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.


Behavior modification

All punishment should be stopped immediately. Since most pet owners do not use punishment appropriately (within 1 to 2 seconds every time the inappropriate behavior occurs, at the proper intensity), punishment can be an important source of conflict and anxiety for pets.2,8

Command-response-reward exercises. For the first two to four weeks of treatment, owner interactions should be limited to providing food, exercise, and other necessities as well as daily training sessions.15 These training sessions should be highly structured interactions in which the animal is asked to respond to a command that it already knows well, and when it responds, it is rewarded. Dogs should not be punished for failing to respond; they just do not get the reward. These sessions provide the owner with an appropriate way to interact with the dog. The predictability and consistency of these command-response-reward exercises can dramatically decrease a dog's anxiety.

Response substitution. If the owner learns to recognize the circumstances in which the dog is likely to perform the licking behavior, he or she can try a technique called counter-conditioning or response substitution.10 As the latter term suggests, the purpose of this training is to teach the dog to provide an alternative response instead of performing the unacceptable behavior. There are several ways owners can accomplish this, but it will take time, patience, and consistency to be successful.

Owners of smaller dogs can attach a long leash from their dogs to themselves as they move about the home. Ideally, the dogs should also be wearing head collars during this time. When an owner sees that the dog shows signs that it will begin licking, he or she should immediately but calmly distract the dog by pulling it to him or her or by giving the dog a command, such as come or sit. It is important that the owners only use a command that the dog knows well and is likely to respond to at that moment. For this reason, it may be necessary for the owner to practice the command-response-reward exercises as described above for a few weeks before beginning the counter-conditioning exercises.

Owners who feel uncomfortable tethering their dogs to themselves will need to try other methods of distracting their dogs when it appears they may start licking surfaces. Squeaky toys, whistles, shaker cans (a can filled with beans or coins), or other noise-making devices can be effective.2 Other alternatives are squirt water bottles, cans of compressed air, ultrasonic devices, or citronella sprays. It is important to make owners aware that the purpose of these devices is to interrupt a dog's behavior so an alternate behavior can be rewarded. Their purpose is not to decrease the likelihood of the recurrence of the behavior (as appropriately applied punishment would do), so it is critical that the distracting device does not cause any fear or anxiety. If the chosen device appears to increase a dog's anxiety or cause a fearful response, it should be stopped immediately, and a less-startling device should be tried. It should absolutely not be paired with the owner yelling or telling the dog, "No." Once the dog is successfully distracted and looking to the owner for a command, the owner should calmly give the dog a command and reward it for responding appropriately.

Initially, a dog should be rewarded every time it responds to a command, preferably with a valued item or food treat. After the dog responds to a command, the owner should attempt to engage the dog in other rewarding activities such as play.

Pharmacologic intervention

Pharmacologic treatment can be a useful adjunct to behavior modification and environmental management when treating any anxiety-related disorder. Drugs acting on the serotonergic system have been found effective in treating anxiety and both human obsessive-compulsive disorders7 and canine compulsive disorders.10

Clomipramine. Clomipramine, a tricyclic antidepressant with selective serotonergic properties, has anxiolytic as well as anticompulsive effects, so it is a possible drug choice for treating a dog that repetitively licks surfaces. Sedation and anorexia are the most commonly noted side effects,17 but nausea, regurgitation, or increased water consumption may also occur.18

The recommended dosage of clomipramine in dogs is 1 to 3 mg/kg given orally twice daily.18 Do not give clomipramine in conjunction with monoamine oxidase inhibitors, such as selegiline, which are commonly used to treat canine cognitive dysfunction. In addition, administering clomipramine for more than 112 days at 3 mg/kg every 12 hours has been shown to significantly decrease total thyroxine, free thyroxine, and 3,3',5'–tri-iodothyronine concentrations.18 Signs of clinical hypothyroidism were not reported at this dose. But being aware of these medication-related effects should help you avoid unnecessary treatment for hypothyroidism.18


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