“The likely explanation is that the dog is merely grooming himself prior to going to sleep,” says John Ciribassi, DVM. “Grooming while relaxed is a common cause for the behavior.”
It’s also possible the dog is licking throughout the day, but either we aren’t home to notice or we notice it more at night when things are quiet and we are trying to sleep.
The absence of the day’s diversions allows a dog to notice things, too — things that can lead to licking. When the day’s activities catch up with him, a dog who has overexerted could be licking sore or stiff muscles. Conversely, an under-stimulated dog might lick out of boredom.
While several veterinarians and behaviorists told me they don’t know why dogs specifically choose the time right before sleep to lick, there are theories.
One theory: Because it’s annoying. Licking before sleeping can be an attention-seeking behavior — and it usually works. Your dog slurps, and you react by giving him attention, even if it’s negative attention. That reaction could inadvertently reinforce the behavior. In addition, self-licking for attention might occur due to misunderstanding: Praising a dog when he licks your face could lead the dog to associate reward with all forms of licking.
Others suggest separation anxiety. If you and your dog sleep apart, the physical separation could trigger licking as a stress reliever. But it could be more deeply rooted. Some theorize that separation anxiety stems from maternal separation. Because mothers lick their pups to groom, show affection and stimulate bodily functions, self-licking soothes by mimicking that maternal care.
And licking has been shown to release body chemicals called endorphins that promote a sense of calm and comfort.
Older dogs with canine cognitive dysfunction (or dementia) can develop sundown syndrome, which manifests itself in anxious and repetitive behaviors when the sun sets. While self-licking is not generally associated with sundown syndrome, it could be a contributing factor.
Simply taking advantage of the pause at day’s end for a hygienic lap of luxury is common and normal. But excessive licking — no matter what time of day — could signal a medical or behavioral issue.
“Licking can have many causes,” says Dr. Ciribassi, founder of Chicagoland Veterinary Behavior Consultants. “Medically, skin disease, especially atopy [immune response to allergens], is at the top of the list.”
Fleas and mites, hormonal imbalance and dry skin can irritate and cause itchiness. Allergies to food ingredients or environmental elements, such as pollen, mold and dust, could be at play.
“Any condition causing pain, such as arthritis, cancer, trauma, can cause licking,” says Dr. Ciribassi, a resident of Carol Stream, Illinois, and diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.
“Gastrointestinal disorders causing nausea can result in licking, as well,” he says. Nausea can occur from eating, illness or ingesting harmful substances.
Obsessive licking in the tail or anal area could mean the anal glands need to be expressed. Or licking could be something as simple as trying to expel something foreign from the mouth (like a hair).
Behaviorally, Dr. Ciribassi says, “Compulsive disorders often related to anxiety can cause excessive licking.” Anxiety also can be situational, for example, being in a new environment or when someone new is in the house.
Behavioral issues that result in over-grooming can lead to physical problems, including hair loss, yeast and bacterial infections, and skin disorders such as hot spots (inflamed skin that is warm to the touch) and granulomas (thick, red skin lesions).
Lick the problem
Don’t let licking cause the ticking away of your rest.
“Have the dog evaluated by his veterinarian,” Dr. Ciribassi advises. “If the dog checks out normally on a medical basis, then get together with a behaviorist or veterinarian comfortable with dealing with behavior issues.”
There are tools to help lick self-licking, from enriching your dog’s life to skin-soothing shampoos, taste-deterrent topical sprays and creams, calming supplements, pheromone therapies, security vests, soft collars and anti-anxiety medication. Your vet can lead you in the right direction.
Remember: Licking in moderation can be good. Saliva aids wound healing. And everybody likes a clean dog. So if your dog’s nighttime self-licking is just normal grooming, it’s nothing to lose sleep over.
Keep your dog active. He’ll sleep better and be less likely to lick out of boredom.
> Stay on a regular sleeping schedule, and maintain a calm environment.
> Encourage your dog to drink a little water before bed (not so much he has to go out during the night). Thirsty dogs sometimes lick to stimulate salivary glands.
> Brush your dog and check his paws before bed.
> Check your dog’s bedding for irritants like fleas or burrs. Consider that he might be allergic to the bedding material or the detergent used to wash it.
> Provide a safe toy for your dog at bedtime to comfort and distract.
> Pay attention to where your dog licks. If he focuses on a specific area, check the spot. If possible, watch for licking throughout the day.
> Practice patience. Ignore your dog’s licking or leave the room for a few minutes.
> Go for a walk or engage in play immediately before bedtime. Do so an hour or two before bed to tire out your dog without ramping up his energy right before retiring.
> Feed your dog right before bed. Stomach upset can cause licking.
> Let your dog out just before heading to sleep (going outside opens the door to irritants like ticks, allergens, scrapes, and pebbles between toes). Do so an hour or two before bed.
Thumbnail: Photography ©DaxPixel | Getty Images
St. Louis-based freelance writer Martha M. Everett has lived on both coasts covering everything from Washington to Westminster. She has written for Nestlé Purina PetCare publications and is a former managing editor of Dog Fancy magazine.
Editor’s note: This article appeared in Dogster magazine. Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? Subscribe now to get Dogster magazine delivered straight to you!