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- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
Like humans, dogs use their tongues to help them taste and swallow food. But their tongues can play a role in other activities, too. For instance, you may have noticed your dog licking the air on occasion.
When your dog eats or drinks, their tongue moves in a lapping motion. They’ll make a similar movement when licking the air, and their tongue may also curl upward toward their nose. It may appear as if they’re flicking their tongue in and out of their mouth.
You might assume air licking is just another strange and funny dog behavior—something along the lines of zoomies, walking around in circles, or going a little wild after bath time. But your dog could lick the air for a number of reasons, and some of these may be worth a visit to your veterinarian.
Read on for nine reasons why your dog could be licking the air, and a few signs it’s time to take them to the vet.
Why Do Dogs Lick The Air?
Dogs may lick the air for any of these nine behavioral and health reasons.
To boost their sense of smell
Compared to humans, dogs have an incredible sense of smell. In fact, they have roughly 60 times more olfactory receptors than people do! As if that wasn’t enough, they have another tactic to further boost this sense: their tongue.
“Dogs have a vomeronasal organ in the roof of their mouth, also known as a Jacobson’s organ,” says Renee Rhoades, Head Behavior Consultant at R+ Dogs. “When a dog smells something interesting, such as another dog’s urine, you may see them lick and then start to chatter their teeth.”
But this chattering doesn’t mean they’re feeling cold. It happens because dogs use their tongue to “push” the scent of the urine up into the vomeronasal organ, Rhoades says. This behavior, called the “Flehmen response,” allows dogs to pick up pheromones, or chemical information, about other animals, Rhoades adds. (Cats do this, too!)
In short, it’s totally normal for your dog to “smell” with their tongue—nothing to worry about.
Short-term stress and anxiety
From time to time, your dog may become anxious or stressed. For instance, they may not like being left alone or playing in crowded spaces.
To help ease these uncomfortable feelings, they might start licking various things: the air, themselves, or items of furniture. “Rhythmic and soothing licking can help reduce a dog’s stress levels by releasing ‘happy’ hormones (endorphins),” Rhoades explains.
Other signs of stress in dogs might include laid-back ears, shaking, whining or whimpering, and a tail that hangs straight down or tucks between the legs. If you notice your dog licks the air when they show other signs of stress, you can try diverting their licking to something else, Rhoades suggests, like a Lickimat or food toy.
But if your dog’s anxiety and stress licking persist, a qualified dog trainer can teach new tactics you can use to help them feel calmer.
If your dog frequently feels anxious or distressed, their coping behaviors can quickly become compulsive.
Compulsive behavior in dogs may show up in the form of air licking. But they may also begin to repeatedly lick their skin, Rhoades says, which can lead to issues such as sores and infections.
“Dogs may also lick things like blankets, pillows, and their toys,” she says—and licking these items can present some potential dangers, as swallowing them could lead to choking or gastrointestinal health issues.
Generally speaking, you’ll need to pinpoint and address the root cause of your dog’s anxiety before you can help them stop the compulsive behavior. A vet or a dog behaviorist can offer more guidance, along with advice on helpful approaches to changing the behavior.
A foreign object in their mouth
If you’ve ever had food stuck in your teeth, or on the roof of your mouth, you may have used your tongue to remove it. Dogs are no different!
A dog who gets something stuck in their mouth may lick excessively, says Rhoades. They may also yawn or rub their face on things to help remove the stuck item. She adds that having something in the mouth can also lead to drooling, which may offer another explanation for your dog’s constant licking.
If you think an item may be stuck, carefully open your dog’s mouth to take a look. If you spot anything in their mouth, you can use your index finger and thumb to gently remove the item.
Dogs can scratch some of their itches, but there are a few places they can’t reach. When skin conditions like dermatitis and dryness cause persistent itches, your dog may have trouble reaching those bothersome spots.
“If a dog has itchy or irritated skin they can’t reach, sometimes they’ll contort their body and start licking the air instead,” Rhoades says.
If you notice your dog scratching in the same spot constantly, check the area of skin for signs of a possible skin concern, like redness, sores, and thickened skin. You can always ask your vet to make a thorough check of their skin if you have any doubts.
Regularly cleaning your dog’s teeth can pose something of a challenge, which may help explain why an estimated 80% of dogs over age three have dental disease.
So how do painful teeth lead to air licking? Licking generally means they’re trying to soothe their discomfort, says Brian C. Hurley, DVM, National Medical Director at AmeriVet.
Other signs that suggest dental concerns include pawing at the mouth and appetite loss.
But Hurley has some good news: Dental disease is treatable. “Visit your veterinarian and have them assess your pet’s teeth,” he says, adding that if they find signs of dental issues, they’ll recommend a professional cleaning and address any periodontal disease.
Your dog may feel nauseous for some of the same reasons you do. For instance, maybe they ate something that didn’t agree with them, or they have a hard time traveling in the car.
“When your dog is experiencing nausea, a common sign is licking the air in an attempt to soothe their upset stomach,” Hurley says. A dog feeling sick to their stomach may also retch or drool a lot.
These symptoms will often pass relatively quickly. But if your dog’s nausea doesn’t seem to improve in a short period of time, Hurley recommends contacting your vet for advice on the best next steps.
A chronically upset stomach—and any air licking that accompanies it—can suggest your dog has ongoing gastrointestinal concerns. Some common digestive health issues dogs may develop include inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and ulcers.
If your dog regularly shows signs of an upset stomach, or their air licking shows up with other concerning signs, like lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, or lack of appetite, you’ll want to contact a vet, Hurley says. Your vet can order tests to figure out what’s causing your dog’s stomach troubles and recommend helpful treatments.
Dogs may have seizures for a number of reasons, including:
- Neurological conditions like epilepsy
“Typical seizure activity consists of lying on their sides, ‘swimming’ with their legs, urination, and defecation,” Hurley says, adding that dogs may lick the air during a partial seizure.
If an infection—from parasites or another source—is causing your dog’s seizures, treatment from your vet may cure the infection and stop the seizures.
While health conditions like epilepsy and diabetes can’t be cured, they can be managed with the right treatment. For example, if your dog has epilepsy, your vet may prescribe an anticonvulsant medication, such as phenobarbital or potassium bromide.
Should You Worry About Your Dog Licking The Air?
Most of the time, licking the air is normal canine behavior. If your dog only does this occasionally, Hurley says you don’t need to be concerned.
All dog breeds lick the air, and the time of the day can influence when they do it. For instance, you might notice your dog licks the air more at night.
“Your dog might be prone to licking the air after waking up from a nap. So this may occur in the morning, afternoon, or evening, as dogs are polyphasic sleepers,” Rhoades explains. (“Polyphasic” means your dog sleeps off and on throughout the day and night, instead of in one big block at a time like most people do.)
That said, it’s a good idea to reach out to your vet if your dog’s licking seems persistent or increases over time Hurley emphasizes. Rhoades agrees, adding that you may have some cause for concern if your dog’s licking keeps them from settling down or engaging in their usual behaviors, like eating, playing, and exercising.
Make an appointment as soon as you can and give your vet all the details about your dog’s licking. If possible, Rhoades suggests recording a video of the behavior and keeping a short diary of when the behavior usually happens, since this will give your vet more information and help them make the right diagnosis.
Licking is natural dog behavior, and dogs lick for any number of reasons. For example, they might lick and chew their paws as a sign of dermatitis. On the other hand, they may lick your face to show their affection (although letting dogs lick your face may not always be the best idea). Licking other dogs can also be a way of showing who’s boss.
In most cases, you don’t need to worry if your dog licks the air—they’re likely just trying to pick up a Really Good Smell. But if they won’t stop licking—or the licking seems to affect their regular life and routine—it’s always a good idea to call a vet.