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What Makes Dogs Lick You?


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It may be one of the most divisive topics in the world of dog lovers: Should you allow your dog to lick you?

While some dog lovers will tell you it’s a form of affection and they don’t want to discourage the behavior, others will tell you that letting your dog lick you is just plain gross.

But what’s the real reason why dogs lick us? Here’s a look at why dogs spend so much time licking their humans and whether you should be concerned.

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Why Do Dogs Lick?

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Simply put, dogs lick because it is a natural behavior and instinct, says Philip Tedeschi, director emeritus and founder of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection at the University of Denver, and member of Rover’s Dog People Panel.

“(Licking) serves multiple purposes including helping dogs use their capacity for taste to gather information, to express communication and affection, sometimes nervousness, [and] to keep parts of their bodies clean,” Tedeschi says. “The behavior itself also releases endorphins allowing dogs to reduce stress.”

Dogs lick us:

  • To communicate
  • To gather information
  • Because they are nervous
  • As a sign of submission
  • Because they are bored
  • To get attention
  • To relieve stress
  • As a social greeting
  • To taste

Licking humans is an extremely common behavior in dogs. In a 2017 online survey of dog owners, researchers in Belgium learned that 85% of dogs licked their owner’s hand and 49% of owners reported being licked in the face.

“Dogs crave the attention of humans unconditionally and their best way of expressing that desire is by licking,” says Dr. Michael Fleck, D.V.M., veterinarian and co-host of the nationally syndicated radio show, The Pet Buzz.

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The main reason dogs lick your hands is taste, says Dr. Preston Turano, D.V.M., veterinarian and spokesperson for AKC Pet Insurance.

“Sometimes they lick your face or hands because they smell food,” Turano says. “This happens especially to small children who have food on their face or hands. This behavior is reinforced because dogs get the taste of food and children usually find it funny.”

Another reason your dog may lick your hands is because your hands produce a fair amount of sweat and collect substances from the environment around them, Fleck says. Some dogs prefer the salty taste, making them more inclined to lick wherever you have sweat glands.

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Similar to your hands, dogs tend to lick faces because of taste.

“Your dog may want to lick your face/mouth area because they have learned there is a food taste or that they can find leftover crumbs,” says Dr. Heather Berst, V.M.D., medical lead at Zoetis, which produces medicine and vaccines for pets and livestock.

Dogs may also lick your face as a way to show affection and because they know you like it based on your reaction.

“Sometimes a kiss is just a kiss and the dog is showing you respect and they know you like them to lick you,” Berst says.

Why Does My Dog Lick My Ears?

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Humans have two types of sweat glands: apocrine and eccrine, according to Fleck.

While eccrine glands can be found all over the body, the apocrine sweat glands develop in areas with many hair follicles, such as the scalp or underarms. As a result, your dog may be a big fan of the smell that your apocrine glands produce, leading to these areas being licked often.

Ears are also a source of sensory overload for dogs, too.

“There is a distinct taste and smell from the waxes of the ear triggering both olfactory and taste bud senses of the dog,” Fleck says.

And though it may seem a bit unusual for a dog to want to lick the inside of your ears, or your head, it’s actually fulfilling for their sensory needs.

“These smells and tastes are forms of enrichment and make life interesting and colorful,” Tedeschi says.

Why Does My Dog Lick My Feet?

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Our feet are one of the richest environments for excessive sweat and environmental substances, Fleck says.

“[Our feet] smells and tastes horrible to us but [is] just the opposite to our canine family member,” he says. “The only way to incorporate that good taste and smell is by licking the feet.”

Other reasons, your dog may be licking your feet:

  • They’re helping to groom you.
  • They think it’s a game because you laugh.
  • They’re picking up information about where you’ve been.

“If you squeal and laugh when your dog licks your feet or face, they may think it is fun or they think you like it so they continue doing it,” Berst says.

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Similar to your feet, your legs also produce a fair amount of sweat and collect environmental elements, all of which are appealing to a dog’s senses.

“Some dogs like the salt from sweat so they will lick areas where you sweat,” Berst says. “If you go on a run, and your dog licks your legs after,they are likely getting salt from the sweat.”

Fleck also points out that your legs (similar to your feet) are also the most easily accessible given their proximity to the ground and closer to your dog—making them a popular target for licking.

Is It Safe for Dogs to Lick You?

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In principle, letting your dog lick you is not particularly hygienic, says Dr. Jean-Pierre Lautier, D.V.M. veterinarian and pharmaceutical manager for pet care company AB7 Group/Alzoo.

“Licking can transmit germs from the oral flora but also fecal germs or eggs of intestinal parasites, as the tongue is also used by the dog for his intimate hygiene,” Lautier says.

However, he adds that if the dog is regularly treated against worms, the risks of contracting diseases transmitted by licking the dog remain low.

Tedeschi notes that there are personal and cultural implications to the question of whether you should allow your dog to lick you.

“Some people really don’t appreciate being licked even if it is safe. Others have been taught or raised to be concerned about this behavior based on cultural or religious considerations,” Tedeschi says.

He notes that a healthy dog is not going to make a healthy person ill. That being said, dogs do come in contact with items that can carry oral microbiome, bacteria and viruses such as giardia, a diarrheal disease.

On the flip side, depending on what you’re putting on your skin, as far as lotion and perfumes are concerned, it may not be safe for your dog to be licking you. Medicated creams and some essential oils are actually quite dangerous for dogs to ingest.

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The most important things to consider about whether you should let your dog lick you are your health and their health, Berst says.

“If you do decide to have your dog lick you, make sure your dog gets regular veterinary care and preventatives to decrease the chance of any zoonotic diseases (diseases that can be transmitted from dogs to people),” she says.

She adds that dogs should be regularly tested for parasites (worms) and on a parasite preventative, as well as vaccinated for diseases such as rabies. Berst also recommends having your dog’s teeth cleaned regularly.

Likewise, she adds that people who are young, elderly, or immunocompromised should be more cautious as they are more susceptible to some of the things that dogs can transmit via their mouth.

While the psychological benefits of having your dog lick you (especially after a rough day) may outweigh the slim chance of you getting sick, it’s best to be safe about where your dog does lick you and avoid the mouth and face, as well as open wounds.

“It’s incredibly rare to get sick from a dog licking you as their saliva doesn’t absorb through your skin from licking alone,” says Dr. Jennifer Bruns, D.V.M. and vice president of business development and quality at PetSmart Veterinary Services. “However, to be safe, wash the areas your dog was licking afterwards with soap and water.”

How to Get Your Dog to Stop Licking You

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If your dog is a big licker, it may be a good idea to take them to the vet to rule out any underlying health problems, including anxiety disorders.

And if you’re really not a fan of the licking, there are things you can do to stop or prevent the behavior, including the following:

  • Offer alternatives: Provide your dog treats, toys, and lick pads as an alternative for licking you.
  • Consistent guidance: Being clear about your limit and establishing boundaries will help your dog understand acceptable behavior.
  • Wash your hands: Make sure you’re washing your hands, and especially those of small children who tend to have remnants of tasty treats on their fingers.
  • Redirect them: When your dog starts licking you, gently redirect them using a treat or their favorite toy.
  • Cuddle instead: Make sure you’re giving them a nice cuddle and petting session as an alternative to licking in order to satisfy their need for affection.
  • Use positive reinforcement: Once they’ve stopped licking you, ask them to sit or shake, and when they perform the command, give them a treat.
  • Walk away: When your dog starts licking you, don’t reinforce the behavior by giving the dog attention. Either turn away or get up and walk away from the dog.

Bottom Line

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There are a variety of reasons why dogs lick you, ranging from nervousness to enrichment. Though this behavior may be cute, it’s important to remember that in rare cases, your dog can transmit bacteria or parasites to you via licking. There are a variety of ways to redirect a dog’s licks, including offering alternatives or cuddling instead.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling and title of Dr. Jean-Pierre Lautier, D.V.M. veterinarian and pharmaceutical manager for pet care company AB7 Group/Alzoo. We apologize for this error.

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