Help! My dog licks everything - Veterinary Medicine
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Help! My dog licks everything
Although many owners think it is simply annoying, excessive licking can harm a dog or be a sign of medical problems. Learn to identify the causes of repetitive licking in dogs and how to treat it, so you are ready the next time owners bring up the issue.


Appetitive behaviors

The excessive licking of surfaces can be purely an appetitive behavior in a dog that is not so severely polyphagic as to exhibit pica. For example, in a household with small children, many dogs learn to lick the floors around the areas where children eat to consume food particles left behind. A dog that is on a severely restricted diet may also learn to lick the floor where food may have fallen. Once dogs have learned that they may be able to acquire food in these areas, the behavior may appear obsessive when it is simply a learned appetitive behavior.

Treating this condition simply requires identifying and thoroughly cleaning all areas where food has been dropped and limiting the dog's access to these areas. Using child gates to keep dogs away from the areas where children eat is a good idea.

Attention-seeking behavior

Many dogs that begin licking surfaces for any reason learn that performing the behavior results in a response from the owner. Even if that response is punishment, it may be rewarding to a dog that desires attention. Once dogs learn that a certain behavior results in attention, they are likely to repeat the behavior.

Finding out whether the behavior occurs when no people are present is the best way to determine if attention seeking is an important factor contributing to the licking behavior. The ideal way to do this is by videotaping the dog when it is alone. A video camera can be aimed at the general area where the dog spends much of its time and left recording when the owner leaves. Dogs whose behavior demonstrates an observer effect (they demonstrate the behavior less or not at all when no people are around) are unlikely to be experiencing a true compulsive disorder.

Treatment for attention-seeking behaviors requires that the owner completely ignores the dog whenever it begins performing the behavior. Tell the owner not to speak to the dog or even make eye contact and to leave the room if possible. If an owner can do this consistently, the behavior will eventually stop; however, initially, there may be a dramatic increase in the behavior (called an extinction burst) as the dog attempts to get the attention it is used to.14 If owners want the behavior to eventually stop, they must ignore this behavior completely, no matter how annoying it may be.


Table 2: Useful Definitions for Understanding Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors
Once medical problems have been ruled out, the licking can be called an abnormal repetitive behavior. In the literature, behaviors such as these have been referred to as stereotypies, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and compulsive disorders. To clarify the terminology used here, a set of definitions for these and related terms are presented in Table 2. In clinical practice, it is probably easiest to think of the term stereotypy as a description of a behavior and compulsive disorder as a diagnostic term.

Compulsive disorders in dogs are thought to initially be brought on by situations of anxiety, conflict, or frustration and then, over time, to be shown outside of the original context.2,15 No one has yet determined exactly how long it takes for a repetitive behavior to develop into a compulsive behavior, but it is probably not a brief period.

No set diagnostic criteria for compulsive disorders are available.15 The diagnosis is based on the history and presenting signs and is reached after medical conditions and other behavior disorders, such as displacement or redirected behaviors, have been ruled out or treated. In my experience, displacement behaviors and redirected behaviors occur much more frequently in companion dogs than compulsive disorders do. However, ultimately, recognizing that a dog is experiencing anxiety, conflict, or frustration in its environment is much more important than determining whether the behavior is a true compulsive disorder. Attempting to determine the source of the anxiety, conflict, or frustration is critical to developing an appropriate treatment plan as outlined below.


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