Even though we’ve shared our lives with dogs for years, there are still some behaviors that puzzle us. One such behavior is lip licking. While it’s normal for dogs to lick their lips directly after eating or in anticipation of a tasty treat, if your dog licks its lips excessively while there’s no food around, it may be trying to tell you something. There could be an underlying medical reason for the behavior. It’s up to us, as dog parents, to figure out what’s going on. Let’s delve deeper into the matter.
Lip Licking as a Form of Communication
Animals that live in packs need to communicate with one another to hunt, raise their young, and maintain peace within the pack. Any conflict between pack members is dangerous; injuries from fighting cause weakness, ultimately putting the entire pack at risk.
Being pack animals, dogs have strong instincts for cooperation and conflict resolution. They have their own “language” and communicate through smells, vocalizations, and body language.
When dogs are stressed or anxious, they communicate their feelings to people and other dogs by using body language. One such example is lip licking. Lip licking is used as a “calming signal” to alleviate tension in their social interactions with other dogs and humans. Lip licking is a dog’s way of trying to calm itself down and saying that they aren’t a threat to the other person or animal.
According to Turid Rugass, author of On Talking Terms with Dogs, there are approximately 30 “calming signals” that dogs use to avoid conflict, deescalate aggression, and calm itself down when they are faced with stressful and anxiety-provoking situations.
Other calming signals used by dogs include, but are not limited to, yawning, averting their gaze, turning their head, “smiling”, and walking in a curve around a person or animal that they are unsure of.
For example, a dog may become anxious when approached by an aggressive-looking dog, or when its owner reprimands it in an angry voice. It may avert its gaze and lick its lips to avoid conflict and deescalate the situation. If ignored, the dog may feel overwhelmed and try to escape or even become aggressive. Therefore, it’s important to recognize the signs of stress, no matter how subtle, before they escalate.
The 4 Health-Related Causes of Lip Licking
Another possible reason a dog may excessively lick its lips is an underlying health issue. Nausea, oral pain, seizures, and allergies can all cause lip licking.
Nausea often precedes vomiting. A nauseous dog will lick its lips, appear restless and apprehensive, salivate, and repeatedly swallow. Nausea is not a disease or a diagnosis but instead a sign that something is wrong. Many conditions can cause a dog to become nauseous and vomit, some more serious than others.
Some dogs, especially puppies, may suffer from motion sickness during car rides, which may cause them to become nauseous and even vomit. Nausea and vomiting may also be due to gastrointestinal disease, caused by dietary indiscretion from eating spoiled food, bacterial and viral disease, parasites, pancreatitis, and Irritable Bowel Disease (IBS).
A foreign body lodged in the intestines can also cause nausea and vomiting and can be life-threatening. Organ dysfunctions like kidney and liver disease, and certain types of cancers, can also cause nausea and vomiting.
If your dog appears nauseous for longer than a day, even if it does not progress to vomiting, it should be checked by a veterinarian as it could indicate an underlying health issue. When nausea leads to vomiting, even if a minor intestinal upset causes it, it can lead to serious complications such as dehydration, so it’s wise to act sooner rather than later.
If your dog’s nausea is accompanied by other signs of disease such as fever, listlessness, lack of appetite, or diarrhea, it should be checked by a vet.
2. Oral Pain
Oral pain can cause excessive lip licking in dogs. Other signs of oral pain include a reluctance to eat, abnormal chewing, drooling, or food dropping from their mouth. Affected dogs may also suffer from halitosis or smelly breath. Some dogs become grumpy and undergo a personality change due to the pain.
Some common causes of oral pain in dogs include periodontal disease, fractured teeth, tooth root abscesses, oral tumors, and foreign objects such as bones and sticks stuck within the oral cavity. These conditions may have serious implications for your dog’s health if not addressed in a timely manner.
Under normal circumstances, your dog’s teeth and gums should be checked at least once a year by a veterinarian. However, if your dog starts showing signs of oral pain, it should be checked by a veterinarian as soon as possible.
3. Skin Allergies
Caine atopic dermatitis is an inflammatory skin condition that causes intense itching. The muzzle is often affected and the skin around the lips becomes inflamed, red, and itchy, which may cause a dog to lick its lips excessively. Itchy dogs may also rub their faces against a carpet to relieve the itch. Other commonly affected areas include the skin on the underside of the body, the feet, the area around the eyes, and the ears.
Canine atopic dermatitis is caused by environmental allergens such as mites, pollens, and molds, as well as food.
Besides being extremely itchy, affected dogs may also develop secondary bacterial and yeast infections, so it’s important to get your dog checked by a vet if you suspect it is suffering from skin allergies.
4. Focal Seizures
Focal seizures originate from only one part of a dog’s brain, so only affect one part of the body. Dogs will typically exhibit specific movements like lip licking during a focal seizure.
Focal seizures may also manifest as bizarre behavior such as unprovoked aggression, running uncontrollably, fly biting, or rhythmic barking. Dogs may or may not lose consciousness during a focal seizure.
Focal seizures can be challenging to diagnose as the symptoms often mimic other diseases. Furthermore, the signs of focal seizures are not as characteristic as those of generalized seizures. Generalized seizures are the seizure that most people are familiar with typical signs, including loss of consciousness and involuntary muscle contractions. Filming your dog’s behavior may assist your veterinarian in making a diagnosis.
What Should You Do if Your Dog Excessively Licks Its Lips?
When a dog uses lip licking as a “calming signal” to avoid conflict, deescalate aggression, and calm itself down, it’s a sign that it is anxious and uncomfortable with a situation. If this doesn’t work and its signals are ignored, the situation might escalate and result in aggression or escape attempts.
If you notice that a situation is causing your dog to become worried or anxious, and it is licking its lips and showing other “calming signals,” try to remove the source of its anxiety and give him some space. If there are specific situations that cause your dog to become anxious, it’s advisable to work with your veterinarian or behavioralist to address the issue before it turns into a bigger problem that can be more difficult to address.
If your dog becomes anxious during a visit to the vet or to the groomer, speak to your veterinarian about giving calming medication before the appointment.
Lip licking can also be due to a medical condition. If you notice that your dog has started to excessively licking its lips, it should be examined by a veterinarian. Your vet will perform a thorough examination of your dog’s lips, gums, teeth, and oral cavity. Your vet will also examine the rest of your dog’s body, checking for signs of disease.
Your vet will want to know more about your dog’s appetite, its energy levels, whether it has lost any weight recently, and whether you have noticed any vomiting or diarrhea. Based on what your vet finds, they may want to run additional tests to make a diagnosis.
Featured Image Credit: Rebecca Scholz, Pixabay