A lot of dog behaviors look strange to us humans. (Although, in fairness to our canine companions, we can think of a few things we've done that might be strange to them.) But many of these dog behaviors are actually canine communications tools — our dogs use them to tell us how they feel or what they want. And if you notice your dog licking air, they might be trying to say something more insightful than, "It's Tongue Out Tuesday."
The reasons behind air licking range from harmless behavioral quirks to serious medical issues. However, you don't typically need to worry about health problems unless you notice excessive licking or air licking that seems to start out of the blue. (If it seems like your dog licks the air all the time, get help from your DVM to rule out medical issues.) Below, we'll cover the most common reasons why you'll see your dog licking air.
Why Is My Dog Licking Air?
Why do dogs lick the air? There are a number of reasons, but you may be able to pinpoint the precise one with context clues.
Here are the most common reasons behind air licking, other signs that accompany each one, and tips to address the cause:
Hunger or Thirst
If your dog begins air licking or lip licking right before mealtime, they're likely excited about food. You may also notice this behavior if you're cooking something exciting (like if the smell of roast chicken is wafting through the air), or if you've just shared a sticky treat like peanut butter.
When your dog's mouth is dry, it can also lead to air licking. So, check your dog's water bowl if you're at home, or stop for a water break if this licking behavior happens when you're exercising or outdoors with your dog.
Other signs: It's close to mealtime, you're holding treats (or a tasty allergy chew), you're eating or cooking, you've just given your dog a sticky snack, or your dog's water bowl is empty.
Address it: Check your dog's water bowl and refill it if it's empty, and make sure your dog has plenty of water before sharing a sticky treat. If it's your dog's regular mealtime, you can feed them as usual. But, avoid running to give them food or treats every time you see air licking — this can lead to the next trigger on our list.
Many dog behaviors are learned. And as dog owners, we can accidentally reinforce behaviors with our show of concern or affection.
If we jump up every time we notice our dog licking air, our dog will learn that this licking behavior equals attention. They'll start to do it more and more to keep their pet parents focused on them.
Other signs: You've been talking to, petting, or otherwise paying attention to your dog whenever you notice them licking the air.
Address it: If the licking behavior is for attention and it bothers you, start to ignore it. If your dog stops getting attention for it, they'll start to engage in this behavior less and less. Just make sure you’ve ruled out the other possible causes on this list.
Foreign Bodies in the Nose or Mouth
Foods like peanut butter stuck to the roof of your dog's mouth can cause air licking. Anything else trapped in your dog's nose or mouth can also cause this behavior.
Your dog might get many things stuck in their mouth — anything from splinters due to chewing on sticks to a piece of a toy, food, and treats.
Other signs: If your dog starts licking the air when they don't normally engage in this behavior, check the inside of their nose and mouth to see if anything is visible on the roof of their mouth, under their tongue, or between their teeth. You may also notice your dog pawing at their nose, rubbing their face on the ground, or appearing to yawn.
Address it: If you see something stuck in your dog's mouth, nose, or teeth, you or your vet can try to remove it.
Many mammals, including dogs, cats, camels, and llamas, have what's known as a Jacobson's organ or vomeronasal organ. This part of your dog's nose helps them pick up and interpret strong scents, especially biological scents like urine.
When dogs pick up one of these smells, they'll engage in the Flehmen response, a series of behaviors that help them draw the scent further back into their nasal passage to their vomeronasal organ.
Other signs: Your dog's nostrils might flare, their lips might curl, their teeth might chatter, and you'll notice them licking the air. You'll most likely see the Flehmen response when you're on walks. Although, it can also come up when you're inside. The smells may be too faint for the human nose to detect.
Address it: No need. This response is a natural part of your dog's anatomy and helps them explore the world.
Licking can mean your doggie is stressed. Loud noises — like fireworks, thunderstorms, or shouting — are a common stressor for dogs, but some dogs are also scared of the vacuum cleaner, being left alone, and other objects or situations.
Carefully observe your dog's licking behavior to see if any common stressors are around when the behavior begins. Also, keep your eyes out for other body language signals that show your dog is stressed.
Other signs: Yawning, licking, itching, and pacing all signify your dog is feeling stressed. You may also notice that they tuck their tail between their legs and flatten their ears against their head.
Address it: Remove your dog from the stressful situation. If the stressors are unavoidable, like with thunderstorms, try giving your dog Benadryl before the event (follow dog dosage guidelines). For separation anxiety, you can try redirecting your dog's behavior with a fun distraction, like a long-lasting Yak Chew.
If your dog keeps licking the air and your vet determines they don't have medical issues, it can be a sign of compulsive behavior.
Like people, dogs can suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which can cause them to engage in repetitive behaviors. Licking the air is a common manifestation of this condition, as is tail chasing.
Also like people, compulsive behavior in dogs happens on a sliding scale — some dogs may have mild behavioral problems while others will have severe cases. Dogs with severe cases may engage in a repetitive behavior to the point of self harm. For example, a dog might lick the air until their tongue dries and cracks, or they might chase their tail to the point of repeatedly slamming into walls.
Some breeds are predisposed to compulsive disorders. These include German Shepherd, Bull Terriers, Border Collies, Doberman Pinschers, Labrador Retrievers, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.
Other signs: Most OCD dogs engage in one particular behavior compulsively. If your dog compulsively licks the air, you won't necessarily see compulsive tail chasing. So, the best way to diagnose a compulsive disorder is to rule out other potential health issues.
Address it: Once your dog is diagnosed, work with an animal behaviorist to minimize your pet's compulsive behavior. If your dog has a severe case, your DVM may be able to prescribe medication to help manage your dog's condition.
Gastrointestinal problems are one of the most common reasons for excessive licking of surfaces in dogs, and this behavior can translate to licking their lips or the air.
Common gastrointestinal problems include nausea, upset stomach, and inflammatory bowel disease, all of which can be accompanied by a number of other symptoms.
Other signs: Symptoms will vary depending on your dog's exact gastrointestinal disorder, but the most common include drooling, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, loss of appetite, or increased appetite.
Address it: Work with your vet to determine the exact cause of your dog's gastrointestinal issues, and consider supporting your dog's digestive health with pet probiotics or pumpkin for dogs.
Dental problems like cavities, tooth infections, and gum disease can all contribute to licking. If your dog's teeth hurt, they may lick the air or their lips in an attempt to relieve the pain or to show their discomfort.
Small breed dogs are more prone to dental problems than large breed dogs, but these health concerns can affect any breed.
Other signs: If your dog is suffering from dental problems, you may notice drooling, excessively bad breath, loss of appetite, or difficulty eating.
Address it: Take your dog to the vet to have their teeth checked. While your vet may be able to identify some dental issues from a basic examination, you may need to see a doggie dentist to get dental X-rays and determine the extent of any tooth decay. To prevent future dental health problems, start a teeth brushing routine, and give your dog hard chews (like raw bones, antlers, and yak chews), which can help scrape off plaque and tartar as they chew.
More Serious Health Problems
It's less common for serious health problems to be the culprit behind your dog's licking behavior, but it does happen. Chronic pancreatitis, esophagitis, partial seizures, and canine cognitive dysfunction (the dog equivalent of dementia or Alzheimer's) can all contribute to your dog licking air.
If your dog starts licking the air when they haven't done this before, or if they seem to be licking all the time, go to your vet to rule out a serious medical issue.
So, Why Does My Dog Lick the Air?
If your dog is licking the air, it can have a number of behavioral or medical causes — from hunger to stress to dental problems. Typically you don't need to worry about this behavior unless your dog starts doing it compulsively or your long-term canine companion starts to do it when they never have before.
If you notice those two signs or your dog's air licking is accompanied by other, more serious symptoms, like loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, excessively bad breath, or fatigue, go to your vet. You want to rule out serious medical issues.For more information on your dog's health and wellness, visit the Native Pet blog.