Dr. Paola Cuevas
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Dogs licking air can be caused by several reasons, some of them are normal or safe behavioral displays while others might indicate a more serious behavioral issue or medical problem. Keep reading to learn about the most common reasons why dogs lick the air.
The 13 Reasons Why Dogs Lick the Air
1. To smell
We all know dogs have an amazing sense of smell, but what you might not know is that they have a specialized smelling organ called the vomeronasal organ. The vomeronasal organ (or Jacobson organ) receptors detect pheromones, chemical signs, and smells. Dogs and some other animals curl their upper lips and open their mouths to expose the vomeronasal organ receptors. This behavior is known as the Flehmen response. Licking the air can be used as an attempt to direct more air-dissolved particles towards the receptors of this organ.
2. In anticipation of food
Dogs can start licking air when they anticipate food is coming or as a sign of hunger.
3. An act of mimicry
Some dogs lick air when scratched in areas where they cannot reach as a mimicry act of the scratching itself. This behavior is similar to that one observed when most dogs moves a rear limb rapidly imitating a scratching movement as a response to when certain parts of their bellies are scratched.
4. Skin irritation
When dogs have irritation of the skin or feel itchy in areas where they can’t reach, some dogs will lick air to mimic the scratching of these areas. If your dog is air licking and you can see its skin looks irritated or it has been scratching different areas, it is advised to visit the clinic for a veterinary check. The veterinarian will address the many possible causes of skin irritation and give advice on appropriate treatments.
5. Submissive behavior
Air licking and licking of their own lips have been overserved as a display behavior for submission in dogs in scenarios such as when a more dominant dog approaches. It is a way of expressing their gentleness and signaling to others that they are timid and not interested in competition or fight.
6. Anxiety or stress
Animals suffering from stress or anxiety, such as when suddenly moved into a new environment, can lick the air and their lips as a way of self-soothing.
7. Aberrant behavior
Behaviors that develop as a way of dealing with stress can develop until turning into aberrant behavior. Compulsive or aberrant behaviors are constantly repeated beyond what would be a normal behavioral response to a stimulus in the environment. There is a great number of possible aberrant behaviors, air licking is one possibility. An aberrant behavior develops when the anxiety or stress is not addressed in earlier stages. Aberrant behaviors are difficult to eradicate. To successfully deal with this kind of problem, a specific case and environment study from a professional dog trainer or behaviorist is needed. Consistency is the key to fixing behavioral problems.
Sometimes dogs lick air when they feel nauseous, this is a common behavior to observe in a dog just a few moments just before vomiting. It could be something as simple as a bad meal or something more complex. Endocrine diseases such as adrenal glands-related diseases, like Addison’s disease and Cushing’s syndrome, can lead to electrolyte imbalances and nausea. To diagnose these kinds of diseases, the veterinarian will need to analyze a series of blood samples before and after administering specific substances.
9. A foreign object in the mouth
If the dog has suddenly started licking air chances are there is something stuck between the teeth, in the plate, or around the lower jaw. Whether it’s a piece of food or a foreign object, the behavior might be an attempt to remove it or dealing with the pain and discomfort. Visually inspect the mouth and carefully try to remove any obvious foreign object. If you spot something difficult to reach or don’t spot anything at all, it is best to take your dog to the veterinarian to aid with the foreign object removal or make a more detailed inspection of the mouth.
10. Injury or trauma
Small cuts, punctures, abrasions, and other small injuries of the nose, face, or mouth might cause dogs to lick air as a way of dealing with the pain. In these cases, the behavior might be accompanied by other displays such as rubbing its face. It is important to visually inspect the dog and try to identify the source of discomfort. If the injury is considerable or looks infected, a vet visit is in line.
11. Dental disease or tooth pain
Air licking can indicate a loose tooth, periodontal disease, or any tooth-related cause of infection or pain. Just as we humans, dogs need regular cleaning to avoid bacteria accumulation and dental plaque formation. Occasional visits to the veterinary dentist for teeth cleaning should be a part of their care. Infections in the teeth or gums are dangerous due to the risk of developing a root abscess and the risk of oral bacteria spreading to the heart, liver, or kidneys. Other signs of mouth or tooth infections are halitosis or bad bread, drooling, licking of their own teeth, lips, or the air, and trouble chewing. In this case, take your dog to the veterinarian for an oral exam. The vet will advise on treatment or refer your dog to a specialized veterinary dentist.
12. Gastrointestinal issues
Irritable bowel syndrome, foreign objects in the stomach, pancreatitis, giardiasis, and other gastrointestinal pathologies could be the cause of a dog licking air excessively. Other signs that indicate gastrointestinal problems are vomit, diarrhea, bloating or excessive gas passing, and reduced appetite. A veterinarian needs to perform a good examination and probably collect blood and fecal samples, and even perform diagnostic imaging tests, such as ultrasounds and X-rays to appropriately diagnose and treat gastrointestinal issues.
13. Neurological conditions
Canine cognitive dysfunction is a degenerative disease of dogs where the brain cells die as the dog ages. This brain atrophy can cause different symptoms, one of them is the possibility of repetitive behaviors such as chewing, or licking, including air licking. If your senior dog suddenly starts licking air repetitively, speak to the veterinarian about the possibility of canine cognitive dysfunction for advice.
What to Do If You Notice Your Dog Is Licking Air?
Firstly, you should consider if the air licking is just a normal behavioral response to a stimulus such as food anticipation or showing submission, in this scenario, the behavior should be just sporadic and as a response to the environmental or social stimulus.
If the behavior has suddenly presented and you notice its frequency and duration are abnormal, check the mouth to help your dog in case there is an easy to remove a foreign object or a small injury. In both cases, the behavior should stop once the object is removed or the injury healed. In the case of small injuries, you will have to regularly check it to make sure it is not infected; otherwise, you must take the dog to the veterinarian.
For anything other than these situations you should bring your dog to the veterinarian for an examination to try to find out the cause of the air licking behavior. Because it is very likely the dog might not display the behavior at the clinic, it is a bit of good advice to try recording videos of the dog licking air for future reference to the vet or behaviorist. If the vet rules out any medical issue of concern but your dog continues presenting the behavior, refer to a dog trainer for advice on the best ways to handle this specific case.
Featured Image Credit: Huong Nguyen, Pixabay