Licking, biting, slurping, sucking – frustrating and annoying, dogs will work at an itch until they bleed if you do not stop them. But why do they do it and how do you get them to stop their merciless attack? The initial treatment is the same but dogs lick themselves for a number of reasons and depending on what is making them lick will determine how you address the problem.
First, licking a spot to rawness is bad for a number of reasons. Licking causes an acral lick granuloma – thickened, raw, rubbery skin that is an avenue for infection and can be a nuisance to clear up. Treatment rarely is a simple case of applying antibiotic ointment for several days until it clears. Usually granuloma treatment includes a topical ointment that contains not only antibiotics but also something to fight the itch or pain so the dog is more inclined to ignore it. If they do not ignore it then bitter or unpleasant tasting products like bitter orange are used to repel the licking. If that does not stop the problem, then an Elizabethan or Buster collar must be worn to prevent the dog from reaching the spot. Lastly, if the topical ointment does not clear up the infection, then antibiotics are prescribed. What other course of treatment is recommended or prescribed is dependent on the underlying cause.
Surgical Site Licking
Probably the most common or at least the most recognizable causes of licking is at a surgical site. As the fur begins to grow back and the healing process causes the site to itch, licking and chewing may start. This must be stopped as soon as possible as before the physical assault on the site leads to a granuloma, opens up the incision and before the dog’s saliva begins to break down the sutures.
The easiest treatment is usually an Elizabethan collar to physically block the dog’s ability to get at the surgical site or bitter apple repellent.
Note: avoid putting any ointment or bitter tasting repellents on the incision as these can lead to irritation and even break down sutures.
Allergies, Mites, Bites and Itches
A common reason for licking is itching. A veterinarian will exam the dog from nose to tail to find an underlying cause of the itch and then decide on a course of treatment to not only treat the granuloma but to also put a stop to the cause of the licking. Often allergies are the problem whether they are from fleabites, environmental or a food allergy. The vet will prescribe anti-histamines in conjunction with antibiotics and once the allergy is under control, the licking should stop.
Stress or Boredom Licking
For many dogs, licking is a form of stress or boredom relief. Because stress and boredom licking occurs when the owners are away from home, owners are not aware of the problem until the dog has worn through their fur and have hit skin. By the time it is caught, there are two problems to address – the raw lick spot and the cause of the licking.
Initial treatment is much the same for boredom or stress licking as any other type of granuloma. For stress lickers, discovering the cause of the stress and changing the environment is the first step with ‘puppy Prozac’ being the next step for a more difficult case.
Exercise is an important of both dealing with boredom and with stress and often high-energy dogs that are not being exercised enough will display their frustration in self-mutilation. Other stress and boredom eliminators are leaving the dog with something to chew on or occupy their time such as a Kong® stuffed with peanut butter and biscuits or a kibble ball. Trainers and animal behaviorists are excellent resources for combating these problems.
Bumps, Lumps, Warts and Scars
Lastly, over enthusiastic licking can be caused by something physical such as a poorly healed injury or a new lump either in the skin, on the skin or under the skin. If there is only one localized area where the dog focuses their attention, there is a strong likelihood that there is something irritating that spot.
This type of compulsive licking should be treated like any other granuloma with topical ointments and antibiotics if necessary. Blocking access to the spot with an Elizabethan collar will clear it up faster. Once the granuloma is cleared up, dissuading the licking behavior is sometimes effective as is surgically removing a lump or wart that is causing the irritation.
Old, poorly healed injuries are a bit more difficult. X-raying the area will show any arthritis or calcium deposits. These can be treated with painkillers or with acupuncture and natural remedies.
How Best to Stop a Dog from Licking Itself?
The best way to stop a dog from licking itself is to be aware of their behaviors and catching the problem before it occurs or become a situation that requires a visit to the vet.
Daily brushing, especially for longhaired or thick-coated breeds, helps to find lick spots before they develop into granulomas and treatment is as simple as blocking the dog from accessing that spot for a few days. For spots on the body, try putting the dog in a t-shirt instead of an Elizabethan collar as most dogs tolerate a shirt better then the collar. As long as the spot is not open and raw or over a suture site, bitter tasting repellents work well as long as you are able to continue application as required. Stay on top of the treatment until the area is back to normal and the dog no longer seems inclined to lick or chew.
Finding out why they are scratching and licking i.e. check for fleas or mites and if they are suspected, use a product like Revolution™ that kills all sorts of creepy crawlies within 24 hours. If the licking stops, continue the monthly Revolution™ treatment indefinitely so this problem never occurs again.
Prevention is always better then treatment in compulsive licking disorders. Keep your dog happy, healthy, clear of hitchhiking critters and well exercised so the slurping, sucking and chewing noises are never heard in your home!