around a dog, and more. If your dog accidentally cuts or pierces his lip somehow, or his mouth is injured in some way, it will likely lick his lips in an effort to relieve any pain. Because it’s so easy to spread infection, injuries and wounds in the mouth can be problematic and should never be ignored.
Your Dog Was Bitten
Your dog might lick his lips because he’s been bitten by some kind of bug or insect. Common bug bites dogs fall victim to include mosquitoes and horse flies, wasps, bee stings, and spiders. Your dog could even be bitten by a snake, especially if your dog spends a lot of time outdoors and in areas that snakes (and other creatures) are prevalent. One of the biggest concerns with snake bites is that you may not realize your dog was bitten right away. This can delay treatment and increase your dog’s chances of an unfavorable outcome. Keep an eye out for Lip licking if you think your dog may have been bitten by another animal.
Your Dog Has Something Foreign in His Mouth
Sometimes your dog might lick his lips because he’s got a foreign object stuck in his mouth somewhere. In particular, foxtails in dogs can easily be picked up in the yard and cause major discomfort. These can be dangerous because they are hard to remove. They are designed to pierce the surface of their target and burrow deep. A foxtail burrowing in your dog’s mouth can be painful. They can even be life-threatening, if your dog swallows one and it burrows into his throat or windpipe. Dogs can also get sticks, bits of bone, plastic, and fibers from a chew toy stuck in his mouth, all of which can prompt him to lick his lips.
Your Dog Feels Sick
Sometimes lip licking can be an indicator of some other health issue, like canine nausea. If your dog is feeling sick to his stomach, he may lick his lips and salivate before he starts to vomit. You might also notice your dog eating grass, too. If your dog is vomiting, eating grass, and licking his lips, it’s likely these symptoms are related. If the symptoms get worse or don’t subside within 24 hours, you should see your vet. It is always better to be on the safe side and prevent possible dehydration.
Your Dog is Bloated
Bloat in dogs is another health issue that can trigger lip licking. Other symptoms that may also be present may include drooling, yawning, and retching. You might also notice your dog’s tummy looks and feels bloated or distended. Note that bloating in a dog can be fatal. You should see your vet right away if you suspect this problem, especially if you have one of the broad chested dog breeds that are more susceptible to bloating.
Your Dog has a Dental Disease
Your dog may lick his lips because of dental disease. In particular, canine periodontal disease is one of the most common issues among canines. In the case of dental disease, you may notice accompanying symptoms like a loss of teeth, broken teeth, gum inflammation, and foul odors from your dog’s mouth. Sometimes a dog may develop oral ulcers. These can be related to dental problems, oral infections, or something seemingly unrelated, like canine kidney disease.
Your Dog Ingested Something He Shouldn’t Have
Your dog can sometimes develop oral ulcers because he’s ingested some kind of toxic, caustic substance. Dish detergent and laundry pods are popular culprits. Unfortunately, by ingesting these harsh substances, your dog can give himself some painful burns in the mouth and down the esophagus. As a result, you also may notice him licking his lips a lot.
Your Dog is Having Seizures
Another more serious health issue that can trigger lip licking in your dog is canine seizures. While certain types of seizures will present with more noticeable symptoms, dogs can also have smaller, partial seizures that don’t fit the classic mold or signs. In some cases, an owner may not even realize their dog is having a seizure at all.
Your Dog Wants Attention
And last but not least, some dogs engage in lip licking behaviors because it’s been accidentally reinforced by you as a way for your dog to gain your attention. Attention-seeking behaviors occur more often in dogs that are left home alone for long periods of time. The best recourse in this case is to ignore your dog’s licking behavior so you don’t reinforce it.
What Can You Do When Your Dog Keeps Licking His Lips?
The first step is determining why your dog is licking his lips. If it’s a benign reason, such as his lips are dry, or he’s doing it as an appeasement gesture, then you probably don’t have to worry about it too much.
However, if you think that your dog is extremely anxious or experiencing feelings of fear, those negative emotions can quickly escalate into outright aggression. This is especially problematic if your dog feels threatened in some way. You can try distracting your dog with a toy or a treat.
Alternatively, if you know there is something in particular that is making your dog feel stressed or nervous, like a person he doesn’t feel comfortable around, or another dog or animal that he doesn’t get along with, you should take steps to remove him from the stressful environment. Try to reduce his proximity to whatever is causing him to feel anxious or nervous so that the situation doesn’t escalate.
Treating Your Dog’s Lip Licking Problem
If you believe your dog is licking his lips because of an underlying health issue, or because of trauma or a foreign body stuck in his mouth, you should see a vet as soon as possible for help and treatment. Your vet might order additional tests if they suspect something serious, like seizures or kidney disease.
Be prepared to provide your vet with a detailed history for your dog’s health, including appetite and eating habits, and whether you have noticed any other symptoms such as canine weight loss, dehydration, vomiting, or diarrhea.
In most cases, your vet will perform a complete physical examination to inspect your dog’s mouth. They will look for evidence of soft tissue injury, snake or insect bites, and any foreign objects that may be stuck in your dog’s lip or mouth. If your vet finds there is something, additional care may be required, including administering anesthesia to safely remove the object.
Your vet may also inspect your dog’s mouth and teeth and give you a basic assessment on whether his dental health could be part of the licking problem. If your vet suspects dental issues might be one of the reasons your dog keeps licking his lips, you may be referred to a veterinary dentist who specializes in canine teeth.
The important thing to remember is your dog’s lip licking behavior may be perfectly normal. In fact, it’s highly likely that it is. In the rare instance where the behavior isn’t normal and indicates some underlying problem, try not to panic. Rest easy knowing you’ve caught the problem early and can now consult with your vet to determine the best course of treatment for your dog.
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