Why is My Dog Licking His Lips?

Whilst we often reference lip licking in anticipation food, there are a number of reasons why dogs especially, may demonstrate this behaviour. Some may even surprise you. So, let’s take a look at some of the more common reasons for lip smacking, or licking, that we see here at My Pet Nutritionist.

1) Anticipation of Food!

We can head back to Pavlov and his dogs to put this behaviour into context. Most of us are familiar with the concept of conditioning that Pavlov introduced – he paired a bell with food, and eventually, the dogs would salivate in anticipation of the food, just by hearing the bell. This increase in salivation will encourage lip licking to help manage the extra fluid in the mouth!

But what is also interesting is that food also stimulates the reward system in the brain – and the physical response to this type of reward is often saliva – again, the lip licking is a mechanism to manage the extra fluid in the mouth.

2) Lip Licking in response to stress!

Not surprisingly, stress can result in hypo (too little) and hyper (too much) salivation! Either way, lip licking is often the result.

On the one side, activation of the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight), redirects resources and in doing so, digestive functions are sacrificed. As saliva is an important part of the digestive process, production is therefore reduced. The resulting dry mouth can encourage lip licking behaviour.

Licking is also a maternal behaviour – they would clean and groom their offspring, soothing them during the action. Many dogs demonstrate licking behaviour because it elicits positive responses. It is well demonstrated that those born to Mothers who engaged in grooming/licking behaviour, are more resilient to stress, and develop more appropriate coping mechanisms.  Findings here

That said, increased salivation can be implicated in certain health issues that are exacerbated by stress – here salivation may be a side effect of an underlying issue, like acid reflux.

3) Acid Reflux

Acid reflux is where stomach acid ends up somewhere it shouldn’t. As we know, the body is pretty nifty and has a few tricks up it’s sleeve to deal with rogue compounds. In response to the irritant in the oesophagus (stomach acid), salivary glands can over produce in an attempt to neutralise it.

Ironically, acid reflux can be a result of reduced salivary production in the first place. There are a number of causes of acid reflux, poor lower sphincter functioning, abnormal oesophageal clearance, altered mucosal resistance and delayed gastric emptying (which is why it can be implicated alongside stress). If you would like more information about tackling acid reflux, then check out our blog here.

4) To smell better!

Dogs use their tongues to enhance their sense of smell. When they lick a surface their transfer molecules via their tongue to olfactory receptors and then to the vomero nasal organ. When a dog keeps their nose wet, they are lowering the surface tension of the scent molecules so they can be translated better! Dogs are incredible at detecting minute traces in their environment – this also applies to information from us humans.  We must consider whether our dog is attempting to gain more information about those around him when he is licking his lips.

5) Gastrointestinal Disorder

Lip licking is often paired with nausea,along with excess salivation, lack of appetite, increased swallowing and lethargy. For this reason, it is often considered that lip licking is more likely associated with some gastrointestinal disorder or discomfort.

One particular study sought to investigate this.

Dogs demonstrating excessive licking behaviour were studied.  In 14 of 19 licking dogs, gastrointestinal abnormalities were noted. They included:

  • Delayed gastric emptying
  • Irritable bowel syndrome/disease
  • Food intolerances or allergies
  • Pancreatitis
  • Gastric foreign body
  • Giardia

Researchers concluded that full gastric health should be considered in any dog presenting with excessive licking behaviour.

Findings here

If you would like a head start on supporting your dog’s digestive health, then check out our blogs here:

The Dog’s Digestive System

7 Steps to Optimal Gut Health for Your Pet

Natural Guide for Pets IBD

Pancreatitis and a Natural Nutrition Regime

6) Disorders of the Mout

Gum disease is an inflammatory condition,symptoms include bad breath, drooling along with mouth and tongue inflammation.  Sadly, bacteria can be translocated from the mouth into the rest of the body, often causing secondary infections and issues. For more information on dental care for your dog check out our blog here.

But disorders of the mouth aren’t limited to periodontal disease.

They can also include lip disorders found in those breeds with dropping upper lips and lower lip folds (like spaniels,bulldogs and St. Bernards). The lips accumulate moisture, becoming the perfect breeding ground for harmful bacteria. The lip folds can become fowl-smelling,inflamed, uncomfortable and swollen, resulting in your dog licking them to try to soothe them. Keeping these folds is therefore essential to your dog’s health! As is supporting their skin and oral microbiome. Please check out blog on puppy microbiome here.

Your dog can also develop lip wounds – from a rogue branch or grass seed that has gotten wedged.

If you are concerned about your dog’s lip licking behaviour – checking in their mouth is a good place to start.

These are the more common reasons why your dog may be licking their lips, but they are not the only ones.

Your dog may lip his lips for any one of the following reasons:

Whilst we can’t change the structure of your dog’s mouth, we have a wealth of experience tackling gastrointestinal disorders in the canine. If you are concerned about excessive lip licking in your dog and are wondering where to start, check out our services to see if we may be able to help here.

Thanks for reading!

Team MPN x

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