Why Do Dogs Lick? Your Dog’s Tongue And Licking Habit
By Chyrle Bonk, DVM December 02, 2019
You’re probably all too familiar with your dog’s tongue. After all, they use it for everything, which isn’t far from true. A dog’s tongue is used for more than just early morning wakeup calls and for providing calming reassurance when you’re feeling blue. It’s actually a very specialized organ in charge of cooling, taste, food and water intake, healing wounds, and even shaking hands. Just how does one seemingly simply body part accomplish so much? Let’s find out.
Dog Tongue Anatomy
A dog’s tongue is basically one long group of muscles wrapped in specialized epithelial cells. Although it may not seem like they have much control over it sometimes, your dog’s tongue actually has eight different pairs of muscle groups that are activated at any given time. These muscles are controlled by five pairs of cranial nerves that attach to these muscles directly to the brain.
On the underside of the tongue is a band of tissue that holds it down called the frenulum. A unique feature to a dog’s tongue is a hard cartilaginous structure called the lyssa that runs from the front to the back of the tongue about midline. Though we’re not entirely sure of the purpose of the lyssa, it used to be a highly sought-after cure for many ailments.
What makes your dog’s kisses extra sloppy? That responsibility is given to four pairs of salivary glands located just beneath the eye, the base of the ear, just behind the angle of the jaw, and just in front of the angle of the jaw. As if that weren’t enough, the surface of the tongue itself is peppered with several tiny salivary glands to give an extra slimy touch and to aid in cooling.
Dog tongues can come in different colors with the most common being pink. However, it’s not abnormal to find solid black or black splotches on the tongue, gums, and roof of the mouth. These pigments don’t mean anything, no matter what old wives’ tale you may have heard. It’s just a change in the pigment in those areas.
The Purpose Of A Dog’s Tongue and Its Many Uses
As you can see, there’s much more to your dog’s tongue than the thing that leaves smudges on your car windows. It’s actually a very complex and functional organ, so functional in fact that it performs more different actions than any other organ in the body, besides the brain of course. Here is a list the uses:
Sporting around 1,700 taste buds, your dog is capable of tasting salty, sweet, bitter, and sour. Having far fewer taste buds than humans may explain why your dog sometimes prefers garbage over their regular dog food. These different taste buds are grouped together on different areas of the tongue.
Without the help of sweat glands all over their body, dogs have figured out another way to cool themselves down - panting. When a dog pants, they bring air into their mouth, down over their tongue and into the upper respiratory tract where it evaporates moisture. The evaporated moisture then cools down their body temperature. The key to this process is keeping a moist mouth through the aid of all of the salivary glands.
You’ve probably noticed that your dog’s tongue is a little on the rough side, thanks to papillae. While not as rough as a cat’s tongue, the papillae aid in grooming by acting like a comb when a dog licks their fur.
- Eating and drinking
The tongue is the first muscle in a line of many that helps move food to the stomach. It also serves as sort of a scoop to bring water into their mouths.
- Express emotion
Whether it’s an exuberant greeting or a quiet reassurance, a dog’s tongue is great at expressing any emotion that they may be feeling. Think of it as a slobbery hand-shake or a wet arm around your shoulders.
Why Do Dogs Lick?
The dog tongue is truly an amazing organ. It has many more roles than just soaking your face and hands. Let’s take a look at some of the other ways that a dog uses this crazy appendage.
- It’s ingrained
Mother dogs use licking as a way to stimulate their puppies, first as newborns to take that first breath, later on to stimulate elimination, and throughout puppyhood to keep them clean. It’s also a way for mamas to show their affection for their pups and the puppies to their mama.
They love you! Similar to a hug (more like a kiss), licking is a sign of affection. Dogs will lick the people in their lives, as well as other dogs, cats, toys, etc.
- Pack harmony
In wild dogs, a pack doesn’t thrive if there isn’t harmony. That means every canine needs to know their place. Licking is a way that subordinate members show their submission to the pack leaders so that everyone can continue to get along.
The action of licking releases endorphins in a dog’s brain and makes them feel good. You’ve probably heard of a ‘runner’s high’, well licking produces a similar affect for dogs.
- Boredom or anxiety
Going back to that endorphin release, dogs that are bored or anxious, nervous, you name it, may turn to licking as a way to try to make themselves feel better. Sometimes this type of licking can be excessive and actually start to be destructive, so it’s best to get to the root of this type of licking.
- Health issues
Skin allergies, dermatitis, arthritis, or other health issues can cause to a dog to lick. It’s their way of relieving itch, pain, or discomfort. This type of licking is usually very focused on the problem site and should be addressed by a veterinarian.
Specific Reasons Why Dogs Lick
We’ve just looked at an overview of the reasons that a dog may lick, but let’s dive into some more specific instances.
- Why Does A Dog Lick You?
You’re their person they want to show admiration, affection, and submission to since you are the center of their whole world. It may also be a little bit about taste as our skin can be a little salty.
- Why Do Dogs Lick Other Dogs?
Again, this goes back to experiences as a newborn puppy. The mother dog routinely licks her puppies in order to keep them clean, encourage elimination, and show affection. Puppies often repeat the behaviors of their mothers as they get older, and sometimes these behaviors can stay with them into adulthood. So, licking other dogs can simply be a learned behavior that is now a habit. Dogs will lick other dogs as a way to show affection and submission as well.
- Do Dogs In The Wild Lick?
Wolves, coyotes, and other wild dogs often run in packs. Packs not only provide a support group for survival, they’re also a social network with a hierarchal system. One of the ways that the lower status animals show the leaders of the pack respect and submission is by licking them. You may notice this behavior in your domestic pets as well. Your follower dog may often lick your leader dog as a way of showing their respect.
- Why Do Dogs Lick Themselves?
Though not as prolific as cats, dogs are actually self-groomers. They use their tongue to remove loose hair, dirt, and debris. They may also lick if they have a wound or irritation, such as skin allergies or arthritis as a way to soothe the discomfort. Dogs may also lick themselves if they’re feeling anxious or nervous about something, such as being left alone or when a thunderstorm is occurring. Remember that endorphin release?
- Why Do Dogs Lick Their Paws?
If your dog is exclusively licking their paws, it could be because of some health issues. Paw licking can be a sign of skin allergies or irritations. With this behavior, you will typically see other signs such as itching in other areas of the body, ear infections, or dry skin with dandruff. Dogs may also lick their feet if they’re experiencing arthritic pain. Arthritis is inflammation of the joints, and it just happens that the feet are filled with joints. Licking can be a way of trying to soothe that discomfort or trying to draw attention to the problem. Anxiety is another reason that dogs will lick their paws. Some dogs experience anxiety that can be manifested in neurotic tendencies like excessive licking with the paws the easiest thing to reach.
- Why Does My Dog Lick Everything?
For some dogs it may seem like their tongue is working overtime, they lick everything. Forget the occasional puppy kiss, these dogs may lick furniture, carpet, grass, rocks, anything and everything. Licking like this can simply be a dog’s way of exploring their world, after all, taste is one of the five senses that all of us use to figure out our surroundings. However, in some cases, licking like this can be indicative of one of those neurotic behaviors that we just talked about or even boredom. It’s no secret that some dogs are high energy and need to constructively burn that pent up energy off, otherwise it gets used for other activities such as licking. Other option for licking everything is a condition called pica in which dogs crave nonfood items. Pica can be a result of missing nutrients in your dog’s diet or simply not enough food. Pica can be seen with dogs that are dieting as they’re not satisfied with eating smaller amounts of food. If your dog’s licking of inanimate objects is excessive, please see your veterinarian to rule out health concerns.
Is Dog Licking Sanitary?
Speaking of health concerns, you may have heard that a dog’s mouth is cleaner than a human’s mouth, which is not true. Unless you’re brushing your dog’s teeth as diligently as you brush your own, it’s far from a clean environment. However, it’s true that dog saliva has some antibacterial properties, but there are still quite a few germs in there. While it may be difficult to actually contract an infection from being licked by your dog, it’s definitely not as harmless as most of us would like to believe. Along with the myriad of bad bugs that our bodies are used to seeing, dog mouths also harbor bacteria that our bodies don’t normally have and have no defenses for. Moreover, let’s not forget that when a dog licks you, it typically isn’t just their tongue that comes in contact with you. Often their nose and muzzle are part of the act as well. We all know how good dogs are at sticking their nose where it doesn’t belong. So, potentially harmful germs can be passed to you by the nose and muzzle as well as the tongue.
How To Prevent Unwanted Licking
If being licked by your dog isn’t your thing, there are things you can do to stop it. Your dog could be licking for a lot of reasons, so it’s first important to determine that cause by having a veterinarian rule out any medical reasons. If your dog’s licking is simply due to affection for you, you can stop it most successfully by ignoring it. That means walking away when your dog starts to lick you. If you’re not there to lick, they won’t get the pleasurable sensation. By no means do you want to reprimand or punish your dog in any way for licking you, just remove yourself from the situation. Only give them attention when they’re not licking. Most dogs will quickly make the connection and only lick you when they’re too excited to remember.
Dogs and licking seem to go hand-in-hand and with no wonder. A dog’s tongue is truly an amazing organ that is capable of performing many important tasks. One of those tasks is licking. Whether you’re into exchanging doggy kisses or not, licking is a completely normal behavior as long as it isn’t taken to the extreme.