We love our dogs, but let’s face it: they can be weird sometimes! Every pet parent out there has probably thought this at one point or another.
One such quirky behavior is licking the air, and while it might look funny and harmless, oftentimes it’s indicative of a medical problem that needs attention, says Dr. Leslie Sinn, a board certified veterinary behaviorist who works in private practice outside of Washington, D.C.
So, what is air licking and why do dogs lick the air? “Air licking is what’s called a displacement behavior, which is something that is normal but is being applied in an abnormal context,” Dr. Sinn says. “Of course dogs lick things off the floor, lick when they’re cleaning themselves, lick others for social reasons, but licking air has no purpose to it.”
Keep reading to learn more about this behavior and what you should do if you notice your dog licking the air.
My Dog Is Licking the Air: Is This Normal?
A dog licking the air can be a sign of a few different problems. That means it’s not necessarily unusual, but like other displacement behaviors, it isn’t normal either.
When it comes to an unusual behavior like this, dog parents really should think about it more like a symptom, just like other signs we see in our pets, Dr. Sinn says. If your dog has diarrhea, for instance, you most likely take action right away, but that doesn’t necessarily happen with changes that are more behavioral than physical. If your dog starts doing something new and kind of strange, like licking the air, it’s important to pay close attention and hone in on a cause, Dr. Sinn explains.
Why Do Dogs Lick the Air?
There are several reasons why your dog may be licking the air. These may include:
The most common reason for a dog to lick the air is an underlying gastrointestinal issue, according to Dr. Christine Calder, a veterinarian and diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists based in Portland, Maine.
“This behavior should be concerning to owners, and they should consult with their veterinarian if they see this behavior,” Dr. Calder says.
According to Dr. Sinn, the behavior is a reaction to a sensation that most closely resembles what humans deal with when they have intense acid reflux. “It almost feels like there’s something stuck in your throat. You swallow and swallow and swallow, but it doesn’t make the discomfort go away,” she says.
To that end, licking the air is often accompanied by dogs trying to swallow the air. Other times, dogs will only try to swallow or gulp air and won’t lick it at all, Dr. Sinn says.
Additionally, she says, these behaviors may or may not be accompanied by other signs of gastrointestinal distress, including:
- Decreased appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Intermittent periods of loose stools, constipation, or both.
According to Dr. Calder, these are just some of the specific diagnoses your dog might receive from a veterinarian if this behavior and these symptoms are present:
- Food intolerances
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Intestinal parasites
- Gastric ulcers
- Exocrine pancreatic disease
- Addison’s disease
Licking itself is not inherently more or less common in any particular breeds of dogs, Dr. Sinn adds. However, because it’s so frequently tied to gastrointestinal problems, dog breeds that experience those issues more frequently (including Bulldogs, Boston Terriers, Boxers, and Dachshunds, among others) may also lick the air more frequently than other breeds.
Gastrointestinal issues are not the only reason dogs may lick the air, however.
“In some contexts, it could be anxiety-driven,” Dr. Sinn says. “It’s something they do because they don’t know what else to do.”
There’s also a very serious and very rare condition called syringomyelia, which is most common in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and occurs due to abnormal development of the brain and spinal cord, Dr. Sinn says. “Some of those dogs can do the air licking and gulping, but they usually have other neurologic signs that indicate things aren’t quite right.”
In other cases, it could be unrelated to any serious problems. One example Dr. Sinn offers is if your dog has an itch that they can’t quite reach. “If you scratch it for them in exactly the right spot, they may lick the air reflexively — simply as a way of showing that they’re happy with what you’re doing.”
That particular case is very specific, she adds, so you and your veterinarian would need to rule out other, more serious and more common causes before associating the behavior with that situation.
Other behaviors that may accompany air licking
Some pet parents might notice their dogs licking the air around bedtime. Dr. Sinn says there’s not a specific reason why dogs do this, but some have routines they like to follow as they downshift for the night, which may include licking objects like their bed or your feet. It also may be associated with an expectation for food or a treat, if that’s part of your routine. Generally speaking, Dr. Sinn says that behavior may be attributable to anxiety, but it’s important to follow the steps outlined below to know for sure.
Another common behavior that can accompany licking the air is eating grass. That is very likely a gastrointestinal problem, Dr. Sinn says, especially if it’s a new behavior for your dog.
What to Do If Your Dog Keeps Licking the Air
Seeking out quick treatment from your veterinarian for any underlying gastrointestinal issues should be your first step toward understanding the cause of air licking.
“The first step toward determining what type of GI issue is present is to put the dog on a limited-ingredient diet and to try to decrease the amount of acid present by introducing some kind of chemical barrier that will protect the stomach and intestine lining,” Dr. Sinn says.
If that treatment is making the behavior (as well as any other symptoms) improve or go away, that means it’s working. At that point, the next recommended step is a complete gastrointestinal workup, which will likely include biopsies with an endoscope, Dr. Sinn says. These will help determine if there’s an allergy issue at play or some other cause for inflammation.
It’s possible you may still notice your dog licking the air after treatment has resolved the underlying problem. With most behaviors, Dr. Sinn says the longer they go on, the harder they are to impact permanently. That’s the case with air licking, as well, and is just another reason why timely treatment is important.
Additionally, if no GI issues are found and anxiety appears to be contributing to your dog licking the air, be sure to speak with your veterinarian to see how to manage the issue, whether with medication, enrichment, or other remedies.