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Why Do Dogs Lick You? Medical and Non-Medical Reasons Dogs Lick Us

Ever wondered why dogs lick us so much?  Turns out, there are numerous reasons - from yummy electrolytes in our sweat to separation anxiety - why our pups slather us in slobber.

A poodle licks a woman on the face.

Ever wondered why dogs lick us so much?  Turns out, there are numerous reasons - from yummy electrolytes in our sweat to separation anxiety - why our pups slather us in slobber.

By: Dr. Juli, DVM  @itsDrJuli 

Slobbery kisses from your four-legged best friend are a normal part of pet parenthood and a common way many dogs show their human affection. But not all people are fans of dog licks, especially if they are continuous or aimed at your face. Licking you or objects in their environment is usually normal dog behavior. Your pup will often use its mouth and tongue to explore the environment and search for the long-lost treat you accidentally forgot to give them.

While there is not one specific reason why your dog licks you so much, research suggests several reasons, some of which may indicate underlying health issues. Although pet owners don’t speak fluent dog, most people and dogs establish ways of communication with each other, and your dog’s love language may be their wagging tongue. So if you’ve ever thought to yourself, “why is my dog licking me so much?” this article is for you.

Let’s dive into other reasons while your pup may be showering you with doggy licks.

A poodle licks a woman on the face.

Non-Medical Reasons Your Dog is Licking You

Licking is a natural dog behavior; in many cases, your dog may use their tongue in similar ways people use their hands or thumbs. However, a domesticated dog’s desire to lick may be an instinctual behavior that initially evolved from their days as wild dogs. After returning from a hunt, wild canid puppies lick their mom to encourage her to regurgitate a meal. While it’s unlikely your domestic dog is asking you to exhibit this exact behavior, it is more likely that a lick is your dog’s way of communicating that they are ready for a meal or treat.

Other non-medical reasons your dog may be licking you include:

  • Affection. Mother dogs often lick their puppies to clean and comfort them. Similarly, puppies will lick their litter mates and their mother as a sign of affection and nurturing. This behavior releases feel-good hormones (endorphins), reinforcing the behavior. Domesticated dogs, like your pup, often recreate this bonding behavior with their human family. So next time your dog showers you with smooches upon your return home, it’s likely their way to say hello and show you how happy they are to have one of their pack members return home.
  • Grooming. We’ve all heard the myth that a dog’s mouth is cleaner than a human’s mouth. And while that may not necessarily be the case, your dog’s tongue does contain some natural antibacterial properties. Dogs often lick their paws and body to groom themselves. Since you are a part of their pack, they may also lick you, similar to when their mother cleaned them. 
  • Tasting. Your dog may be licking you because you taste good. Chances are your dog was especially interested in licking your legs after a sweaty workout because of the salt residue on your skin. Your dog may also enjoy licking your skin post-shower because of the scented body washes or lotions. However, use caution when letting your dog lick your skin after putting anything on it since some products contain pet-toxic ingredients. 
  • Attention. Your pup may lick you to indicate they want a snack, cuddles, or playtime. In most cases, your dog’s licks are met with positive reinforcement such as laughs or petting, encouraging the behavior. Generally, our dogs are skilled at training us more than we are at training them. 
  • Exploration. Your pup’s sense of smell combined with licking makes it nearly impossible for pet parents to interact with another dog or have a snack without their dog knowing. It’s common for your dog to lick you or objects nearby because they are likely smelling or tasting things humans can not smell or see, like a small crumb from your hamburger lunch. 

Medical Reasons Why Dogs Lick People and Things

If your dog is excessively licking you, themselves, objects, or all three, they may have an underlying health issue or behavioral problem. Bring your pet to the DVM if they suddenly have increased licking or if you suspect they have a medical or behavioral problem.

Other medical reasons your dog may be licking include:

  • Nausea. If your pup is nauseous, they may excessively drool and lick their lips. This behavior may also be translated to licking pet parents
  • Dental disease. Over 80% of dogs over three years old have some form of dental disease, and excess licking may be the first clue. 
  • Boredom. Licking may be a sign that your pup is bored. Ensure they have various toys and exercise to keep their mind and body active and healthy.  
  • Anxiety. Dogs suffering from behavioral issues like separation anxiety or general anxiety may lick you or objects nearby, like their favorite toy, for self-comfort. 
  • Pain or itching. Pups suffering from a wound, arthritis, or itchy skin may excessively lick the painful area on their body.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In some cases, dogs who excessively lick you or themselves may suffer from OCD, which can lead to self-trauma, called a lick granuloma. Some dog breeds, like German shepherds and golden retrievers, may have a genetic predisposition for this obsessive licking behavior
  • Cognitive dysfunction. Many older dogs are at risk for cognitive dysfunction, or the doggy version of Alzheimer’s disease. This condition can result in behavioral changes, including inappropriate licking, pacing, wandering, and disorientation. 

A man cuddles in bed with his dog.

How to Reduce Excessive Licking Behavior

Bring your dog for a veterinary examination to rule out any medical reasons for their licking. In some cases, your vet may recommend a consultation with an animal behaviorist if they suffer from OCD or severe anxiety. Once your dog is medically cleared, and you still want to decrease their urge to lick you or others, you can support them with the following:

  • Give them a calming supplement to decrease anxiety-related licking.
  • Ignore your pup when they lick you. Most people pet or praise their pooch for licking, reinforcing the behavior. 
  • Redirect your dog’s attention to something else when they lick. Try teaching them a new skill, like sitting or hugging, then reward that behavior with their favorite treat.
  • Enroll them in doggy training classes to learn tips from a professional. This is also a great way to bond with your pet and prevent boredom. 
  • Establish consistent boundaries, and never punish your dog for licking. 

For more information on your dog’s health and behavior, check out the Native Pet blog. 

illustration of dog's tail & the dog is digging

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