Why Do Dogs Lick The Air?
No doubt you have been left puzzled by your pooch’s quirky behavior and wondered what it is they are trying to tell you. Sometimes it’s simply down to their individual eccentricity, but sometimes it can be a sign that something may be wrong. And one such behavior is a dog licking air.
It may seem a strange thing for them to do, but licking the air is a dog trait that’s more common than you think. And whilst in most cases it’s a harmless thing, it could also indicate that all may not be well. We take a look at why your dog maybe doing it, what it most likely means and when you may need to seek some help.
Why Does my Dog Lick the Air?
The tongue is part of your dog’s sensory toolbox and can give them a host of information, from taste to environmental. It’s also an excellent cleaning implement as well as a way to move and manipulate their food. So, when it comes to the action of your dog licking the air, it isn’t always a cause for concern.
At a basic level, it is normal for your dog to lick their nose to keep it moist or to lick their lips to remove any leftover morsels of food. Dogs may also lick at the air if you scratch them on their ‘sweet spot’ as part of an involuntary reflex. Then there is the flehmen response in which your dog uses their tongue to smell. By flicking out their tongue and curling back their top lip to expose what is known as the Jacobson’s organ, your dog can absorb the full extent of an interesting smell, transmitting the information to their brain.
So, for occasional air licking or where a harmless or natural reason is obvious, your tongue flicking pooch’s behavior is perfectly normal and is part of them simply being a dog.
Sudden or Prolonged Air Licking
However, there can be times when that airborne tongue is more than a simple desire to capture an unusual scent or keep their nose wet but a sign of something that needs further investigation. So, if you suddenly find your dog keeps licking air or has become a compulsive or prolonged air licker, then one of the following could be the reason why:
How they are feeling or responding to their environment could well be an explanation why your pooch is licking the air. Behavioral causes can include:
Anxiety: Licking the air is often a sign of anxiety or stress in dogs and is known as an appeasement gesture as he is letting you know he needs reassurance and not to be told off. The key to tackling anxiety-driven air licking is to identify the cause of your dog’s stress. It could be a situation (eg. too many people, a new home) or an environment (loud noises from outside, thunder, etc). If this fits the situation, take your pooch away from his stress trigger and give him plenty of reassurance and the air licking should subside.
Stress-induced compulsive behavior: More extreme responses to stress can result in repetitive and prolonged air licking, potentially leading your dog to develop a compulsive behavior as a way to deal with his anxiety. Licking helps to release feel-good hormones called endorphins into the brain which are known to be ‘self-soothing’ and under stress, your dog may well resort to air licking as a form of self-soothing. If the source of his stress is not resolved, then stress-induced compulsive behavior may well kick in.
Boredom: Licking the air can also be a sign your pet is simply bored. Left to their own devices, an unstimulated and bored dog will try to create their own entertainment and the repetitive act of air licking is one such boredom-busting ‘game’. Bored dogs can also engage in destructive activity so if you find your dog constantly licking air as well as chewing or scratching, then look at upping their stimulation, social and exercise levels.
Physical or medical causes
There can also be physical or medical reasons behind your pooch’s air licking habit, all of which need checking out, including:
A foreign object stuck in their mouth: Your dog’s sudden bout of air licking could be due to something that has become stuck in their mouth. Unlike humans with our convenient fingers, dogs can’t reach into their own mouth with their paws to remove an obstruction and so use their tongue instead. If you have ever seen your pooch trying to lick peanut butter from their teeth or roof of the mouth, you will know just how much that tongue action looks like they are licking air. But that tongue licking could also be due to something more problematic getting stuck, such as a piece of their chew toy or bone, so if you suspect a foreign object is the cause then it needs to be carefully removed.
Gastro and tummy problems: Repeated air licking, especially if it comes on suddenly, can be a sign of digestive problems in your dog. Conditions such as acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome or pancreatitis can be uncomfortable for your pooch and cause stomach or gastro upset and pain. One way a dog can express discomfort is to repeatedly air lick, especially if they feel they are about to vomit. It also appears that licking the air is one way for your pet to cope with feelings of nausea and can be a cause for concern if your pooch is also showing signs of stomach pain or is sensitive if you try to touch their abdomen.
A partial seizure: Epilepsy is a condition that can affect some dogs and is characterized by seizures known as grand mals, which causes a pooch to lose control of their body. A less dramatic form is known as a partial seizure as it only affects one side of the dog’s brain. Partial seizures have more subtle symptoms as only a portion of the brain’s electrical activity is disrupted and both air licking and snapping at the air can be a sign. If your pooch is regularly displaying these symptoms or for a prolonged session during which it’s difficult to get them to stop, you should get him checked out. If you’re concerned, a good idea is to take a video of your pet’s air licking and discuss it with your vet.
Skin issues or allergies: Irritated skin, allergies, bites, and stings can drive your pooch to air lick as they try and comfort themselves against an unrelenting itch. They can also lick out when they are scratching the affected area or if you are giving them a scratch on a sensitive spot. And, if they have an allergy or bite on their face, you may see their tongue flailing out as they try to reach the itchy spot. So, if their air licking is in conjunction with red, inflamed skin or an obvious bite or sting site, you may well have found the air licking cause.
Canine cognitive disfunction: As with humans, dogs can suffer from cognitive decline as they age and may go on to develop conditions such as canine cognitive dysfunction, which is similar to Alzheimer’s. Repetitive behavior can be an indicator of the condition, including persistent air licking. If you suspect cognitive decline in your senior pooch, do get him checked out. Symptoms can be managed with medication, as well as exercise, diet and regular playtime for mental stimulation.
Dental problems: Pain or discomfort caused by dental issues can also lead a dog to repeatedly lick the air as he tries to find some relief from what is going on inside his mouth. Without sufficient oral hygiene, your pet may well suffer from dental disease, which if left untreated can lead to gum or periodontal disease and ultimately tooth loss. It can also cause abscesses to form in the gum. All this will cause pain and irritation in your dog’s mouth and increase his tendency to air lick. If you suspect dental issues, look for other signs, which include inflamed gums, bad breath and severe plaque build-up around the teeth.
What to do if you See your Dog Licking the Air
All our dogs are prone to their one-off oddities or quirky behavior and air licking is no exception. But when it comes to why your dog is doing it and when to seek help, you need to be aware of the clues. Occasional air licking with no discernable cause shouldn’t do your pet any harm but if you worry it is becoming too regular, has signs of compulsive behavior or is a potential symptom for something more serious, then do seek professional help. Videoing your pet on your cellphone camera to show your vet can help the professional make a diagnosis. If your pooch is medically fit but there are definite signs of compulsive behavior, your vet may suggest a session with a canine behaviorist so you can come up with a strategy to manage their air licking. Or, if the root cause is a medical one, then the right medication or treatment can be prescribed. Even if your pooch is given a clean bill of health, and continues with their air licking, there are still a few things you can do:
- Check for any allergies – including to his diet – and adjust his day-to-day lifestyle to avoid any allergy triggers
- Always make sure he has access to plenty of clean, fresh water and don’t skip on his regular teeth cleaning and oral hygiene routine
- Look to reduce any stressful situations or potential anxiety if you suspect his air licking is an emotional response.
But if your dog has been checked by the vet and is found to be fit, well and happy and his air licking habit is just an occasional quirk, then just put it down to yet another odd thing your lovable furry goof is going to do.