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Why do dogs lick you?

Brown and white dog licking a hand advice
© Shutterstock

What does it mean when a dog licks you? It can mean different things. They might be happy to see you. They might like your taste! Or they might want to know how you’re feeling!

By Ashley Murphy

Why do dogs lick?

Licking is part of "doggy" culture. It keeps them clean and healthy - dogs’ saliva contains agents that can kill germs and heal wounds. Mothers will lick their puppies’ genitals to stimulate urination and defecation. They will also lick their puppies simply to clean them, thus eliminating any lingering scent that could attract predators.

Licking is also a way of saying “I'm hungry”. Older puppies lick their mothers’ lips in the hope that they'll get some food. Indeed, this behaviour induces canids to regurgitate food for their puppies.

Licking has important social functions, especially in wild dog packs. Originating from puppyhood behaviour, licking is a form of respect. It's a way for a lower status pack member to acknowledge a higher status pack member’s position. Dogs also use licking to say ‘sorry’. If a dog has upset the pack leader, they will often start licking the dominant dog's nose or lips.

What does it mean when a dog licks you?

For a dog, licking is a form of communication. It can often be a sign of affection. For instance, it can mean: “I like you. Let’s be friends!” It also cements the bond between you and your dog. When a dog licks someone they like, their brain releases feel-good chemicals called endorphins. That person then becomes associated with a positive emotion, and vice versa.

They might also be trying to tell you something. Dogs have a few different ways of “talking” to their humans. They can use body language, or bark, or whine, or even give us a little lick.

Sometimes they just like the way we taste! If we have just handled food, we may still have the smell of it on our skin. Some dogs just love our salty flavour!

Why do dogs lick you?

If a dog starts licking you, they might be trying to find out how you feel. Human sweat contains certain hormones that can reveal our emotional state. If we're scared or nervous, our sweat will contain pheromones that are not present when we are calm. A dog can’t quite taste them, but they can sense them with something called the vomeronasal organ. Also known as Jacobson's organ, it’s located on the upper part of the mouth and contains a duct which is connected to the nose. In fact, it is sometimes referred to as “a second nose”. The Jacobson’s organ is especially designed to "read" smells depending on what pheromones they contain. Pheromones bring all kinds of information to a dog’s brain. When a dog sniffs a scent, the Jacobson’s organ tells them a lot about the dog who left it, including their gender and age.

Why does my dog keep licking me? And is it unhygienic?

You should always wash your hands after a dog has licked them, and many experts recommend against letting a dog lick your face.

Firstly, you don't know where their mouth has been. Dogs have a very "unique" way of cleaning their delicate parts. Do you really want that tongue on your face? Or even on your lips?

Most of the bacteria in your dog's mouth is pretty harmless. However, they can pick up nasty strains from sniffing animal waste or drinking contaminated water. They could catch salmonella, pasteurella, and leptospira. These can all be passed onto humans, and all of them can be very unpleasant.

Parasites are another risk. If your dog licks your face, they could transmit things like ringworm. Zoonotic diseases are usually treatable, but it's best to avoid them completely.

Excessive licking

If your dog is licking everything in sight, including you, then there might be a problem. The first thing you should do is take them to a vet, as excessive licking can be a sign of gastrointestinal issues, such as gastritis.

They may also be suffering from stress or anxiety. If that's the case, you'll notice other symptoms include pacing, shedding, and disruptive behaviour. Stress can manifest itself in many strange ways, so keep an eye out for any unusual changes in your dog's behaviour. Speak to a vet for more advice, and be aware you may need to consult a professional animal behaviourist to help you with this problem.

In the majority of cases, licking is completely harmless. In fact, it's normally a good sign! It means that your dog likes you, and it's a really effective way of building up the natural bond between humans and their canine friends. However, as much as we love them, our dogs can still be a bit gross sometimes. Dogs lick each other’s poop. They lick their own bums. They sometimes lick other dogs’ bums. And then... they could lick you! So always wash your hands, and remember, its best to avoid any doggy kisses on the lips!

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