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Why do dogs lick you?

Date created: 17 11 2017

For a dog owner it’s the best part of the day: that moment when you walk in the door to be greeted by a big slobbery kiss. We’ll never get tired of it - but what is all that licking for? Here’s the lowdown…

It’s because you’re awesome - and they know it
It’s long been thought that when they bound towards you and start licking your face, it’s your dog’s special way of showing how much they love you.

But hold on a second: aren’t we getting a little too soppy here? Could it simply be that they recognise that we’re their meal ticket - and that showing us affection is nothing more than a survival strategy?

Actually, recent research seems to back up what dog owners kind of knew already:  that dogs really do love us. Neuroscientist, Dr. Gregory Berns of Emory University, Atlanta has been studying the “reward centre” within canine brains. One of his experiments involves giving dogs sausages in some situations and praise in others. He found that the response to praise was just as strong as the response to food - and that in 20% of cases, it was actually stronger.

According to Berns, dogs on the whole love us “at least as much as food” - we’ll take that!

It just feels good!
Licking is something that your pooch associates with happiness. Studies have shown that when a dog licks something (or someone), it releases endorphins - i.e. pleasure hormones. They see something they like and that they associate with “good times” - so licking it is the most natural thing in the world; it reinforces that feeling of happiness.


They’re talking to you - and giving you a makeover
It’s their way of saying hello - and asking about your day. On top of this, it’s worth bearing in mind that dogs in packs didn’t have access to brushes. So that act of licking performed two very useful functions at the same time: it helped reinforce those all-important bonds between pack members - and provided a chance to clear each other’s faces and bodies of ticks, fleas and grime. So your dog may think they’re doing you a big favour on the hygiene front.

You taste pretty good 
All that salt, sweat, make-up, soap, aftershave, dead skin, traffic fume residue - maybe even food debris: it makes for an interesting and irresistible cocktail. When there’s no actual food about, you’re the next best thing. Why wouldn’t they lick you?

Too much of a good thing?
A friendly lick is one thing - and it’s perfectly natural. But there are some situations where licking can be excessive and can be a sign that something’s wrong.

A quick welcome lick when you arrive home is great - but when the greeting seems to last forever - and when you finally shake them off, they retreat to a corner and spend hours licking themselves, is something wrong?

As we’ve mentioned, licking releases endorphins. So it could be that licking is your dog’s way of releasing anxiety. And in some situations, compulsive licking can be the sign of an obsessive disorder. Has there been a recent change in your buddy’s environment that could be making them feel anxious? Are they left alone for long periods?

Obsessive licking can lead to physical problems (e.g. infections and build ups of painful tissue known as granulomas) and failure to address the anxiety issue is likely to only make it worse. So be sure to consult with your vet if there seems to be something out of the ordinary here. Some specialist behavioural training might be in order. 

Licking could also be a sign of illness. Constant licking of the skin accompanied by head jerks could indicate a flea infestation or other parasitic invasion. If your buddy seems to be licking everything (e.g. you, the walls, the floor!), there might be a gastrointestinal upset. Especially if it’s accompanied by diarrhoea, vomiting or listlessness and it doesn’t clear up after 24 hours, speak to your vet.

So should you let your dog lick you?
There’s no getting away from it: dog’s mouths aren’t exactly the cleanest of places.

If you’re a dog, your own saliva is useful stuff: it contains proteins that help with self-cleansing and even with the healing of wounds. But it’s all the other “nasties” that sometimes reside in there that ought to cause some concern - many of which are zoonotic - i.e. they can potentially pass to humans and cause illness.

Salmonella, E-coli and campylobacter can all be present in saliva. And because dogs are prone to eating their own and other dogs’ faeces, there’s also the risk of passing on certain parasitic infections, such as hookworms and roundworms.

But is there a danger of getting overly sensitive about the odd lick? For one thing, pathogens don’t absorb through normal, unbroken skin - so the chances of problems caused by being licked on the hand or cheek are actually extremely low.

That said, harmful organisms can be absorbed more easily through mucous membranes - so this includes the mouth, nose and eyes. So when your dog comes up to you for a kiss, you might want to offer up your cheek and steer your buddy away from the rest of your face.

In general, a healthy, happy doggy can mean fewer health risk for all the family. So just make sure you keep on top of grooming, vaccines and deworming!