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Why dogs love to lick their owners’ faces

As universal as the love for our dogs may be, there’s one area where pet parents are divided: licking. Whether you tolerate or hate it, it’s impossible not to notice your pup’s wet tongue when they decide it’s time to give you a bath – though it’s not always clear what exactly they’re up to.

Specifically, why do dogs lick their owners’ faces? This is a common phenomenon that nearly all pet parents will experience at one time or another, and it’s easy to see why it raises some questions. Face licking – or licking in general – can range from completely random and infrequent to constant and obsessive, so it’s important to pay attention to your furry friend’s specific behaviors when asking why.

Here’s what to consider when your dog starts licking your face.

A woman lies down and laughs as a dog licks her face

Why do dogs lick?

In general, licking is an instinctual behavior that they learn as soon as they’re born. Blue Cross For Pets explains that mothers lick their newborns as a way of stimulating blood flow and bodily functions – it can even help them relieve themselves during their first few weeks of life. As they grow, the pups will lick their mother’s mouths to encourage her to feed them, and siblings will lick one another as a form of bonding and grooming.

As adult dogs, licking can have an even wider variety of reasons. It may still be a method of cleaning themselves or someone else, but it can also be a way of learning more about their environment or companions, according to Blue Cross For Pets. They may also be offering affection, a greeting, or even submission to an owner or older dog. Rarely, licking can be a sign of an injury your pup is attending to, so you should keep an eye on any excessive licking.

Why do dogs lick their owners’ faces?

When it comes to licking their owners, are dogs actually giving kisses? Certified applied animal behaviorist Dr. Mary Burch says yes: “Licking can be a sign of affection,” she explains to the American Kennel Club. “It might also give a dog a feeling of security and comfort, just as the dog had when licked by its mother in the litter.”

This can be the case no matter where on your body your pup is licking you – even your face. Veterinarian Dr. Jennifer Coates explains that, because “people make up most of a dog’s pack, licking behavior has been transferred to us […] Dogs often lick people to show affection, as a greeting, or to simply get our attention. Of course, if you happen to have a little food, lotion, or salty sweat on your skin, that may play a role as well.”

However, this behavior goes deeper than affection and attention. Instinctively, your dog may lick your face in hopes that you’ll regurgitate something for them to eat. Dr. Burch notes that your pup may be seeking out salt or something they’ve smelled on you.

If it’s been a while since your last meal, though, you can feel more confident that licks are a sign of affection. If you don’t feel special already, you should!

A brown dog licks a woman's face as she holds the dog and laughs

When to be concerned about excessive licking

For the most part, licking is not a casue for concern – whether they’re licking you, an object, another dog, or themselves. There is a slight risk of bacterial transmission, notes Dr. Coates, though humans and animals have no need to worry if they have a healthy immune system. Open wounds can also be more susceptible to bacteria, so you should keep an eye on any injuries – yours, theirs, or someone else’s – that your furry friend pays attention to.

Dr. Coates explains that excessive licking can be a sign of anxiety, boredom, or even pain. A dog may lick their paws nonstop as a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder, for example, or as a complication of allergies, fleas, or other paw irritation. This doesn’t just apply to their paws, either – any part of their body can be soothed through licking.

If you’re feeling concerned about your furry friend’s licking behaviors, a trip to the vet can tell you everything you need to know. This can be especially helpful if excessive licking irritates your pup’s skin, though you don’t need to wait for the problem to progress before asking for help. If you’re unsure, give the vet a call! That’s what they’re there for after all.

In most cases, though, don’t be alarmed. In fact, it will probably make you smile. There’s nothing quite like the attention of the pup to make your day, even if they’re just searching for the remnants of your lunch.

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