My Dog Keeps Licking and Swallowing

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Have you ever wondered why your dog may lick and swallow? There are numerous reasons and some can have serious health consequences. This article contains information for dog owners looking into why their dog keeps licking and swallowing.

Some dogs tend to lick their lips more than others and most pet owners worry when the licking becomes excessive or is a new behavior. Dog licking and swallowing can be a symptom of a medical problem, behavioral problem, or a normal behavioral communication tool.

Causes of Dog Licking and Swallowing

Below are some possible causes for lip licking and swallowing in dogs:

Behavioral Causes of Dog Licking and Swallowing

  • Behavioral reasons
    • Some dogs will lick their lips when they are confused or maybe even a little frustrated. As a behavior, some behaviorists refer to dog lip licking as an “appeasement gesture”. Dogs will use their body to communicate they are the stressed or frightened. An appeasement gesture is a behavior that acts as a calming signal. Other appeasement gestures are yawning. An example of when a dog may lick his lips would be when a dog approaches another dog. The approached dog may avoid direct eye contact and lick his lips. This communicates to the other dog as to say, “Hi – I don’t want to fight”.
    • Dogs can lick lips if they are frustrated. For example, if a dog is being trained that doesn’t understand what is expected of them, they may lick their lips.
  • Normal behavior
    • Some dogs will lick their lips when their lips 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. The lip licking can be followed by swallowing.
    • Another normal cause for lip licking is when a dog is about ready to eat or anticipates eating. A normal physiologic response in anticipation of food is for the salivary glands to flow. This commonly causes lip licking followed by swallowing.

Medical causes of Dog Licking and Swallowing

The causes of dog licking and swallowing can be caused by various problems that vary from minor to serious. The most common problems involve issues related to nausea or oral pain.

  • Foreign body. A common cause of lip licking followed by swallowing is a foreign body. Some dogs can get something caught in their mouth, also known as a “foreign body”, that causes pain and discomfort, which commonly causes lip licking followed by swallowing. Dogs with a foreign body may also shake their heads and paw at their mouths. Common items that can be caught in the mouth can be a bone, rawhide, toy, or stick. Another cause can be a plant awn getting caught in the mouth such as a foxtail.
  • Dental disease. A sign of dental disease in dogs can be lip licking and swallowing. As dental disease advances, plaque turns to tartar. The build-up of tartar both above and below the gum line can gradually produce an environment for bacteria to grow that is destructive to the periodontal tissues (also known as periodontal disease). As dental disease progresses, dog owners may notice a foul odor from their dog’s mouth, significant accumulations of tartar, red inflamed gums, and in advanced cases they can see food and hair wrapped around infected teeth.
  • Nausea. One of the most common signs of lip licking followed by swallowing is nausea. Dogs with nausea will often hypersalivate which results in lip licking naturally followed by swallowing the saliva. Nausea commonly occurs just prior to the act of vomiting. Some dogs may drool and eat grass when they are nauseated. Learn more about nausea in dogs and vomiting in dogs.
  • Oral ulcers. Oral ulcerations can cause pain, lip licking, drooling and/or excessive swallowing. Ulcers can develop from oral infections, dental disease, systemic infections such as kidney disease or from ingestion of caustic substances. Caustic products that may cause oral ulcers include ingestion or oral exposure to laundry or dishwasher detergent pod toxicity or liquid potpourri.
  • Unpleasant tastes. Dogs that lick something different or unpleasant can develop a funny taste in their mouth and lick their lips. Common causes can be from licking or eating a different food, cleaning chemicals such as Windex® or Dawn®, or by licking poisonous toads such as the Marine or Cane toad and Sonoran Desert toad. Signs of toad venom toxicity include drooling, lip licking, and foaming at the mouth. Signs can progress quickly. Learn more about Toad venom toxicity.
  • Bites. Any type of bite to the face or around the lips can cause dog lip licking followed by swallowing. Bites can be from insects such as spiders, horse flies, mosquitos, and/or a bee or wasp stings. Snakebites can also occur around the face and mouth and cause pain, swelling, discharge, and/or lip licking.

What to Do if You See Dog Licking and Swallowing

The first thing to do if your dog is licking his or her lips and swallowing is to look at this relative to the behavior and determine if there is an underlying medical problem. Two important points include:

  • Evaluate your dog’s behavior. Is your dog nervous? Anxious? Fearful? Try to determine if the lip licking and swallowing is a message of anxiety. If your dog is cornered, in a situation that you believe may make him or her or uncomfortable, then give your dog some space. If a child or other person is making your dog nervous, remove them from close proximity to the dog. You can displace this behavior by offering your dog a toy, playing a game or going for a walk as an option. However, it is recommend that you avoid giving a dog with this behavior special attention if this is a behavioral message so as not to reinforce his anxiety or fear.
  • It is important to determine if the dog lip licking and swallowing is due to a medical problem. The best approach is to have your dog examined by your veterinarian. They will likely want to examine the skin around the face, lips, gums, teeth, and do a complete oral examination. They will look for any foreign body in the mouth, dental disease, and an oral ulceration. They will also want a detailed history of your dog’s eating patterns, food change, exposure to trash or toxins, overall appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, and weight loss.

SPECIAL NOTE: If your dog is trying to vomit unsuccessfully – this could be a medical emergency called “bloat.” Please see your veterinarian immediately.

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