Why Dogs Lick Themselves, and What to To About It

Written by Rebecca
Updated: November 3, 2022
Image Credit Julia Kaysa/Shutterstock.com
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Key Points

  • Why do dogs lick themselves? Dogs lick themselves to groom, heal, or from anxiety.
  • Licking is fine, but see a vet if it is extensive or causes fur loss.
  • Some dogs lick themselves out of habit or allergies.

There are a few key canine behaviors most people think of. One is wagging their tail when happy and another is licking humans to give us “kisses.” But dogs also lick themselves. Some licking is normal, but you don’t want your pup to do so excessively. Discover why dogs lick themselves and what to do about it.

For dogs that are intent on licking, chewing, or biting at themselves, while there are many reasons for this behavior, most of them include grooming, boredom, dry skin, or allergies. Sometimes it is environmentally or food based.

Keep reading to learn the reasons why dogs lick themselves:

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Reasons Dogs Lick Themselves

So, why do dogs lick themselves? There is no single answer to why dogs lick themselves. It comes down to several different factors, and more than one of them may be at play. Dogs lick themselves for any number of reasons including:

  • Grooming
  • Healing
  • Boredom
  • Anxiety
  • Soothing
  • Habit
  • Allergies
  • Skin infections
  • Parasites
  • Pain
  • Anal gland issues
  • Urinary tract infection, bladder stones, or other medical issues

Grooming

While most people associate licking as a way to groom cats, dogs also do this. It is one way that they try to keep themselves clean. Of course, dogs aren’t as effective at cleaning with their tongues as cats are, so you still have to give them baths.

One of the more common examples of licking to groom is right after your dog pees. You may notice him giving the area a quick once- or twice-over after. (This is a lot less common after bowel movements.)

Healing

One of the very common reasons that dogs lick themselves is to promote healing. You may not realize it, but your pooch’s saliva has enzymes that kill bacteria. In addition to those enzymes, licking can remove dead tissue or just clean wounds.

Boredom or Anxiety

Another potential reason that dogs lick themselves is if they are bored or anxious. You can work to overcome the boredom problem by giving your dog more toys or going on longer walks than normal. In the case of anxiety, you will have to figure out what the trigger is, so you can avoid it.

Soothing

Sometimes, your pup will lick himself as a way to calm down or self-soothe. If you want to stop the licking, you should give him other ways to soothe himself.

Habit

If your dog licks himself enough, it can start to become a habit. When that happens, even if you address the underlying cause of the licking, your dog may continue to do so. In this case, you will have to refocus his attention on something else.

Allergies

No matter what part of his body he licks, it is possible that your dog’s licking is due to allergies. These can be food allergies or environmental ones. In either case, you will have to work with a vet to figure out what your dog is allergic to so that you can eliminate it.

why do dogs lick themselves
One of the reasons a dock lick itself is because of skin allergies. It is best to take the dog to a vet in case of excessive licking.

Rattanapon Ninlapoom/Shutterstock.com

Skin Infections

If your dog has a skin infection, he will likely lick his skin in the affected area. He may even bite it to help remove the itching. This is the case whether it is a yeast or bacterial infection. Remember that if the issue is an infection, your dog likely has other symptoms as well. Look for discoloration or an odor and take your pup to the vet.

Parasites

When your dog has parasites, they will cause his skin to itch. Licking is a way for him to relieve this. That is why one of the most common things vets check when someone asks why dogs lick themselves is whether they have parasites.

Pain

Some dogs that are in pain will lick themselves as a way to soothe. This works because licking will release endorphins, natural pain killers. If your dog has arthritis and is licking, this is a good indication that his pain is not under control.

Anal Gland Issues

If your dog’s licking is focused around his anal area, then you may need to take a closer look at his anal glands. There may be an issue, and the glands may need to be drained because they are impacted or over-filled. While you can technically drain your dog’s anal glands yourself, it is best left to your vet.

Urinary Tract Infection, Bladder Stones, or Other Medical Issues

Another specific area that your dog may lick excessively is the genital area. Excessive licking in this area likely indicates an underlying issue of some sort. For example, your dog may have bladder stones or crystals or a urinary tract infection.

If your dog licks this area more than normal, take a closer look at the area in question or consider other recent behavioral changes. Your dog likely has more than one symptom pointing at the issue.

Bonus: Why Does Your Dog Lick You (and Other Animals)?

Now that we’ve covered why dogs lick themselves, why do they lick other dogs or their humans?

Showing Affection

One good reason is that this is your dog’s way of showing his affection. When your dog licks you affectionately, his body releases endorphins that calm, comfort, and please him.

Enjoying Your Taste

There’s also the fact that sometimes humans just taste good. There are likely teeny tiny traces of food on your skin, and your dog likes that flavor. Even if there isn’t food, dogs like the saltiness of human skin.

Communicating

Dogs also lick as another way to communicate. Your dog might lick you as a way to say anything from “please fill my water bowl” to “I love you.” He may lick other dogs or animals to ask to be friends or for another reason.

Why dogs lick themselves
Dogs often show their affection by licking their owners.

Nina Buday/Shutterstock.com

Should I Let My Dog Lick Himself? When Should I Be Concerned?

If your dog licks a little bit, there is nothing to worry about. But there are two main situations when you are right to be concerned.

The first is if your dog starts licking more than normal. This can indicate that something is wrong. Take a closer look at the area he is licking to see if there is a wound, skin irritation, parasites, or something else. If necessary, take him to the vet.

The other situation when you need to be concerned is if your dog licks to the point of causing damage to himself. This can be simple redness and inflammation. In extreme cases, your pup may accidentally reopen a healed wound with his licking. Or he may even cause a new wound or cause bald patches to form on his fur.

If your dog is licking to the point of accidental self-harm, do your best to stop this habit and get him to a vet as soon as you can.

Some signs that your dog needs to see the vet include if your pup:

  • Lost fur
  • Has red skin
  • Has matts close to his skin
  • Frequently pauses playtime to lick
  • Can’t sleep because of the urge to lick
  • Licking is interfering with his life

How to Stop My Dog from Licking Himself

Before you stop your dog from licking himself, you need to figure out the cause. Because there are so many answers to the question of why dogs lick themselves, each cause will have a different solution.

Treat the Underlying Issue

In the case of licking due to an underlying issue, the first thing to do is treat that underlying problem. So, if your dog is licking his anal glands because they are impacted, have the vet express them. If your dog is licking because of a urinary tract infection, treat the infection.

Your vet will be a significant help in this.

Prevent and Eliminate Parasites

If you suspect that the licking is from parasites, then take steps to eliminate them and prevent them from returning. For example, you can use flea shampoo on your dog or get a flea collar for him.

Get Him a Licking Mat

For situations when the licking has become a habit or is a soothing mechanism, consider giving your dog something else to lick instead of himself. The best solution is to get a licking mat.

Train Away the Behavior

You can also try to train away your dog’s licking behavior. For example, tell him to stop licking by saying “Leave it” and when he listens, give him a treat.

Prevent Boredom with Puzzle Toys

If you suspect the licking is because your dog is bored, get some more toys to entertain him. One great option is a dog puzzle that dispenses treats. These are an excellent way of maintaining your pup’s interest.

why do dogs lick themselves
Sometimes a dog will lick itself out of pure boredom. Give it a puzzle toy to play with to alleviate boredom!

Switch to Allergy-Free Food

When you suspect that the licking is due to allergies, one of the first things to do is swap out your dog’s food. You may want to look at limited ingredient foods or those specifically designed for allergies.

If you suspect environmental allergies, do your best to get rid of the trigger. Maybe you will have to change the cleaning products you use. Or maybe you’ll just have to get in the habit of giving your dog a thorough bath after he rolls in the grass. You can even keep dog wipes on hand to give him a quick clean after contact with the allergen if a bath isn’t an option.

Conclusion

Most dogs will occasionally lick themselves. Some of this is just normal grooming behavior, but it is also soothing, can relieve itching, and eliminates pain.

Start by treating the cause of the licking behavior and work to distract your pup by offering other options, such as licking mats.

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why do dogs lick themselves
Malamute licks itself - a large northern dog lies in the green grass.
Julia Kaysa/Shutterstock.com
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About the Author

My name is Rebecca and I've been a Professional Freelancer for almost a decade. I write SEO content and graphic design. When I'm not working, I'm obsessing over cats and pet rats.

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