There are many reasons for a dog to lick his lips. Often your dog is using this behaviour to communicate but sometimes there may be an underlying health problem. If your dog licks his lips after eating or in anticipation of a tasty treat it is obvious that the behaviour is food related and nothing to be concerned about. But what if he does it at other times?

Dogs lick their lips as a sign of general anxiety 

Just like people, dogs can get worried in certain situations. Anxiety is a common reason for dogs to lick their lips. Dogs communicate non-verbally and use a wide range of body language signals as well as different vocalisations and sounds to tell people and other dogs how they feel.  Lip licking is often a sign that your dog is feeling uncomfortable or anxious in any given situation. It can also be used to signal submission. Your dog is effectively saying “ I am not any threat to you…. Please don’t hurt me”. If you reprimand your dog for some misdemeanour they might lick their lips… they are trying to say “I am sorry”!

So, we can see this behaviour when they meet another dog who may be a slight threat or even if they are greeting a person and feel that they want to make the meeting a comfortable and friendly experience. We see this behaviour in the waiting room at the vets and when some dogs go to the groomers or kennels for example. 

As a vet I often look for lip licking when I examine a dog. 

They cannot tell me which part of their body hurts but this signal can be an important sign. If my canine patient is calm and relaxed until I touch a particular part of his body and then he licks his lips I will often move away from that area for a while. Then I’ll go back to see if the sign is consistent whenever I touch the same place on his body. If the dog licks his lips every time I touch a certain point then I have a strong indicator that this region is painful or uncomfortable. I can often use this sign to localise discomfort and help my patient.

Look for this lip licking signal in situations where your dog may feel threatened or otherwise anxious or worried. You can help your dog to manage his anxiety by offering a friendly word of encouragement or a quick pat. But take care not to reinforce the anxiety your dog has in the situation by making too much of a fuss and causing him to think that you are anxious too.

Could your dog be uncomfortable or in pain when he is licking his lips?

There are certain physical problems which could cause your dog to lick his lips excessively. Any problem which causes oral discomfort could cause your pet to lick his lips more often. Other issues which might cause abnormal lip licking include metabolic diseases which often cause nausea and certain neurological diseases.

If your dog suddenly starts to lick his lips ask yourself if he could have come across an irritant or toxic substance? 

If a dog ingests such a substance he may also exhibit excessive salivation or drooling. He might paw at his mouth or rub his face on the ground. Dogs can also show these signs if they have a foreign body such as a stick stuck in their mouth. Often right across the roof of their mouth and stuck between their molar teeth. You might also notice a horrible smell from the mouth if your dog has a foreign object stuck somewhere. These signs should be taken seriously.  

Dogs sometimes lick their lips because their mouth is generally uncomfortable or painful. 

Dental disease may cause oral discomfort and perhaps excessive salivation which in turn may lead to lip licking. If your dog has tooth problems you may notice that he anticipates food happily but then backs away from it because his mouth hurts when he tries to eat. Oral ulceration or tumours in the mouth may also be responsible for these types of signs. Your vet will be able to assess your dog’s mouth and teeth and treat any issues which are discovered appropriately.

If your pet feels nauseous they may lick their lips excessively. 

This is often accompanied by a refusal of food or at least not having such a big appetite as they would normally. Nausea is not always accompanied by vomiting but watch out for this too. If your pet seems to be suffering from nausea it is worth asking your vet to give them a full health check. Some underlying causes of nausea can be quite serious if left untreated. So the earlier that your dog is seen by your vet the better.

Some neurological issues can cause lip licking and other unusual behaviour in dogs. 

Some dogs can get focal seizures which are less dramatic than a full seizure so you might miss them sometimes. Focal seizures are characterised by strange behaviour which lasts a short time rather than the full seizures or fitting which most people would easily recognise. Lip licking is a common sign in dogs having a focal seizure along with other signs; such as twitching and looking as if they are catching flies which only they can see. Your vet will be able to help if your pet is suffering from focal seizures. So take them along to be checked as soon as you can.

Older dogs suffering from cognitive dysfunction may lick their lips. This is because they are more anxious than they were when they were younger. 

As some dogs get older they might become confused and disoriented at times as they struggle with their mental abilities and understanding. This deterioration in their cognitive function can cause them to feel stressed and anxious because they no longer fully comprehend what is going on around them. They can at times feel lost. And they may need extra support to help them continue to enjoy life as they used to. They often need to spend less time alone. Aswell as have the reassurance of having people or other familiar dogs around them. 

Dogs suffering from cognitive dysfunction as they age may begin to wander around or pace at night and may also vocalise excessively and lose their previously good house training. Lip licking in an older dog with cognitive decline may be a sign that they are no longer confident in certain situations and are feeling anxious or confused. Try to give them extra reassurance and support in situations where you see this sign.

If you have noticed that your dog is licking his lips excessively and this behaviour is not related to feeding times or treats then it is wise to contact your vet. Ask them to check your pet’s mouth and general health. If an underlying medical problem is discovered they will be able to give appropriate advice and treatment. If the lip licking behaviour is not related to a medical issue your vet may be able to help you address any behavioural concerns or refer your pet to a qualified animal behaviourist who will be able to help you and your pet to deal with situations which are causing your dog anxiety and stress.

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