Ask the Vet: Why Do Dogs Lick The Air?
Dr. Ivana Crnec
More often than not, dogs behave quirky and almost always we find that quirky behavior entertaining. Sometimes the quirky habits are just an expression of the dog’s individual personality. For example, maybe your dog is enthusiastic about giving kisses and that is why he licks the air. However, other times, there is more than just odd personality – doing strange things can be triggered by an underlying issue. One of those strange behaviors is licking the air.
Why Do Dogs Lick the Air?
Licking the air, in dogs, is often described as lapping up imaginary liquids. Air licking should not be confused with the normal licking that occurs immediately after having a meal or when being anxious. Dogs can lick the air due to several causes. However, some causes are more frequent than others.
Something Stuck in the Mouth
When something gets stuck to the top of our mouths we need to move our tongues in many directions to get rid of it. The same thing happens with dogs. What is more, unlike us, dogs cannot use their fingers as a helping tool – they rely solely on their tongues.
In dogs, both food and non-food items can get stuck. If you notice your dog licking the air, carefully inspect its mouth. If you cannot remove the stuck object on your own, make an appointment at the vet’s office.
A Stress-Induced Compulsive Behavior
Licking, in general, triggers a release of endorphins in the brain. As feel-good chemicals, the endorphins have a soothing effect. Therefore, if the dog is stressed or anxious it instinctively responds by licking. If repeated too often or for too long, over time, this habit can evolve into a compulsive disorder.
Compulsive behaviors are described as behaviors that do not have a strict and noticeable purpose but are repeated frequently and for a significantly long period of time.
Compulsive disorders evolve gradually. At first, the licking occurs only under stressful circumstances – loud noises, fireworks, new guests or visiting the vet’s office. Later on, as the condition progresses, the licking can occur at any time. At this point the triggering factor can be hard to determine. Therefore, the key to treating compulsive behaviors is early diagnosis.
In extreme cases, the affected dog may lick the air constantly and for hours. The behavior is so extreme that the dog stops licking the air only when it's meal time or bed time. In such cases, air licking is not just a stress response – it is a compulsive behavior that interferes with the dog’s normal behavior and affects the overall quality of life. Usually, if the licking is triggered by stress there will be some additional signs like yawning, panting, cowering and tucking the tail.
If you suspect your dog is suffering from stress-induced compulsive air licking it is advisable to start writing a journal. In the journal you should document the following information:
- When the licking happens
- How long does the licking episode last
- Describe the dog’s environment during the licking episode
- Who is around the dog during the licking episode
- What causes the dog to stop its licking episode.
In addition to keeping a journal, it is useful to get a video of your dog during its air licking episode. Once you have obtained the video and gathered the necessary data to fulfill the journal, it is time to schedule a visit to the vet’s.
The vet will perform a thorough physical examination. Based on the findings, the data from the journal and the video, the vet will determine what is going on and decide the treatment approach. Usually, this type of compulsive behavior is treated with behavior modification training or with mood-altering medications. In some cases, the vet will advise combining the two approaches.
An Underlying Gastrointestinal (GI) Issue
GI problems such as acute pancreatitis and acid reflux often result in excessive licking. Reportedly, 60 percent of the dogs exhibiting excessive licking have an underlying GI issue. For some dogs, licking the air can be a coping mechanism when dealing with nausea.
A Sign of Partial Seizures
Partial seizures are not as dramatic as grand mal seizures. Their signs are more subtle and consequently harder to identify. Unlike grand mal seizures which affect the entire brain, partial seizures affect only one part of the brain. Their clinical manifestation depends on which part of the brain is affected. Among the most common signs associated with partial seizures is licking the air and biting the air.
If you suspect your dog is suffering from partial seizures it is advisable to make of a video of its episode. It is also useful to record how long the episode lasts. These data will make the diagnostic procedure easier for the vet.
A Dermatological Issue
Dogs suffering from skin issues that cause itchiness may exhibit air licking episodes. To be more accurate, dermatological issues usually trigger paw licking. However, if the paw licking behavior has been frowned upon the dog is likely to alter this behavior into air licking.
A Sign of Cognitive Dysfunction
Cognitive dysfunction, which is quite common in elderly dogs, often results in unnecessary and repetitive behaviors. One of those behaviors is licking the air. Although there is no cure for cognitive dysfunction, with proper diet and exercise regimen, its symptoms can be successfully managed.
Now That You Know...
Occasional air licking episodes are not a cause for concern. However, frequent and prolonged episodes of air licking warrant further and thorough medical evaluation. In a nutshell, frequent and long air licking can be either a compulsive disorder or a sign of a more serious internal issue.
The significance of your dog’s licking habits should be determined by a veterinary professional. If the vet determines the existence of an underlying medical condition he will require additional tests and then make a treatment strategy. On the flip side, if the vet rules out the presence of an underlying medical cause, he will refer your canine baby to a certified dog behaviorist.
About the Author
Dr. Ivana Crnec is a graduate of the University Sv. Kliment Ohridski’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia.