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Why do dogs lick their lips? This is when you should be worried

While some dog behavior is frustrating — barking for no reason, anyone? — there are other habits that are downright adorable. Dogs’ licking lips is up there on the list of the cutest things they do. But just why do dogs lick their lips? A lot of the time, it’s because they smell something tasty. But if there’s no food in sight, you might be a bit perplexed.

Just like tail wagging, lip licking is a form of communication for dogs. If you’ve ever wanted to know what all the lip-licking means, you’ve come to the right place. We’re here to decode one of the most common dog behaviors and figure out why dogs lick their lips — and when lip-licking should concern you as a pet parent.

A Dachshund licking his lips in the bath.

Why dogs lick their lips

Because our pups can’t speak to us using words, they send signals using their body language. It’s up to us as their pet parents to learn to read that language. According to animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell, there are several reasons why dogs lick their lips. Those reasons include:

  • Anticipating a meal
  • Appeasement (also known as submissive or calming signals)
  • Anxiety
  • Health issues like oral discomfort or nausea

Let’s take a closer look at the different reasons why dogs lick their lips, what you should do about it, and when you should seek help from a veterinarian.

Your dog smells something appealing

One of the most common reasons dogs lick their lips is simply because they smell something appetizing. Whether you’re opening a can of your dog’s favorite food, or you’ve just made a tasty treat for yourself, the scent can cause your dog to lick their lips. It also causes their mouth to water. Not only is this an involuntary response to the anticipation of food, but saliva production also helps prepare the teeth to chew and the stomach to digest its upcoming meal. The same biological response happens to us.

A beige dog licking his lips beside a woman working on a laptop.

Your dog is sending you a message

When dogs perceive a person or another animal as a threat, they lick their lips in a show of appeasement. “I won’t hurt you,” the gesture says. Lip licking is commonly seen after you scold your pooch for doing something naughty, like eating a roll of toilet paper or urinating indoors. Because dogs can’t understand what we’re saying, they don’t understand that you’re scolding them because of their behavior. Instead, your body language and raised voice are perceived as a threat, which results in your dog displaying submissive behavior. It’s important to note that submissive behavior can escalate and turn defensive if your dog continues to feel threatened. Give your pup space and time to calm down, and use positive reinforcement instead of punishment when they misbehave.

Your dog feels nervous

If you notice your dog licking their lips when you’re out for a walk, the TV is playing loudly, or you have guests over, chances are good that your pup is feeling anxious. As much as you want to comfort them, this can reinforce their anxiety. Just as scolding your dog when they misbehave is a reward (attention), babying your pooch when they’re feeling nervous sends the message that displaying anxiety will garner attention. Instead, redirect their attention by asking them to sit or shake. When your dog complies, you’ll be able to reward good behavior rather than anxiety.

Your dog has an underlying health condition

Dogs also lick their lips if they’re suffering from nausea or oral discomfort related to a sore tooth or an infection in the mouth. If your pooch has lost interest in food and started licking their lips frequently, it’s time for a trip to the vet. Your dog could be suffering from an infected tooth or ulcerated gums. Similarly, lip licking can be a sign of nausea. You’ll want to take your pup to the vet to rule out gastrointestinal problems if they’ve been vomiting, suffering from diarrhea, or showing signs of constipation. Other things to look out for include lethargy and loss of appetite.

A Beagle sitting outside licking his lips.

What should you do if your dog is licking their lips?

  • When you’re making food: You have nothing to worry about if your pup licks their lips while you’re preparing food. They want a tasty treat, and they hope you’ll drop something on the floor.
  • When your dog is in a social setting: If your dog licks their lips in social settings, it’s best to remove them from the area and give them time to relax. Their lip-licking could mean that they feel anxious, or they may be displaying an appeasement behavior.
  • When you can’t find another cause for the behavior: If your dog licks their lips when there’s no food and no reason for them to be anxious, it’s never a bad idea to see the vet.

Lip licking is generally a normal response in dogs, but it also could mean something is wrong. It’s our job as pet parents to get to the bottom of our dogs’ behaviors. When in doubt, speak to a professional.

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