Why do dogs and cats lick? While pets may well show affection with their tongues, the language of licks can also say a whole lot more, whether the object of attention is themselves, other pets or other things. Here’s the truth about why dogs and cats lick.

Location, location

Licking triggers pets’ brains to release feel-good chemicals like serotonin and endorphins. Cats and dogs can get hooked on the feeling and become obsessive lickers, but if they’re paying particular attention to one area, it can be an indication of their health.

Toe to toe

Excessively licking paws and legs may be a sign of skin irritation, particularly seasonal or food-related allergies. Some dogs get so obsessed with licking that it can cause an open sore, called a “lick granuloma.” Talk to your vet about allergy testing or behavioral therapy to break the vicious licking cycle.

Tummy troubles

Cats who lick their bellies bald may be suffering from skin irritation caused by parasites or an allergy. However, it’s often a sign that your cat’s trying to relieve stress. The first step is finding the source of the stress (has her routine changed, or have you been away from home?). Pheromone therapy can help calm her, but also ask your vet to rule out physical ailments.

Private places

Excessive licking of the nether regions could be a warning sign of urinary problems like a bladder or urinary tract infection. This is especially concerning in male cats because they can develop urinary blockages, which require emergency treatment (other signs include repeated squatting and crying when trying to pass urine).

Out of joint

Your dog may pay attention to a sore joint by licking it to attempt to ease the discomfort. If your dog can’t leave that joint alone, or if you notice any limping, have him checked by a vet.

Lack of licking

Grooming is part of your pet’s personal hygiene, plus it makes furry friends feel good in more ways than one – licking helps pets stay cool in warm weather when the saliva evaporates from their fur. If your pet is neglecting grooming, see if a tubby tummy is to blame. An arthritic pet may also be less flexible. If your cat or dog develops a dull, dusty or greasy coat, schedule a visit to your vet.

People & things

When your pup gives you a big lick, is he saying he loves you or that you need a bath? Here’s why pets lick us – and even more bizarre, lick things like carpet or plastic!

Just a taste

When you’re greeted with a smooch from your pooch, he may be checking your identity by sampling the taste of your skin. Like us, pets have taste buds. So when a dog licks you, he picks up a unique taste blend that helps him know who you are.

Lick love

Licks are a sign of affection – dogs mutually groom each other as a sign of acceptance and companionship. Dogs may lick their pet parents to acknowledge a member of their family, or from instinctual maternal affection.

Odd objects

If your pet licks the carpet or furniture, it may be a sign that they have a health issue or dietary deficiency. It’s thought that dogs with Addison’s disease lick to seek salt, and those with digestive issues lick to replace vitamins. Liver disease can do strange things to dogs’ appetites, too. If your dog’s licking tastes have recently changed, get him to your vet.

Puss in bags

A bizarre habit almost exclusive to cats is licking plastic bags. No one knows exactly why they do it, but one theory involves the ingredients of the plastic. Biodegradable carrier bags are often rendered with animal fats, which makes them lick-tastic for cats. Be sure licking doesn’t turn to swallowing or choking.

cat licking dogs face


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A simple lick sends a power message in canine communication – it can signal acceptance of the top dog’s status and defuse a tense stand-off.

Slurping signals

If a subordinate dog licks a dominant dog as a sign of acceptance, the dominant dog may lick back – because he can! The difference is in the body language as one dog approaches another: tail down could signal hostility or tension, while tail up signals friendship.

Gender gap

Behaviorists studying cats have shown that females will groom cats of both sexes, but in groups of just females, they refuse to groom each other – probably because the hierarchy gets too complicated! And male cats will never lick other males.

Puppy love

A mother licks her puppy or kitten for several reasons. Not only does it help them bond, but also stimulates the newborn to breathe. Instinct also tells the mother to keep her nest clean, so she licks her offspring to encourage them to “go” – and if you’re not quick to clean up, she’ll do it for you!

What not to lick

Keep these things well away from tongues as they can cause serious health issues:

Topical parasite preventives

If ingested, the active ingredients in flea and tick preventives can cause excessive drooling, head shaking or stomach upset in dogs. Apply where the pet can’t reach, like the back of the neck, and don’t allow other pets to lick each other after application.

Tin cans

Always dispose of aluminum, glass and other sharp waste in a lidded bin – your pooch could end up with a cut tongue.

Surgical incisions

While pets’ saliva has some disinfectant properties, the abrasive action of licking does more harm than good to sensitive scars. The dreaded “cone of shame” may be needed to avoid post-operative licking.

Ear drops

Mutual grooming may be nice, but it’s a no-no if one pet is getting ear drops. The licking pal could wash away the medication before it can work, and ingest potentially harmful ingredients.

Jul 18, 2016
Pet Health

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