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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 Licking and Swallowing in Dogs
- Abnormal behavior.
- Dogs may lick their lips when confused or frustrated. Many behaviorists refer to dog lip licking as an “appeasement gesture,” which is something that acts as a calming signal. Dogs will use their body to communicate that they are the stressed or frightened. Another appeasement gesture is yawning. An example of when a dog may lick their lips is when approached by another dog. By making direct eye contact and licking lips, the frightened dog indicates that they’re not interested in conflict.
- An example of frustrated lip licking can be caused by confusing or excessive training measures.
- Normal behavior.
- Some dogs will lick their lips when they feel dry, a bug hits their face, or something is stuck near their lip, like a piece of food or a blade of grass. This may be followed by swallowing.
- A normal physiologic response to the anticipation of food is for the salivary glands to flow, which leads to lip licking and swallowing.
- Foreign body.
- An item stuck in a dog’s mouth that causes pain and discomfort will lead to lip licking and swallowing. Dogs with a foreign body in their mouths may also shake their heads and paw at their mouths.
- Common items that get caught in dog’s mouths include bones, rawhide, toys, and sticks.
- Dental disease.
- As dental disease advances, plaque turns into 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, owners may notice excessive licking and swallowing, a foul odor coming from their dog’s mouth, significant accumulations of tartar, red inflamed gums, and food and hair wrapped around infected teeth.
- Oral ulcers.
- Oral ulcerations cause pain, lip licking, drooling and/or excessive swallowing. Ulcers can develop from oral infections, dental disease, systemic infections (like 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 pods or liquid potpourri.
- Unpleasant tastes.
- Dogs that lick something different or unpleasant can develop a funny taste in their mouths. This can be brought on by licking or eating a new food, cleaning chemicals such as Windex® or Dawn®, or by licking poisonous toads, such as the Marine or Sonoran Desert toad.
- Signs of toad venom toxicity include drooling, lip licking, and foaming at the mouth. Learn more about Toad venom toxicity.
- Any type of bite to the face or around the lips can cause lip licking and swallowing.
- Bites can come from insects (spiders, horse flies, mosquitoes) or a bee/wasp sting. Snakebites may also occur around the face and mouth and cause pain, swelling, discharge, and/or lip licking.
What to Do if You See Your Dog Licking and Swallowing
The first thing to do if your dog is licking their lips and swallowing is to look at this relative to the normal behavior and determine if there is an underlying medical problem.
The key is to:
- 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 or in a situation that makes them uncomfortable, give them some space. If a child or adult is making your dog nervous, remove your dog from the situation. You can displace this behavior by offering your dog a toy, playing a game, or going for a walk. However, it is recommend that you avoid giving your dog special attention, since it may reinforce anxiety or fear.
- Determine if it’s 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, and teeth, and do a complete oral examination. A detailed history of your dog’s eating patterns, food changes, exposure to trash or toxins, overall appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, and weight loss will also be needed for diagnosis.
SPECIAL NOTE: If your dog is trying to vomit unsuccessfully – this could be a medical emergency called “bloat.” Please see your veterinarian immediately.