Ask the Vet: Why Do Dogs Lick Their Private Areas?
Dr. Ivana Crnec
Many dogs lick their private areas, but there is licking and licking. An occasional lick can be just a response to a temporary itch, while excessive licking can be a sign that something may be wrong "down there." Veterinarian Dr. Ivana provides information on this behavior and provides a list of possible medical issues that may be the cause.
Normal Licking Behaviors in Dogs
Dogs are famous for their less than appealing behaviors. Licking the private parts, especially in public, is one of those less than appealing…well, better said, embarrassing behaviors.
However, no matter how embarrassing it is for us, it is completely normal for our dogs. To put it bluntly: Males lick their penises, females lick their vulvas and both genders lick their anuses. That's just how it goes.
In general, normal, physiological licking behaviors in dogs involving private parts fall under three main categories: licking due to grooming, licking due to heat cycles and licking out of motherly instinct. Let's take a closer look into each of these.
Dog Licking Private Areas as a Form of Grooming
Licking is an essential part of the dog’s grooming ritual and that includes licking the private parts too. However, the normal grooming behavior includes a moderate degree of licking.
Dogs that lick their private parts due to grooming reasons do not focus intensely on the genitals – they just take a quick swipe and are ready to go. Passing sticky or watery stools can also be followed by moderate licking.
However, licking the private areas multiple times a day, too intensely and regardless of the urinating/defecating schedule is a good indicator something wrong is going on with your dog. So read on to learn some possible medical causes for this.
Dog Licking Private Areas Due to Being in Heat
Intact (non-spayed) female dogs lick their private parts excessively while in heat and this is considered a completely normal behavior.
So, if you notice your intact female dog licking her privates frequently and intensely, check for vulvar swelling and bloody discharge. As the heat phase passes, the licking will decrease in both frequency and intensity.
It should be noted that licking the private parts in spayed, non-intact females is a cause of concern and requires veterinary attention.
Mother Dog Licking Her Puppy's Private Areas
Mothers lick their pups’ genitals to stimulate peeing and pooping. This is a normal and instinctively wired behavior. Once the pups are done peeing or pooping the mother will once again lick them to clean them and remove the smell.
In the wild, this is particularly beneficial since the smell of pee and poop attracts potential predators.
As the puppies grow, you should start seeing this behavior less and less since puppies will learn to potty on their own without help.
Abnormal Licking Behaviors in Dogs
As mentioned, dogs will lick their private areas on occasion, but excessive and insistent licking should raise a red flag, suggesting that something medical may be going on. Following is a list of possible conditions for excessive genital licking behaviors in dogs.
Dogs may excessively lick when they develop abnormal discharges which may be associated with certain infections.
Female dogs can develop inflammation of the vagina (vaginitis), while male dogs can develop inflammation of the prepuce and penis (balanoposthitis).
Both conditions are characterized by excessive production of foul-smelling discharge. In both cases, the vet will examine your dog, determine the causative agent and usually prescribe an antibiotic.
A Possible Sign of Cancer
Cancer can affect several body parts and a dog's private areas aren't excluded. Neoplasias can develop in the dog's vagina or on the penis or prepuce.
Regardless of the location, genital neoplasias are accompanied by excessive licking of the private parts. The treatment includes surgical correction followed by chemotherapy or radiation.
A Matter of Urinary Incontinence
Urinary incontinence is a medical disorder that manifests with inability to hold urine which leads to uncontrolled peeing. Although more frequent in older canines, urinary incontinence can be seen in younger dogs too.
If your dog is experiencing urinary incontinence have it thoroughly examined by a vet. Based on the exact underlying cause, the vet will determine the treatment strategy.
Some causes of urinary incontinence can be treated medically while others require surgical correction.
Urinary Tract Infections
Dogs with urinary tract infections are likely to lick themselves excessively not only after urinating, but between eliminations as well. Other signs of urinary tract infections include straining to urinate, urinating more frequently than usual, producing small amounts of urine and presence of blood in the urine.
Urinary tract infections are extremely common among dogs, but fortunately, more often than not, they are easily treatable. Based on the exact type of infection, the vet will prescribe a suitable antibiotic.
A Matter of Allergies
Food allergies and seasonal allergies are particularly common in dogs. Both types of allergies manifest with excessive scratching and licking. In some cases, the licking is more focused on the private parts.
To reduce the symptoms, dogs with food allergies should be fed specifically formulated, hypoallergenic foods. Dogs with seasonal allergies are harder to manage. In addition to using prescribed antihistamines and corticosteroids, it is advisable to minimize your dog’s exposure to allergens as much as possible.
Presence of Foxtails
Some grasses have seed-emitting protrusions commonly known as foxtails. Foxtails are a major hazard to dogs since they can get stuck anywhere – dogs can get foxtails up their nose, ears and even the private parts.
Once stuck, they tend to penetrate deeper and deeper (because of their structure they cannot fall, they can only progress further on). The foxtail’s penetration is accompanied by local inflammation, pain and discomfort.
Dogs with foxtails need veterinary attention – removing of the foxtail and treating the inflamed site properly. In some cases, removing the foxtails requires anesthesia or least sedation.
A Sign of Impacted Anal Glands
Impacted anal glands cause irritation that often provokes excessive licking. Other signs of impacted anal glands include visible swelling and emitting a particularly strong and unpleasant smell. Licking the private parts and scooting the rear end across the floor are your dog’s attempts to relieve the discomfort.
If your dog has impacted anal glands take it to the vet’s office. The vet will express the glands manually which will result in immediate relief of the discomfort. If left untreated, the condition may progress to infection (known as anal sacculitis).
A Possible Compulsive Behavior
When coping with emotional issues (anxiety, neglect, lifestyle changes) dogs often turn to obsessive and compulsive behaviors. Excessively licking the private parts is a perfect example of such compulsive behavior.
Have your dog evaluated by a vet to make sure the licking is behavior-based. Based on the exact trigger, the vet may recommend using calming treats, pheromone collars or thunder shirts. For more severe cases, the vet may refer you to a qualified dog behavioral specialist.
The Bottom Line
Being a responsible dog parent means differentiating between normal dog behavior and canine distress mode. As stated, excessive licking of a dog's private parts can be normal behavior or a sign of distress – either physical or emotional.
Being a responsible dog parent also means seeking professional help for issues beyond your understanding. If you suspect your dog licks its privates more intensely or more frequently than normal, do not hesitate to make an appointment with the vet.
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.