A dog may obsessively lick and chew themselves, objects in their environment, or towards nothing in midair. Each type of behavior has an accompanying set of expected causes and accompanying secondary complications.
Treatment differs depending on the particulars of the behavior and the underlying cause. Most cases respond favorably to treatment when the underlying cause is identified and addressed.
All dogs lick and chew normally; obsessive licking and chewing results in skin sores or otherwise interferes with normal daily activities. Obsessive licking or chewing that is associated with other symptoms like excessive swallowing, drooling, or vomiting is more likely to be significant. Licking and chewing is not itself a dangerous behavior, but may indicate more concerning underlying medical conditions. Excessively licking and chewing also has the potential to lead to additional health problems, so it is important to identify the cause.
Common causes of obsessively licking and chewing the body are often related to itchiness and include:
• Atopy or other allergies • Boredom • Anxiety • Pain, particularly from osteoarthritis • Skin irritation or infection
• Tissue damage or injury
Common causes of obsessively licking or chewing in the air include:
• Dental problems • Mouth injuries • Foreign objects lodged in the mouth • Some types of seizures
• Central nervous system disorders • Tumors
Common causes for obsessively licking and chewing objects in the environment (like carpet or upholstery) include:
• Nausea • Gastrointestinal distress • Boredom • Oral irritants or pain
If the licking is isolated to areas in the home where food is consumed, dogs may be licking at food particles. This is more prevalent in dogs on restricted diets. In elderly dogs licking and chewing may be a symptom of cognitive dysfunction.
Licking and chewing behavior ranges from normal to obsessive. One indication of severity, other than physical evidence, is how easily interrupted and how quickly the dog returns to the behavior. Acral lick granuloma is an example of a condition that results from obsessively licking the skin.
After taking a thorough history and performing a physical examination, additional information for identifying the underlying cause of obsessive licking and chewing is determined from diagnostic testing like:
• Complete blood count (CBC) • Serum chemistry profile • Urinalysis • Diagnostic imaging
Depending on the results of routine screening tests, additional testing for licking directed at the skin typically includes:
• Skin scrape • Skin cytology • Fungal culture • Bacterial culture
When an underlying neurological disorder is suspected, advanced diagnostic imaging like MRI or CT scans are indicated. Treatment varies widely depending on the underlying diagnosis.
Licking or chewing the air may be mistaken for fly-biting (a neurologic symptom), while licking or chewing objects may be mistaken for pica.
Obsessive licking and chewing sometimes occurs as a solitary symptom. Depending on the underlying cause, it may be observed with a variety of other symptoms including:
• Ptyalism (drooling) • Hair loss • Open sores • Vomiting • Appetite loss • Seizures
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