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Latest health and behavior news and advice from the veterinarians at Tufts University.

Expert Advice October 2014 Issue

Dear Doctor

Letters to the Tufts Veterinarians

The dog won’t stop licking his owner

Q My 11-month-old miniature Aussie started licking me like crazy after I returned from 5 weeks in France. While I was away, he was at my brother’s with a huge back yard, lots of sticks and balls, and love. However, he did not go out on a leash or see other dogs. Still, I have been home for two weeks already and he is so needy, whimpers for attention, and keeps licking me. Is he grooming me? It is a sign of salt deficiency? Bad manners? Do you have any suggestions for solutions?

Patricia McLean

Seattle, Washington

Dear Ms. McLean,

A“There is not a slam dunk answer to this one,” comments the Director of our Animal Behavior Clinic, Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, in part because you don’t say where the dog is licking you — the arms, the face, or someplace else on your body.

“Applying ethological principles,” Dr. Dodman says, “if the dog is licking your face,” he might be begging you to feed him. “In nature,” he explains, “when the mother eats fresh meat from a kill, the puppy somehow senses that food is available to him, and he will go up to his mother and do all this deferent posturing — going low and yes, licking his mother’s lips. The submissive, or deferent, behavior on the young dog’s part causes inner stirrings in the mom, reports Dr. Dodman, “who then feels ultra-maternal and sends up her just-macerated and just-swallowed food to nourish the puppy.”

Granted, this is usually the function of a relationship between a very young puppy and his dam, and your dog, while still technically a puppy until one year of age, is already 11 months old. But maybe what happened is that the potential for the licking behavior was quiescent for several months, and in your absence and your dog’s anxious state while away from you, on top of the deprived kind of life he was leading without being taken for walks or getting to greet other dogs, he has gone into puppy overdrive now that you’re back — seeking your attention by licking and telling you, ‘I’m still your little ball of fluff, please still love me and pay attention to me and, by the way, nourish me.’

This kind of anxiousness might be heightened if you’ve come back in a different mood because of your trip. If you’re feeling particularly good, or free, and perhaps acting less maternal and lovey-dovey with your dog than before, he may feel “separated” from you and be trying to “get you back.”

On the other hand, if the dog is licking, say, your arms rather than your face, the love-me, feed-me story doesn’t apply. In that case, Dr. Dodman says, perhaps you’re now wearing a fragrance that you purchased in France, or using a soap or shampoo you bought there, “and it has olfactory significance for your pet, turning you into the human equivalent of an ice cream cone.”

Whatever the reason for the licking, Dr. Dodman says, “I think it’s something that will taper off as the puppy gets older. But you can certainly discourage it with a simple command like “no lick.” (See next Q&A.)

The dog won’t stop licking cement

QOver the last 3 months, our 11-year-old Sheltie has developed an obsessive interest in licking cement surfaces. This is especially true at the start of her daily walk. As soon as she steps on cement, she starts licking. If we stop during the early parts of the walk, she’s back to licking, but by the end of the walk she’s lost her interest in cement.

We took her to our vet, who did blood work, but it all came back normal. We have three other dogs in our home, and there haven’t been any changes in the dog or human pack for more than a year. Nothing else has changed in her behavior. Should we be concerned?

Joe Greenhalgh

El Granada, California

Dear Mr. Greenhalgh,

AAny change in behavior in an older dog is cause for at least mild concern and questioning. Something medical could be going on. But what?

There was one piece of research that looked at dogs who were licking things — floors and carpets and other materials — and when they were examined by endoscopy, a fairly high percentage of them were found to have gastrointestinal issues ranging from mild gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining) to inflammatory bowel disease. So while your veterinarian found nothing abnormal on blood work, perhaps an endoscopy is in order.

The licking might also have a neurological cause. In some cases, dogs that lick are experiencing partial seizures. That doesn’t sound like the case with your pet. Those dogs usually lick the air in little clusters, or bouts, sort of switching on and off for several minutes at a time. But there could, for example, be a brain tumor. We say that not to scare you, just to help you think through the possibilities.

The gold standard for diagnosing neurological issues is a CT scan or MRI. But MRI, in particular, is very expensive, so perhaps a neurological exam would be a good first order of business in going down that route.

Because your dog’s licking disorder is very specific in nature, applying when the dog first goes outside and on a particular type of surface, the cause might be behavioral rather than medical, a kind of displacement behavior. What if, for example, the dog has developed painful arthritis and is not enjoying his walks because of the pain in his joints? Perhaps his licking as you start out is a way of being stuck between wanting to walk and not being able to walk comfortably. As the walk goes along and he gets the creakiness out of his joints, the pain may dissipate, and he doesn’t feel the need to lick. Or maybe he has developed hypothyroidism, which could lead to anxiety — and subsequent licking.

“There’s a grab bag of possible reasons for the behavior change,” says Dr. Dodman. A blood test by itself will only get at some of them.

The dog won’t stop sucking on his sister’s ears

Q I have two 4-year-old shih tzus who are littermates, a brother and sister. We have had them since they were 12 weeks old and are experiencing an ongoing problem with the male in that he has a habit of sucking on the female’s ear. This is a habit he started back when he was probably 2. I have spoken to our vet and a dog trainer and neither has an explanation or what can be done to break him of this annoying habit. Have you heard of this behavior, and is there anything we can do to stop it? The sister is the one who would most benefit from any help you might be able to provide.

Joy Harrell

Tallahassee, Florida

Dear Ms. Harrell,

A sucking habit is actually pretty common. At Tufts, we’ve studied flank sucking among Dobermans. It usually indicates the dog was prematurely weaned. Suckling that would have normally been directed at the mother’s milk bar is now redirected. The instinct wasn’t fully satiated when the dog was still a puppy, so the suckling drive persists beyond the normal period.

We suspect that’s the case with your little guy. You say he didn’t start the habit until he was around 2, but it may have taken him time to find a substrate he liked sucking on — his poor sister’s ear.

You can train a dog out of the behavior with the following four-step approach, which is actually the essence of all training:

Say a cue, like “Stop it,” or “No suck.” Say it quickly, as if it’s one word. Dogs don’t hear words; they hear signals. Each cue you give them is like it’s own gong sound, or whistle — not language per se.

Make the desired behavior happen. This is the hard part. How do you make it happen? Sometimes you can just wait for the desired behavior — the cessation of sucking. Other times you have to intervene, perhaps in this case by lifting the dog away from his sister.

The desired behavior occurs. Either by accident because he’s taking a break, or because the dog knows what you want by your verbal cue, or because you’ve removed the dog from his sister’s ear, he stops sucking.

For his engaging in the desirable behavior (even if you made it happen), praise and reward the dog to the hilt — immediately, within a second or two. Otherwise, he won’t connect the good feelings from you with his behavior change. Make sure to pet him right away, tell him enthusiastically what a good boy he is, and give him a delectable morsel of beef or some other coveted food — maybe even a food to suck on, like a Frosty Paws, thereby providing him a sucking outlet with something appropriate. Whatever reward you choose, he’ll want to keep not sucking his sister’s ear to get all that good attention.

Through all of this, it’s critical that you are consistent. If you remove the dog from his sister’s ear every time he starts to suck on it, and keep letting him know with the cue that the behavior is not acceptable, he will come to say to himself, “Why bothering carrying it on? She’s just going to make me stop.” If you waffle and aren’t consistent, he’ll keep trying. Don’t be frustrated if it takes a little while. As the saying goes, “Art and science aren’t enough; patience is the basic stuff.” n

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