Licking obsessively: why your dog does it

Licking obsessively, and usually in the same spot over and over again, causes what is known as acral lick granuloma.

This condition is also known as acral lick dermatitis. ‘Acral’ means belonging to the extremities. It typically forms on the front part of the lower legs in dogs. Cats can also suffer from this condition but it is rare. It is not fatal but it can be very irritating to an owner, and painful to the pet.

Licking obsessively leads to sores

A lesion or sore develops due to chronic, compulsive licking. The constant licking causes hair loss, leading to ulceration of the superficial skin layers with inflammation and secondary bacterial infection. Affected skin is raised, red and thickened as the licking prevents healing. The area becomes itchy and burns as nerve endings are exposed and damaged and that triggers more licking leading to a perpetuating cycle of self-trauma. It is also believed that the act of licking may release endorphins that reduces pain and gives relief.

Licking obsessively: what’s the cause?

There are usually several factors which are either physical or psychological. These include:

Physical causes:

• Allergy – mostly environmental allergies called atopy.

• Bacterial or fungal infections

• Ectoparasites like fleas and mites

• Painful joints, usually either osteoarthritis or trauma

• Foreign bodies embedded in skin like grass seeds

• Metabolic diseases – low thyroid hormone or Cushings

• Neoplasia – abnormal cell growth that results in a malignant or benign tumour

Psychological causes:

• Stress and anxiety

• Boredom

• Obsessive compulsive disorders

How it is diagnosed

For your vet to make a diagnosis a full history, physical exam and other tests like skin smears, skin scrapes, fungal and bacterial cultures, biopsies for histopathology and even radiographs and blood tests might be needed.

To treat the condition successfully, it is necessary to decide if the cause is physical or psychological.

Treatment is often a combination of different things and can be long term. It is also important to note that recurrence is common.

Treatment options

  • Long-term antibiotics, anti-inflammatory, and topical products to prevent licking.
  • Physical barriers to prevent the dog from licking e.g., dressings and collars are only a temporary solution.
  • Surgical removal is possible if the lesion is quite small.
  • Behaviour modification drugs is used to treat anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
  • Boredom can be relieved by increased interaction with your dog.
  • Other treatments like CO2 laser, cold laser and acupuncture can also be considered.

Left untreated, acral lick granuloma can lead to many months of frustrating vets’ visits and pain for your pet. If your pet develops a licking obsession, see your vet before that licking causes a sore.

– article by Dr Esmaré van der Walt, EberVet Pet Clinic


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