Is Your Dog Licking Their Lips? This Could Be Why
Some pet owners believe that their dog may lick their lips because they are dry or sunburned and, though there’s the potential for this and it’s a common human behavior, it could be indicative of a larger issue in pets.
Causes of Dog Licking Lips
Here are some possible causes for lip licking in dogs, broken into behavioral and medical causes.
Behavioral Causes of Dog Licking Lips
Some dogs lick their lips for normal behavioral reasons and others lick due to underlying anxiety.
- Normal behavior. Dogs may lick their lips when they feel dry, a bug hits their lip or face, or something is stuck near their lip, such as a piece of food or a blade of grass. Another normal cause for lip licking is anticipation of food. A normal physiologic response to food is for the salivary glands to start flowing in anticipation of a snack.
- Anxiety. Some dogs will lick their lips when they are confused or maybe even a little frustrated. For example, if a dog is being trained, he or she may lick their lips when they are baffled about the process and unsure about what is expected of them. Some behaviorists refer to dog lip licking as an “appeasement gesture.” This is a behavior that acts as a calming signal. Dogs will use their body to communicate that they are stressed or frightened. Another appeasement gesture is yawning. An example of a classic use of lip licking is when a dog is approached by another dog. At this moment, the dog may avoid direct eye contact and lick their lips. This is a way to communicate to the other dog that they don’t want to fight.
Medical Causes of Dog Licking Lips
Dogs lick their lips due to a variety of health problems.
Causes may include:
- Bites. Any type of bite to the face or around the lips can cause dog lip licking. This includes insect bites from spiders, horse flies, ticks, mosquitos, and/or a bee or wasp sting. Snakebites can also occur around the face and mouth and cause pain, swelling, discharge, and/or lip licking.
- Dehydration. Some dogs that are sick and not eating or drinking or are suffering from fluid losses from vomiting and/or diarrhea can become dehydrated. This might also cause a dog to lick their lips.
- Dental disease. A sign of dental disease in dogs can be lip licking. As dental disease advances, plaque turns to tartar and bacteria can create gum disease (also known as periodontal disease) and tooth loss. As dental disease progresses, most dog owners notice a foul odor coming from their dog’s mouth and can see red, inflamed gums.
- Foreign body. Dogs with something caught in their mouth, also known as a “foreign body,” can lick their lips excessively. Items commonly caught in the mouth are bones, rawhides, toys, and sticks. Plants, such as foxtails, can also become lodged in the mouth and cause lip licking.
- Nausea. Dogs with nausea will often hypersalivate, which results in them licking their lips excessively. This commonly occurs just prior to the act of vomiting. Some dogs may also eat grass when they are nauseated. Learn more about nausea in dogs and vomiting in dogs.
- Oral ulcerations. Oral ulcers can develop from mouth infections, dental disease, systemic diseases (like kidney disease), or from ingestion of hot or caustic substances. Examples of caustic products include bleach, abrasive cleaners, laundry or dishwasher detergent pods, and liquid potpourri. These may seem appealing to dogs based on texture or smell, and oral exposure can cause severe mouth and esophageal burns.
- Seizures. Canine seizures can result in different types of behaviors or movements. Some dogs will lie on their sides with full grand-mal seizures, while other dogs with partial seizures may show more subtle signs, such as fly biting motion or lip licking.
- Trauma. Any cut, puncture, abrasion, or other trauma to the lip area can feel funny and can cause lip licking. Some wounds can become infected and itch, causing dogs to rub or scratch their faces and/or lick their lips. It is also possible to notice a discharge or a foul odor coming from infected wounds.
- Unpleasant tastes. Dogs that lick something new or unpleasant can develop a funny taste in their mouth and lick their lips. Common causes may be licking or eating a new food product or from licking a cleaning chemical, such as Windex®, various soaps, or other cleaning fluids. Some cleaners can not only be unpleasant, but can also be caustic, resulting in oral ulcerations. Poisonous toads such as the Marine, Cane toad, or Sonoran Desert toad can be toxic. Symptoms of toad venom toxicity include drooling, lip licking, and foaming at the mouth. Signs can progress quickly. Learn more about canine toad toxicity.
What to Do if You See Your Dog Licking Their Lips
The first thing to do if your dog is licking his or her lips is to look at this relative to their behavior and determine if there is an underlying medical problem.
- The most important thing is to try to determine if lip-licking behavior is an expression of anxiety. Some dogs can lick their lips when they are nervous, which can escalate to aggression. It is important to be safe and ensure those around you are safe. If your dog is cornered or in an uncomfortable situation, give them some space and back off. If a child or other person is making your dog nervous, remove them from close proximity to your animal. Some behaviorists recommend that you redirect the lip licking behavior by offering a toy. On the other hand, it may be best to avoid giving a dog with this behavior special attention, so as to not reinforce their anxiety or fear.
- If your dog is licking their lips during training, it is possible they are worried or confused about the process. Consider giving your dog a task that they clearly understand and when successful, offer a reward. You can also think of other ways to communicate your message or stop for the day. Restart the training another day when your dog is refreshed.
- It is important to determine if the lip licking is due to a medical problem. New and excessive licking is concerning and it should be your first priority to find the underlying cause. The best approach is to have your dog checked by a veterinarian. They will likely want to examine the skin around the face, lips, gums, and teeth, and conduct a complete examination of the oral cavity. It is also possible that a dog is licking another part of their body, which can be a sign of a local skin problem, allergy, pain, or anxiety. Your vet will also want a detailed history of your dog’s skin issues, eating patterns, overall appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, energy level, and any history of weight loss or gain.
- Another option, if applicable, is recording your dog’s behavior. Showing the footage to your veterinarian may help them determine the issue and begin treatment sooner.
Why Do Dogs Lick Your Face and Lips?
Dogs will lick people for a variety of reasons. In nature, after a dog has puppies, the female will immediately lick them to stimulate their breathing and to clean off bodily fluids and blood. As puppies grow, their mother will lick them to stimulate urination and defecation until they can eliminate on their own. Dogs also lick themselves to remove odors that can make them vulnerable to predators or alternatively alert their prey of their presence.
A dog might lick our lips because they smell and sense something that we have been eating or as a way of getting attention. Most people react in a certain way when dogs lick their face and, therefore, many dogs lick faces to get attention and to cause a reaction. Licking can also be a sign of respect or deference to humans.
While many pet owners want to believe that face licking is an indication of love, the general consensus by behaviorists is that they don’t believe dogs express feeling by licking or “kissing.” Learn more about this in Do Dogs Lick to Show Love?
Is it Safe to Allow Your Dog to Lick Your Lips?
Licking brings up that age-old adage, “A dog’s mouth is cleaner than a humans.” This, unfortunately, is not the case. A dog’s mouth is generally very dirty and full of bacteria. In fact, it is estimated that a dog can have over 600 types of bacteria in their mouths. This is not unexpected, if you consider that dogs may eat dead animals, lick the ground, eat feces, clean up the litter box, clean their bottoms, and much more.
Most diseases are species specific, making it unlikely to get a disease from a dog lick or kiss. However, there are exceptions. For example, dogs that eat a raw meat diet are at risk of salmonella infection, which can be spread from a dog to a human. Dog bites can also transmit rabies.
Daily tooth brushing and regular dental cleaning can help keep your dog’s mouth clean and decrease the bacterial count. Good oral hygiene can also decrease the risk of dental disease. It is ideal to begin brushing your dog’s teeth as a puppy so they acclimate to the process.
While it is unlikely that you will contract a disease from doggie kisses, it may not be the clean and loving experience that you’re hoping for.