Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."
Among the many odd things dogs do, licking the carpet may rank as one of the oddest. Yet, dogs don't just start carrying out behaviors for no rhyme nor reason. There is almost always an underlying cause at play, only that unlocking it isn't always as straightforward as thought.
If you're scratching your head over this behavior, rest assured you are not alone. When working as a vet assistant, we often got phone calls from dog owners asking, "Why does my dog lick the carpet?" These intuitive dog owners knew there have must been something wrong going on with their canine companions and wanted to get to the root of the problem.
Even nowadays as a dog trainer and behavior consultant, dog owners still ask me what may be causing excessive licking behaviors in dogs. The fact is, excessive licking behaviors may have various causes and it's not that easy to pinpoint the correct answer.
Ruling Out Medical Problems
As a dog owner, you may assume this is a harmless behavior, or you may find it mildly annoying, so you may therefore decide to accept it or simply ignore it, however, consider that, in general, a dog who is frantically licking the carpet may be doing so because of not feeling well.
Before taking a look at some of these causes it's therefore important emphasizing the importance of starting a process of exclusion by first having the dog see the vet considering that many odd behaviors can stem from some underlying medical issues.
Only once medical problems have been ruled out, it is, therefore, possible to consider that, likely, there is some behavioral issue at play.
Record the Behavior
When taking a dog to the vet because of some odd behavior, the vet will often ask many questions. The more details you provide the better. However, describing dog behaviors accurately is not always easy. For instance, the vet may ask whether the dog is just licking the carpet or attempting to eat it. This little detail can make a lot of difference as you may be dealing with two totally different problems.
Recording an episode of your dog's carpet licking may therefore come quite handy. If a picture is worth 100 words, a video is worth 1,000!
Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Valerie Tynes suggests recording footage for at least 10 to 15 minutes and including in the video what happens when the dog is left to perform the behavior and what happens when interrupted.
1) A Matter of Nausea
Nausea and/or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can play a primary role in excessive licking behaviors in dogs.
In nature, dogs seek grass when nauseous, leading to dogs eating grass frantically to vomit whatever is making them sick. When indoors, with no access to grass, dogs may therefore think that carpet is the next best thing so they'll start instinctively licking that.
On top of licking the carpet frantically, nauseous dogs will smack their lips often, drool and swallow repeatedly, and some dogs may also lick other surfaces such as floors and furniture. Also, some nauseous dogs will lick their front legs.
Your veterinarian will therefore ask you information such as what your dog eats and whether he is taking any supplements or medications.
Many medical conditions may cause nausea in dogs. Examples include liver disease, adrenal disorders, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, inflammatory bowel disease and some types of cancer (like intestinal lymphosarcoma). However, sometimes dogs may just get nausea due to some dietary indiscretion, stress or an abrupt change in diet.
2) A Problem in the Mouth/Throat
Excessive licking behaviors can also stem from an underlying problem with the dog's teeth, gums or mouth. Something stuck in the dog's mouth may cause drooling and the dog tries to remove excess drool by licking. Pain may also be a culprit.
If your dog allows you, it may be worth checking his mouth to see whether there is anything embedded or if there may be a loose tooth or a reddened gum.
However, your vet is the best for this as he or she can easily spot abnormalities and has been specifically trained to know what to look for. Sometimes, there may be an issue going on beneath the gum line or in a tooth that's not easy to see.
In some cases, licking the carpet and gulping may be due to something stuck in the dog's throat. Sometimes a blade of grass or grass awn may be lodged in the dog's throat causing an unpleasant sensation.
Your dog may be therefore licking the carpet due to a tooth root abscess, the presence of a fractured toot, some foreign body stuck in her mouth or throat, an ulcer or anything else that is capable of causing mouth pain.
Polyphagia is simply a medical term used to depict increased food consumption. Affected dogs are often described as having a ravenous appetite. If your dog appears to be eating more than usual, obsessively eating everything like a vacuum cleaner, and is actually trying to eat the carpet, this can be the culprit.
There are several medical conditions known to cause polyphagia in dogs. Conditions worthy of mentioning include diabetes, hypoadrenocorticism or hyperadrenocorticism, and pancreas problems just to name a few.
Sometimes, medications known to increase a dog's appetite may also be a culprit. Prednisone and other types of steroids have been reported to increase appetite in dogs sometimes leading at times to odd behavior changes.
4) Neurological Issue
Sometimes, carpet licking can be triggered by something neurological. In particular, primary central nervous system disturbances may be the culprit.
Seizures may be to blame. We often think of uncontrolled movements of the whole body as the standard manifestations of seizures, but sometimes seizures may affect only certain body parts or they may present in an uncharacteristic form.
For instance, consider limbic epilepsy. The limbic area of the brain is what controls behavior. Dogs affected by limbic seizures will therefore manifest behavior changes rather than typical seizure activity.
Dogs with brain tumors, hydrocephalus or suffering from partial motor seizures may also manifest odd behaviors as part of their seizures and carpet licking may be one of them.
In general, if your dog's carpet licking behavior can be interrupted by you calling your dog and you are getting his attention, it is likely not a seizure, explains veterinarian Dr. Gabby.
5) Attention-Seeking Behavior
Sometimes, odd dog behaviors put roots and persist because we shower our dogs with attention when they engage in them. Yes, our attention can reinforce behaviors allowing them to strengthen and repeat.
This is often the case with dogs who crave attention, either because they are very fond of it or they lack it and crave it immensely.
The typical attention-seeking dog will care less about whether the attention he gets is of the positive type (smiling, laughing, praising, petting the dog) or negative type (giving the evil eye, scolding the dog, pushing him away) as long as it's attention.
These dogs may be bored and under-stimulated and maybe feel even neglected. They may feel lonely during the day and perceive their owner's return as the biggest perk of the day.
Once the owner returns home though and decides to lie on the couch and pay no attention to the dog, the dog may test various behaviors and if carpet licking grants him any form of attention, then bingo, that attention-seeking behavior will repeat and soon becomes a solid part of the dog's behavior repertoire.
6) Compulsive Disorders
These are out-of-hand behaviors that put roots and become an insidious part of the dog's behaviors. These behaviors may be difficult to interrupt, especially the more they become ingrained.
They are similar to the compulsive obsessive behaviors (OCD) often seen in humans, although in dogs the term obsessive has been dropped since we have no proof dogs have the same thought processing skills as seen in humans.
"The word “obsession” means there are intrusive and repetitive thoughts, which can’t be confirmed in dogs," points out veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kelly Ballantyne.
Just like people who will wash their hands over and over or repeatedly double-check things, such as locks, appliances, and switches, dogs may engage in certain behaviors over and over due to a mental problem.
While it's true that a behavior that is difficult to interrupt may more likely stem from a medical problem, one must consider that a true canine compulsive disorder that has been rehearsed for many months or years may be difficult to interrupt too, points Dr. Valerie Tynes.
Hence, the importance of recording your dog's behavior and having it seen by a veterinarian. The veterinarian may wish to rule out medical problems, but if none are found, a veterinary behaviorist may help sort out whether there may a compulsive issue at play.
Dogs suffering from anxiety may need to find their own coping mechanisms and sometimes they find relief by engaging in odd behaviors. Dogs who are anxious may therefore lick themselves so much to form what's known as an acral lick granuloma, and some dogs may start licking other things such as carpets and floors.
If your dog licks carpets a whole lot and your dog is an anxious type, report this to your vet. Your vet may ask more details about your dog's overall general behavior and temperament and how your dog spends his typical day, including how much interactions he receives and whether he suffers from any stresses or phobias.
A dog with little stimulation occurring during the day and no outlets for pent-up energy may become stressed and frustrated, leading to excessive licking as a way of coping with the whole situation.
Dogs with noise phobias or exposed to frightening interactions may develop anxiety too, which may result in a behavior problem.
Report to your vet if there are any recent changes in your dog's routine or in your schedules as changes are often attributed to the onset of behavior problems.
8) Canine Cognitive Dysfunction
As dogs age, they may become subject to a certain level of cognitive decline, leading to what's known as canine cognitive dysfunction. Similar to Alzheimer's disease in humans, canine cognitive dysfunction typically affects dogs who are middle-aged or older.
If the carpet licking behavior appears suddenly in an older dog, it may be stemming from an underlying medical condition, but if nothing leads to this, it is possible for it to be related to some form of cognitive decline.
In general, affected dogs show other distinctive signs such as getting lost in familiar places, not recognizing familiar people, and irregular sleep-wake cycles. Other signs may include having accidents around the house, an increase in anxiety possibly expressed through vocalizations and the onset of new fears or phobias.
Some dogs may also show changes in their activity levels leading to restlessness and an inability to settle, wandering aimlessly, and even the onset of repetitive behaviors such as licking, explains veterinary behaviorists Dr. Debra Horwitz & Gary Landsberg.
9) A Case of Pica
It's a known fact that dogs may eat the oddest things out there. From dogs eating rocks, to dogs eating socks, vets are no longer surprised about the many odd things they find when they open up dogs during surgeries.
While ingesting these things occasionally may be just a testimony to a dog's history as scavengers, when dogs turn eating non-food stuff into a favorite hobby, they should be checked out for a disorder known as pica.
Pica is namely, the eating of non–nutritive, non-food items. Unlike other more well-known disorders, pica remains an issue a bit shrouded in mystery, in other words, to put it more bluntly, it is even poorly understood among veterinarians and other dog professionals.
So if your dog more than licking the carpet is trying to actually take out chunks of it, ingesting it, pica may be on your veterinarians' list of potential differentials.
10) Just Casual Licking
Last but not least, your dog may be simply licking the carpet because it just smells good or your toddler may have spilled something tasty on it or perhaps walked on all fours after manipulating Jell-O.
If this is the case, the licking will just last for a few seconds and generally no more than a few minutes, just enough time to remove the tasty remnants from the carpet.
Of course, this type of casual licking is nothing to worry about, unless whatever your dog has licked was something potentially toxic.
It goes without saying though that dogs who share the household with small children who drop foods often will learn to lick carpets more and more in hopes of finding tasty treasures!
Tips to Reduce Carpet Licking in Dogs
Following are several tips/ideas for dogs who are focused on licking carpets.
- See your vet to rule out or confirm medical conditions. Bring along a recording of the behavior.
- If your dog seems nauseous due to acid reflux, feeding a little ball of bread may help absorb any acid giving quick relief. See your vet though if this happens often.
- Feeding some bread may also help if you suspect your dog has a grass awn stuck in his throat. Food can often push grass awns stuck in the esophagus into their stomach, explains veterinarian Dr. B.
- If the behavior happens in the night or early morning, see your vet. Your vet may suggest a bed-time snack if the carpet licking is due to acid reflux due to the stomach being empty for too long.
- Cases of acid reflux may benefit from a course of famotidine or omeprazole. Consult with your vet.
- Attention-seeking licking requires that dog owners completely ignore their dog upon performing the behavior. No looking at the dog, no talking to the dog. Dog owners should leave the room the moment the behavior starts.
- Licking stemming from anxiety and frustration and that becomes compulsive, requires behavior and environmental modification, possibly along with pharmacologic intervention.
- Provide your dog with more exercise and mental stimulation (brain games!). Feed food from Kongs, Kong Wobblers and Buster Cubes. Give your dog a Licki-mat or Snuffle Mat.
- Pica cases may benefit from dietary changes if due to an underlying nutritional issue.
- Dogs with canine cognitive dysfunction may do better with behavior and environmental modification along with possible drug therapy.
- If your dog shares the home with sloppy children, cleaning all areas where food is often dropped and using baby gates so to limit the dog's access to these, may turn helpful.
- University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, Compulsive Disorders in Pets
- DVM360, Help! My dog licks everything
- VCA Animal Hospital, Behavior Counseling - Senior Pet Cognitive Dysfunction
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.
© 2020 Adrienne Farricelli
Sp Greaney from Ireland on November 22, 2020:
This is not something I have ever heard of before. But I seriously think if I did witness it, I would definitely want to find out the reason behind it. Your list of possible causes is great.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on November 20, 2020:
I never had a dog that licked the carpet, yet there are so many possible reasons this could occur. This is another very good, interesting article about possible problems you can encounter with a dog, Adrienne.
FlourishAnyway from USA on November 20, 2020:
This is a helpful article for doggie parents in sleuthing why their fur baby might be behaving the odd way he or she is. As always, you provide excellent analysis and insight into canine behavior.
Sankhajit Bhattacharjee from MILWAUKEE on November 19, 2020:
a beautiful piece of writing
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on November 19, 2020:
You never cease to amaze me with your well-written articles. It is easy to tell that you worked in a veterinarian office, and you are very much involved with training dogs. Fortunately, we never had problems with our dogs licking the carpets. You have shown many reasons why they might do so.