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Understanding Your Dog's Teeth Chattering

Updated on January 26, 2017
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Adrienne Farricelli is a former veterinary hospital assistant and now a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, and author of dog books.

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What's Up With Dogs Chattering Their Teeth?

You may be wondering about this behavior at one time or another out of your years of dog ownership. It could be you just happen to hear the noise of your dog's teeth clacking against each other when you grab the leash, or perhaps that chattering is heard when your dog is sniffing a particular spot. What gives?

First, a word of clarification is warranted. In this article, teeth chattering refers to the noise made when dogs open and close their teeth quickly in sequence, producing a similar noise to when humans feel cold. The teeth chattering noise is often short lived. By the time you look at your dog, it often has already stopped. Teeth chattering should not be confused with air snapping, a behavior seen in dogs when they open and close their mouth as if biting the air. Air snapping is different from teeth chattering and is often a warning sign of a potential bite. Teeth chattering should also not be confused for the teeth clacking noises made when dogs are playing side-by-side and engage in a lazy game of jaw sparring.

Also, it's important to clarify that with many other odd doggy behaviors, we can often only make a few assumptions because until Rover can talk, we won't ever be able to get into his head and deduce what's really going on, even if we were blessed with special psychic powers. However, we can sometimes make some educated guesses based on the context in which these behaviors occur.

So next time you hear that teeth chattering noise from your dog, make sure you pay extra attention to what is happening. Chances are, you may get a better insight on what is triggering it. In the meanwhile, here are some reasons why dogs chatter their teeth.

Dogs Can Actually "Taste" Smells

In case you didn't know, dog noses are blessed with about 300 million scent receptors compared to a human's mere 5 million. Yes, we can call them noses on legs or walking noses! So when your dog is sniffing a spot, he's not only smelling, but there are chances he's actually "tasting the smell."

You see, on top of having a powerful nose, dogs also have what's known as the "vomeronsal organ." This organ is shaped like a small pouch and is located between the nasal and vomer bones which are located at the roof of the dog's mouth. The main function of this organ is to send chemical messages known as pheromones, which dogs leave behind as an act of communication. The organ therefore receives these messages and relays them to the brain to several specialized compartment relating to mating, communication, social situations, etc.

Now, you must know that dogs also have a little duct known as the "incisive papilla" which happens to be conveniently located behind the dog's top incisor teeth.This duct connects the dog's nose with his mouth.

So when you see Rover concentrated on sniffing a spot, he's carefully analyzing the scent. If you see your dog chattering his teeth while he's sniffing it means that he's basically sending large scent molecules towards his incisive papilla (with some help from the tongue). Then, those scent molecules will reach those special areas of your dog's brain and your dog may be making some decision making based on his findings. Perhaps he'll just urine mark on top of the area or leave. There you go, now you know why your dog poses a deaf ear when you call him while he's sniffing! He's super concentrated!

Jacobson’s Organ is a “sense of smell” receptor that is actually not receptive to ordinary odors. Rather, the scenting nerve cells of the organ are quite different from those in normal olfactory tissue in that they respond to a range of substances that have large molecules, but often no detectable odor.

— Dr. Randy Kidd DVM

And It's Often a Male Thing

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As you may already know, pee in the dog world is much more than just excrement; indeed, for dog kind it is used as a form of communication. And this is why you can commonly see dogs sniffing electric poles, lamp posts and fire hydrants: these areas are frequently urine marked by dogs.

Urine tells dogs a whole lot about the dogs who have left their droplets of pee-mail. These drops of urine act like social messages, a canine's style of Tweeting or posting a message on a Pinterest board. What exactly can dogs tell from sniffing some urine? Until dogs can talk we won't know for sure, but it likely tells the dog about a dog's age, sex and reproductive status.

Male dogs in particular are often eager to sniff urine and female dogs to determine if they are in heat. Instead of a date and movie, a female dog deliver pheromones through their urine. Cool, huh?

Teeth chattering in this case, allows the dog to carefully analyze the smell and determine if the female dog is in heat and if she is, perhaps even at what point she is. Is she receptive or at the "I am not ready yet" flirty stage? The teeth chattering behavior in this case, for those horse people out there, is somewhat similar to the flehem seen in horses. Some dogs may also foam at mouth while chattering their teeth. For neutered dogs, you may notice the same chattering behavior. Just because they are neutered doesn't mean they won't be interested in certain smells!

Your dog may lick up a small sample of urine and then chomp his jaws slowly up and down, sometimes foaming a bit at the mouth at the same time... Intact male dogs are especially likely to sample urine; it's sort of like reading a girlie magazine or visiting an online dating site.

— Caroline Coile

Dogs May Be Head Over Heels in Anticipation

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Besides mating season and intact male dogs, there are so many reasons dogs may chatter their teeth and scientists have still yet to crack every secret in canines. But yet another cause a dog may chatter his teeth is in sheer excitement.

You may therefore observe teeth chattering in dogs while you're pouring dog food into a bowl, coming in the door to greet your pet, or even pulling out a leash for a walk. This is very similar to the feeling you get when a pizza man knocks on your door, yup, lots of anticipation for those pizza lovers out there!

Also the anticipation of play might cause some occasional teeth chattering as well, as an upcoming fun training session. Does your dog ever chatter his teeth when you get the clicker out? If yes, kudos to you for making it so much fun!

When a dog's teeth are chattering this isn't a sign he is cold, but generally indicates happy anticipation. A dog who is expecting an especially good toy or who's in the middle of an exciting play session may chatter his teeth.

— Matthew Hoffman, Dog Speak

But At Times,Teeth Chattering May Be a Sign of Trouble

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OK, don't want to be a party-pooper, but sometimes teeth chattering in dogs isn't one hundred percent safe in certain situations. Your dog could be in stress or trying to signal that something is wrong. Prolonged teeth chattering could be caused by a dental or a neurological problem such as seizures/tremors. And it could be something as light as an allergy to something your dog may have sniffed. Always play it safe when it comes to your pet's health. If you ever think anything is wrong, it is highly recommended you bring him/her to the vet.

On a lighter note though, in more cases than not, teeth chattering is nothing to worry about. In many social situations, it's just as common as talking. Whether it's playing, sniffing out a potential mate, or sniffing another dog's territory, it is always good to allow your dog to exercise his vomeronasal organ. After all, it's there for a reason, so why not put it to good use! Happy sniffing!

We see teeth chattering in dogs for a number of reasons. One may be pain in the mouth, bad teeth. Another is a trigeminal nerve irritation similar to shingles in humans. It could be central nervous system problem and similar to a seizure.

— Dr. Denise Colgrove

© 2016 Adrienne Janet Farricelli

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      Megan 5 weeks ago

      My dog is 6 and lately she chatters her teeth after licking my babies hands... I say "no" when she tries to lick my babies face and pull her away- She is not aggressive towards the baby but this is the most interaction they have had to date, my daughter is only 5 months and has just started noticing our dog and joys having her hands licked so I figured this is a good thing- but my dog is definitely a little jealous (she will take a baby toy if I'm nursing or playing with the baby and not paying attention to her) so I'm careful about how they interact etc. But I've never seen this behavior in my dog before and I'm concerned. She doesn't seem anxious when she is interacting with baby, she is happily licking babies hands and then it's most like her jaw locks, she can't open her mouth, they chatter long enough that I hear it and then see it- so maybe 10-15 seconds, her ears go flat and I can tell she doesn't like the teeth chattering. Her teeth seem fine... What could this be? Behavioral? Or should I see my get?

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      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 5 weeks ago from USA

      Megan, it's hard to say why your dog is chattering her teeth without seeing the actual behavior. It may just be a reaction to your baby's smell or it could be a sign of excitement. Perhaps there's a bit of anxiety mixed in, if she's expecting you to step in and say "no" if your dog's next move is usually trying to lick her face. If it happens only and exclusively after licking your baby's hands, it's likely unlikely a health problem, but it never hurts mentioning it to the vet. It's good you are always careful how they interact, and it's important that the behavior you are seeing is differentiated from snapping, which is something that can mean an impending bite. When in doubt , it's always best to have a professional intervene for an assessment.

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