Why Does My Dog Keep Licking His Lips Excessively?
One day, out of nowhere, your dog suddenly starts continuously licking his lips as if he had some peanut butter on his nose. As the smacking persists, your dog starts looking uncomfortable. Perhaps he also tries to lick the carpet or the floor, or he may lick the air as though he were attempting to get rid of something. He may be drooling, too—more than usual. You look at your dog's nose, gums, and teeth, and all seems normal, yet the behavior continues. What could it be? You take your dog out, and he starts to frantically eat grass. What is going on?
What Does It Mean When My Dog Keeps Licking His Lips?
Dogs will lick their lips non-stop as an appeasement gesture when feeling threatened, anxious, or nervous, or when they experience a health-related problem such as nausea, oral discomfort, allergies, or internal pain.
Why Is My Dog Constantly Licking Its Lips?
According to veterinarian Dr. Katie Grzyb, dogs who keep licking their lips for no reason are most likely feeling nauseous, have allergies, or are dehydrated. Constant lip licking and smacking can also be caused by abnormal medical conditions or learned behaviors.
If you notice this behavior when you scold your dog or when he is at the vet or in some other uncomfortable situation, then lip licking is a stress response. Turid Rugaas, a Norwegian dog trainer and behaviorist, came up with the term "calming signal" to refer to lip licking that is instigated by stress, fear, or confusion. Your dog licks his lips as a way of saying, "I feel threatened or nervous. Please go away." Of course, this behavior can start as a stress response, but over time, it can turn into an obsessive habit, similar to nail biting in humans.
10 Reasons Why Your Dog Keeps Licking His Lips
- A calming signal
- Oral discomfort
- Swallowed a foxtail
- Licked a toad
- Sign of Pain
- Attention-seeking behavior
Each of these situations is described in detail below, with tips and suggestions.
10 Causes of Lip Licking or Smacking in Dogs
1. Your Dog May Be Nauseous
If you dog is licking and swallowing, then she is most likely nauseous. The feeling of nausea makes her drool, and she may lick her lips and swallow to get rid of excessive saliva. She may also eat grass, which is a natural way for dogs to make themselves vomit. Licking and gulping may mean your dog ate something that didn’t agree with her stomach, or, worse, something toxic. If you don't think your dog has eaten any of the toxic foods on this list, then try these home remedies for vomiting and vet-approved remedies for an upset stomach. If vomiting or nausea continues for more than 24 hours, see a vet immediately. It may be a critical medical condition or a sign of poisoning.
2. Your Dog Is Displaying a Calming Signal
Dogs who are faced with a perceived threat may lick their lips as a sign of appeasement. It is a pacifying behavior that dogs display when they are stressed, fearful, or anxious. By licking their lips, they are sending the message that they would rather not confront their fear. It's helpful to look at the context. If your dog licks his lips every time you come home, then it may be possible that you have scolded him several times in the past when you saw a puddle of pee that he left while you were away. Your dog cannot associate your scolding with what he did hours ago, so he might be frightened of you every time you come home. Lip licking may also become a nervous habit similar to the nail biting behavior in humans.
3. Your Dog May Have Oral Discomfort
If there is something wrong in a dog’s mouth, it can cause oral pain and discomfort. Owners should check for signs of tooth decay, periodontal disease, objects embedded in the mouth, or swollen salivary glands.
In particular, owners should look under the dog's jawline or under the dog's tongue for swelling. These are the locations of the salivary glands. If such areas appear swollen, then this may be an indication of accumulated fluid in the surrounding tissues, known as a sialocele. This condition needs to be seen by a vet promptly. An owner may be able to inspect the teeth, tongue, and gums, but it can be difficult to see the larynx. A vet may have to sedate the pet, so he or she can see over the soft palate.
4. Your Dog May Have Swallowed a Foxtail
Foxtails are awns (spiky grass seeds) that have been known to travel up the dog's nose, into the ears, between the toes, and even into the lungs. If your dog swallowed a foxtail, she will likely appear panicky, and will constantly lick, swallow, and sneeze. She might also eat anything she finds on the ground (i.e. grass or leaves). She may also lick the floor, people, or walls for comfort.
If you think your dog swallowed a foxtail, see a vet immediately. The vet will determine the best way to remove the foxtail. This may require sedation depending on where the seed is.
5. Your Dog May Have Licked a Poisonous Toad
The two most common species of deadly toads are the Sonoran Desert (Colorado River) toad and the Marine or Cane toad. Signs of toad venom toxicity appear within minutes. Symptoms include severe drooling, very red gums, hyperthermia (body temperature rises), vomiting, head shaking, pawing, foaming at the mouth, and loss of coordination. If these signs appear, wash your dogs mouth out thoroughly with water and rush your dog to the vet immediately. The woman in the following article was able to save her dog from toad poisoning, but her friend's dog was not so lucky. She shares what she did to save her dog and offers tips on how to prevent dogs from coming into contact with poisonous toads.
6. Your Dog May Have a Partial (Focal) Seizure
In some cases, dogs may develop partial seizures. Dog's with partial seizure may be conscious and responsive but may lick the air and snap, as if catching imaginary flies. If your dog seems listless or depressed after having an episode like this, then it is very likely that your pet is suffering from epilepsy. Speak to a vet immediately. He/she may subscribe medication to control the seizures.
"Fly Catching" Behavior Possibly Due to a Partial Seizure
7. Your Dog Is Showing Signs of Pain
Some dogs whine or bark when they are in pain. Others show more subtle signs, like lip licking. Any cause of pain could lead to this behavior in pets, so it is imperative that a vet checks your dog to avoid faulty guesswork. Common causes include liver or kidney diseases or any conditions that cause dehydration.
8. Your Dog Is Dehydrated
Dogs smack their lips when they are dehydrated. Dehydration may be brought on my hot weather (or heat stroke), strenuous physical activity, or an underlying medical condition, such as kidney or liver disease. Signs of dehydration include dull and sticky gums, sunken eyes, and loss of skin elasticity. To check for dehydration, pinch your dog's skin and lift it as high as you can. When you release it, the skin should quickly snap back into place. If the skin slowly collapses or forms a tent, then you have a dehydrated dog. Feed water vigorously, and take your pet to the vet if dehydration is accompanied by vomiting, lethargy, and/or diarrhea.
9. Your Dog May Have a Case of Bloat
If the dog drools, paces nervously, and retches, but nothing comes out, the dog should be seen by a vet immediately as this can be a symptom of bloat. Bloat is an enlarged stomach caused by food, fluid, or gas. It can come on suddenly and is seen mostly in deep-chested dog breeds. It can be dangerous, and even fatal, if not treated by a vet.
10. It's Just Attention-Seeking Behavior
If you can confidently rule out any medical conditions, then your dog may be using lip licking as a way to get your attention. Do you pet your dog or turn around and talk to her every time she licks her lips? If so, she may have associated this behavior with getting your attention and is now using it as a way to get you to pet her or display other signs of affection towards her.
Are There Different Types of Licking?
Patricia McConnell, PhD, an applied animal behaviorist, says that "usually (but not always), licking in anticipation of food involves the tongue moving laterally, to the side of the dog's mouth, while in other types of lick lips, the tongue moves straight forward."
Why Is My Dog Constantly Licking and Swallowing?
Nausea and eating non-food items (e.g. ball of dust or clumps of hair) are the most common reasons, but esophagitis (an inflammation of the esophagus) caused by acid reflux or oral diseases that affect the tongue or gums may also result in constant licking and gulping.
If the behavior only appears periodically, then there is a possibility that your dog is suffering from a seizure. Does the swallowing or licking look like your dog is trying to catch flies or is licking the air? This may be a sign of epilepsy, partial focal seizure, or some other neurological disorder.
What Does It Mean If My Dog Is Licking and Sneezing?
This is a clear sign that your dog is bothered by allergies or irritants. Eating or inhaling foxtail is a common cause, but reasons for allergies may also include pollen, dust, grass/weeds, mold, cleaning chemicals, laundry detergents, deicing salts, or flea medications.
Why Does My Dog Constantly Lick His Lips and Yawn?
Licking and yawning in dogs is a sign of either nausea or severe stress. Dogs who want to vomit may obsessively lick their lips, yawn, and swallow. Anxious or nervous dogs will also continuously lick their lips and yawn. This appeasement behavior is similar to the nail-biting habit in nervous humans, so you may witness continuous yawning when your dog is at the vet or in another stressful situation.
Whichever the cause may be, you need to find the source. It may be easier to remedy the causes of vomiting than to train your dog to stop his/her anxious or fearful behavior.
What Does It Mean If My Dog Keeps Licking the Air?
If there are no other symptoms and your dog licks the air for hours at a time, then it is a compulsive behavior likely caused by anxiety that needs to be addressed by a dog specialist. You will most likely be able to train your dog to stop this obsessive-compulsive disorder or find the source that is instigating the behavior (e.g. maybe your dog is afraid of something or someone in the house).
The other likely cause is that your dog is suffering from a seizure or other neurological disorder. See a vet immediately if random episodes of air licking continue.
When to See a Vet
If you think your dog may have eaten something toxic, for example, if he is nauseous or eating grass, report this to your veterinarian. Vomiting up some toxic substances, such as caustics, may cause more harm than good.
A dog that licks its lips and seems very uncomfortable and does not seem to be getting better should be seen by a vet promptly, especially when this happens for no obvious reason. If this behavior is due to something toxic your dog was exposed to, or to bloat, immediate treatment can really make a difference.
If you have reason to think your dog is licking his lips due to something stuck in the throat, it may help to give him several “meatballs” made of bread, or mashed potatoes mixed with water and bran.
- "Six Surprising Reasons Why Dogs Smack Their Lips," Dog Discoveries. April 30, 2016. Accessed December 10, 2017.
- Didi Kader, "Why Do Dogs Lick Their Lips?," Rover. November 28, 2016. Accessed December 10, 2017.
- "A Dog’s Lip Lick (Or The Nose Lick Or The Tongue Flick)," DogTime. Accessed December 10, 2017.
- Amy Bender, "Dog Body Language: Lip Licking," The Spruce. September 26, 2017. Accessed December 09, 2017.
- Amy Flowers, DVM, "Seizures in Dogs: Causes, Symptoms, & What to Do," PetMd. July 23, 2017. Accessed December 10, 2017.
- Laura Playforth, "Signs and Causes of Dehydration in Dogs and Puppies," VetsNow. January 31, 2017. Accessed December 10, 2017.
- Laura Payne, "Why Is My Dog Swallowing Continuously & Licking?," Cuteness. Accessed December 10, 2017.
- Joy D'Souza, "What It Means When Your Dog Keeps Yawning," Huffington Post. March 7, 2016. Accessed December 10, 2017.
- Mikkel Becker, "Why Does My Dog Compulsively Lick The Air?," VetStreet. May 14, 2012. Accessed December 10, 2017.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
My dog constantly licks his lips. I believe it has become a habit. How do I get him to break this annoying habit?
You would first have to determine whether this may stem from a medical problem such as nausea. Nausea and acid reflux or other issues such as IBD can cause a dog to lick their lips frequently. Only after ruling out a health problem can you assume it's a habit and try to work on it.Helpful 27