Advice from the Experts

When licking becomes an obsessive behavior for dogs

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By Cathy M. Rosenthal, Tribune Content Agency
My Pet World

Q: Dear Cathy,

We have a big 14-year-old Silky Yorkie named Howie. In November, my husband got severely sick and was hospitalized for 11 days. He recovered at home for eight weeks. During his hospitalization, I took care of Howie while working and going to the hospital, but he was alone much more than usual. During that time, I noticed Howie licking the floor all the time. I mentioned it to my husband, but he did not make much of it at the time.

We are now nearly five months' post-op, and Howie continues to lick the floor nonstop. Even at night when the lights are out, we can hear him licking the bedroom floor. My husband took him to the vet, but the doctor could not shed any light on this issue for us. He also has a clogged saliva gland that has to be drained every six to eight weeks and has lost several of his teeth. This past week I found one on our bedroom floor.

I don't know how to make him stop licking and worry about all the detergent, pesticide and dirt that he is ingesting. I hope you might have some thoughts and suggestions for us. -- Marilene Valor, Boca Raton, FL

A: Dear Marilene,

If your veterinarian ruled out medical problems, then Howie's licking probably resulted from stress or separation anxiety when your husband was hospitalized, and you were gone during those two weeks.

When suffering from stress or separation anxiety, dogs usually look for ways to self-soothe, which can present as destructive behaviors in the home, like chewing door frames, or excessive licking of themselves or other things in the house, like floors. Obsessive dog licking is sort of the human equivalent of humans biting their nails.

That's because there is a mental and physical component to repetitive licking: the behavior releases endorphins, which makes dogs feel better, so they continue doing it to keep those endorphins flowing. What starts out as an innocent behavior can quickly develop into an addictive habit that drives some dog owners a little crazy.

If Howie is always licking the same spot on the floor, you can spray some Bitter Apple (available at pet stores) to discourage him. But most likely you will need to combine corrective training with some busy work.

When Howie starts to lick the floor, say "Howie, no lick" to interrupt the behavior. When he looks at you, and he should because you said his name, tell him "good boy" and give him a treat. (If he doesn't look at you, shake a can of coins to interrupt the behavior and get his attention.) Then give him a puzzle toy (available at pet stores) with a treat inside, so he must think about how to get the treat out. If he is thinking about something else, he should forget he needs to lick things. You can also walk him or play a game of fetch with him -- anything to distract him and get his mind off his licking habit.

If he continues to lick obsessively, talk to your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist about introducing anti-anxiety medication until he breaks the habit. I also recommend having his mouth checked for gum disease since he is losing teeth. If his gums hurt, he may be licking the floor to make them feel better.

Q: Dear Cathy,

I read your recent column on how to get cats to stop clawing the couch and wanted to share my solution. As a woman in her 70's, I have had two cats in my home at all times for decades. I am very much against declawing cats. To me, it's amputation. It's illegal in some countries; I wish it were illegal here.

My advice on how to prevent cats from damaging a couch is to buy microfiber couches. I have had four microfiber couches over the years, and they are impervious to my cat's claws. It must not be a satisfying texture for them to scratch because they seldom, if ever, try to use it. As a bonus, spots are removed easily with a wet cloth. -- Colette Agazzi, Palos Heights, IL

A: Dear Colette,

Thanks for your letter. I wondered what might be an option for those who of us who don't want to buy new furniture and found microfiber couch slipcovers available online. These slipcovers might be a permanent solution or a temporary training tool.

Provide a scratching post, so your cat always has something he can scratch.

(Cathy M. Rosenthal is a longtime animal advocate, author, columnist and pet expert who has more than 25 years in the animal welfare field. Send your pet questions, stories and tips to Please include your name, city, and state. You can follow her @cathymrosenthal.)