Ask the Vet: Why Do Dogs Lick the Floor?

Dr. Ivana Crnec

Many dogs lick the floor at some point of their life and dog owners may be wondering what is triggering this behavior. Sure, it makes sense if you dropped something tasty, but what if there's no trace of food on the floor? What's so special about floors that dogs feel so compelled about licking them? Veterinarian Dr. Ivana shares several possible reasons behind dogs obsessed with licking floors.

We know how much our dogs enjoy licking things. They lick themselves, they lick us, they lick their bowls, and then dogs lick our floors. But why dogs do that? Dogs lick themselves as part of their grooming routines. Dogs lick us to tell us how much they adore us. Dogs lick their bowls to pick up some remaining food trace. The real question though is, why do dogs lick floors? And more importantly, is floor licking a behavior or a disease? More info to come...

Causes for Floor Licking in Dogs 

If your dog is continuously licking the floor, the first thing you can do is make sure the floor is always clean. Maybe your dog is licking the floor to lick off something specific – a food or beverage stain or something you may have dropped. 

The best way to keep the floor clean and unappealing for licking is by using a mixture of vinegar and water. Once the floor is cleaned, it should be thoroughly rinsed.

If the floor is spotless though and your dog still licks, the next step would be to determine what is triggering the habit.

The reasons why dogs lick floors can be classified in three main categories:

  1. Medical
  2. Behavioral
  3. Excessive licking of floors (ELS).

Let's take a closer look into each of these categories and some underlying causes. 

Medical Causes of Floor Licking in Dogs 

There are several physical problems that may include dog floor licking in their clinical manifestation. Those physical issues include:

  • Nutritional deficiency – dogs suffering from nutritional deficiencies will lick unusual surfaces. However, a dog experiencing certain nutritional deficiencies often lick unusual surfaces and eats inedible items.
  • Gastrointestinal pain – dogs experiencing abdominal pain due to stomach or intestine problems are likely to lick unusual surfaces. The exact root of this behavior is not well determined. However, in most reported cases, the pain has been caused by irritable bowel syndrome, parasites, and pancreatitis.
  •  Cushing’s disease – hormonal dysfunction caused by an overactive adrenal gland.
  • Liver disease – regardless of the exact etiology, problems with the liver may trigger unusual behavioral patterns in dogs.
  • Neurological disorder – obsessive habits can be caused by problems with the central nervous system. Perhaps the most common neurological disorder causing floor licking is cognitive dysfunction. Cognitive dysfunction is an age-related condition. The second most common reason is obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It is a widespread misbelief that OCD is a behavioral issue. OCD is a neurological disorder and requires proper medical management.

Behavioral Causes of Floor Licking in Dogs 

There are two main reasons for floor licking triggered by behavioral issues:

  • Boredom – a bored dog, will do anything to keep itself entertained. In some cases, that includes licking the floor. Dogs become bored if they are not adequately stimulated in terms of both physical and mental stimulation.
  • Stress – when stressed, dogs like to project their stress. If stressed, dogs are likely to engage in an activity with a repetitive pattern. The goal is to channel the entire focus on that activity instead of on the stressful trigger. Dogs can be stressed by housing relocations, changes in their daily routine, or changes in your working schedule. Dogs can also be stressed by unusual noises such as fireworks, car traffic, and thunder.

Excessive Licking of Floors in Dogs 

Excessive licking of floors or ELF is reviewed as a separate category because its etiology is not well-understood. Dogs with ELS are prone to excessive licking of unusual surfaces such as floors, furniture, walls, grass, concrete, wood, etc. Even dogs licking carpet can a part of it. Basically, these dogs would lick anything their tongues can access.

A recent study showed that the majority of dogs with ELS had an underlying gastrointestinal problem. Indeed, GI abnormalities were founds in 14 of the 19 dogs included within the licking group. Sadly, the significance of this correlation is yet to be investigated.

What GI problems were found? The GI abnormalities included delayed gastric emptying, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic pancreatitis, giardiasis, presence of a gastric foreign body and eosinophilic and/or lymphoplasmacytic  infiltration of the GI tract.  

Treating Floor Licking in Dogs 

The exact treatment strategy depends on the underlying cause. If the vet diagnoses a physical cause, the vet will recommend an individually tailored treatment plan. Some issues like nutritional deficiencies and Cushing’s disease can be successfully managed. In such cases, the floor licking will stop as soon as treatment is entailed. 

If there is no medical problem and the vet refers you to a dog behaviorist, the behaviorist will recommend what to do next based on the exact underlying issue. If the trigger is boredom, the behaviorist will advise you to practice additional physical or mental stimulation. If the trigger is stress, the main goal is to identify the source. Ideally, the source will be eliminated and the issue nipped in its roots. If the source cannot be identified or eliminated, you should ask your vet to prescribe some calming medication.

The process of determining the underlying cause and managing it can be long and challenging. As a temporary fix, to prevent excessive floor licking, you can try to deter your dog from this habit by spraying a little cayenne pepper, or citrus solution on the floor. Remember that even if this successfully deters your dog from licking the floor, the underlying issue is still present and requires prompt and adequate veterinary attention.

The Bottom Line 

A dog licking the floor every once in a while is nothing to worry about. Dogs experience life through licking. Plus, maybe you dropped some tasty piece of food on the floor, and your dog licks it in an attempt to pick up what is left.

However, if the licking is persistent and occurs several times per day, chances are, there is a more serious underlying issue. In such cases, it is best advised to schedule a visit to the vet’s office and get to the bottom of the problem. If the problem is not physical by nature, your vet will recommend consulting a dog behaviorist.

References:

Bécuwe-Bonnet, Véronique & Belanger, Marie & Frank, Diane & Parent, Joane & Hélie, Pierre. (2012). Gastrointestinal disorders in dogs with excessive licking of surfaces. Journal of Veterinary Behavior-clinical Applications and Research - J VET BEHAV-CLIN APPL RES. 7. 10.1016/j.jveb.2011.07.003. 

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. 

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