When a Dog Licks So Much That a Sore Forms

It’s a lot like kids who suck their thumb — once the habit starts, it’s hard to break. Here’s what you need to know about causes and treatment.

By: carterse
An itch, ache or infection is usually the root cause of excessive licking in dogs. By: carterse

Does your dog have an annoying habit?

The list of annoying habits is potentially a long one: chewing, barking, marking where he shouldn’t… But today let’s talk about licking. Not just the occasional slurp but licking taken to self-harm levels where, as a result, the dog develops sores called lick granulomas.

Maybe you’ve seen this on your dog: a raised, red sore on a front leg that your dog licks at obsessively. Or perhaps you never see him lick, but the sore is there all the same.

Chances are you told him to stop, so he learned to become secretive about licking. Well, these sores are surprisingly common.

I compare dogs with lick granulomas to children who suck their thumb. Once the habit starts, it’s hard to break. The reason is that the licking releases feel-good hormones called endorphins. The dog licks, he feels good, and he doesn’t want to stop.

Buster’s Case

One case that springs to mind is that of Buster, a tubby English Springer Spaniel. Buster was an avid licker, and for several months his caregiver had controlled things at home.

His solution was to put a sweatband over the sore, to stop Buster from licking the area.

The only problem is Buster then started onto the opposite leg. When I met Buster, he had sweatbands on all 4 legs — like some bizarre canine tennis player — and he had just started licking his upper arm.

3 Breeds Most at Risk

Any dog can become an obsessive licker, but certain breeds seem more at risk, including the:

  1. Doberman
  2. Great Dane
  3. Labrador

Causes

For most dogs, the habit starts with a trigger in the form of an itch, ache or infection. It may be that the dog has arthritis or an allergy, and rather than lick the specific spot, he chooses a comfortable place to lick — which is often a forearm or paw.

Common triggers:

  • Arthritis
  • Parasitic infection that causes a general itch
  • A bacterial skin infection
  • Ringworm
  • Skin allergies triggering an itch
Excessive licking can cause sores like this one. By: erinleighmcconnell
Excessive licking can cause nasty sores called lick granulomas. By: erinleighmcconnell

Act Quickly

If your dog starts to lick obsessively, seek the help of your veterinarian.

Getting to the bottom of the cause, and early treatment, is the best way to stop the problem from becoming ingrained. Alongside treating the lick granuloma, your vet may want to run tests to investigate any underlying problems.

In Buster’s case, his aching joints were at the heart of the matter. Unfortunately, his problem was too well established to stop with arthritis medication alone because the licking had become a reward in its own end.

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Treatment

Think of this as a two-pronged attack: tackling both the sores and the underlying cause.

Lick granulomas are frustrating because even with successful treatment, the dog is likely to relapse. To stand any chances of long-term success, therapy must continue for at least 4 weeks after the symptoms have ceased.

Sores (your vet may try one or a combination of the following):

  • Antibiotics or antifungals
  • Local anesthetic creams
  • Anti-inflammatory medications (to reduce the skin tingle)
  • Bandages or a Elizabethan collar (“cone of shame”)
  • Mood-modifying drugs

Underlying triggers:

  • The first step is to find out what they are. This could mean blood tests, skin biopsies or radiographs.
  • In the case of allergies, starting the dog on a hypoallergenic diet is a great idea, as is testing for environmental allergens.
  • Regular parasite treatments against fleas and mites are crucial to keep parasitic itches at bay.

What Happened With Buster?

Arthritis medication alone reduced Buster’s licking but didn’t stop it altogether.

Rather than put Buster on costly drugs that modulate his immune system, or steroids, Buster’s caregiver decided to keep him pain-free with arthritis meds, put him on a diet to reduce his weight, stick with the wristbands and accept a reduced level of licking. This worked well for both of them.

To find the right solution for your dog, speak with your veterinarian.

References

  • Small Animal Internal Medicine. Nelson & Couto. Publisher: Mosby.
  • “Microbiological and histopathological features of canine acral lick dermatitis.” Shumaker et al., Vet Dermatol, 2008. (link)
  • “Canine acral lick dermatitis: Responses to anti-obsessional drug clomipramine.” Goldberger et al., JAAHA, 27. (link)

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This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed May 29, 2015.

Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS

View posts by Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS
Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS, is a veterinarian with nearly 30 years of experience in companion animal practice. Dr. Elliott earned her Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery from the University of Glasgow. She was also designated a Member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. Married with 2 grown-up kids, Dr. Elliott has a naughty puggle called Poggle, 3 cats and a bearded dragon.

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