Here’s what to know about why dogs lick themselves, other dogs, and you—and whether you should worry about their habits.

By Lacey Howard
August 24, 2020
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With the absence of opposable thumbs, dogs rely on their mouths for much more than just eating, breathing, and barking. Tongues are used for showing affection and as vehicles for discovery; dogs lick to taste, explore, scratch an itch, and soothe wounds. Here are some answers to the question, why do dogs lick?

Dogs Lick to Show Affection

Licking is how mothers clean, nurture, and bond with their pups. And that loving instinct carries over to mature dogs showing affection for their humans, fellow dogs, and other pets by licking. 

Beyond just giving you “kisses,” your dog may really like the taste of your skin—whether it’s salty from sweat, sweet with the lotion you just applied, or offers lingering flavors from the food you recently ate or handled.  

Dogs Lick to Groom Themselves

Licking and gentle chewing are parts of dogs’ grooming process. You might notice your pup licking his paw and then using it to get to places his tongue won’t reach (similar to a cat), or licking his private areas. In most cases, licking his nether regions is simply grooming. But if you notice your dog giving his anus a little too much attention, he may have full, impacted, or compacted anal glands. In this case, make an appointment with your vet. 

Dogs Lick to Clean Wounds, Soothe Sore Spots, and Alleviate Itching

Dogs also lick themselves to help healing happen. Canine saliva has enzymes that kill bacteria and, in turn, promote healing of cuts and scrapes. Dogs may lick their paws to remove a thorn or lick a sore joint. The act of licking, in itself, is a stress reliever—think of it like a human biting her nails. 

You may notice your pup licking or gently chewing his skin or paws. Keep an eye on this behavior because it may be a sign of fleas or ticks (on the skin) or allergies to the environment or his food (itchy paws). 

When Is My Dog’s Licking a Problem?

Licking can be a sign of boredom, an anxiety disorder, or even an acquired habit. Anne Conover, DVM, owner of Rolling Hills Veterinary Clinic, a mixed animal practice in Madison County, Iowa, says, “If your dog is licking so much or so aggressively that he starts to cause trauma—wounds on the skin, skin redness, chronic irritation from the incessant moisture on the skin, hair loss, bad odors, and other complications—then it is a problem.” Those self-inflicted wounds can worsen quickly, she says. “Any time a dog is licking frequently enough to cause a wound or reddened skin, a veterinarian should do a thorough exam to look for the cause or check for an underlying problem.” 

How Do I Stop My Dog From Licking?

If your dog is not licking to the point of self-harm, his behavior may be perfectly natural. But if his habits leave you (or the furniture) dripping and are bothersome to you, use positive reinforcement training practices to curb the tongue bath. “Be positive but persistent in encouraging acceptable licking as you define it in your household,” Conover says. ”Redirecting to a toy or chew treat is helpful.”