If you think you’re uncomfortable, imagine how your dog feels.
Compulsive scratching, licking, and chewing behaviors are quite common in dogs and have a variety of causes. They can also be harmful. One of the first signs your dog has a problem might be the development of a “hot spot” -- a red, wet, irritated area that arises from persistent chewing, licking, scratching or rubbing. Although hot spots, or "acute moist dermatitis," can occur anywhere on your dog’s body, they are most often found on the head, chest, or hips. Because dogs often incessantly scratch, lick, or bite at an area once it becomes irritated, hot spots can become large and incredibly sore rather quickly.
Reasons Why Dogs Compulsively Scratch, Lick, or Chew
Dogs scratch, lick, or chew for a wide variety of reasons, ranging from allergies to boredom to parasite infestation:
- Allergies. When dog scratching gets out of hand, it is often the result of allergies to food or environmental triggers, including mold and pollen. Dogs may also develop a skin irritation called contact dermatitis when they encounter substances like pesticides or soap.
- Boredom or anxiety . Just as people with anxiety might bite their nails or twirl their hair, dogs can have physical responses to psychological upset, too. In fact, some dogs develop a condition akin to human obsessive-compulsive disorder. It can manifest itself in scratching, licking, or chewing behaviors that can cause severe damage.
- Dry skin. A variety of factors, including winter weather and fatty acid deficiencies, can cause dry skin in dogs. Your pet may respond to the discomfort by scratching or licking at her skin or fur.
- Hormonal imbalances. If your dog’s body is not producing enough thyroid hormone or putting out too much of the hormone cortisol, superficial skin infections can occur. You may notice bald spots, and your dog may scratch or lick as if bothered by allergies.
- Pain. When trying to determine why your dog is licking or chewing excessively, be sure to consider the possibility that something is making him physically uncomfortable. For instance, if you notice your dog biting his paw repeatedly, he could have a thorn or sharp stone stuck in his foot pad. Compulsive chewing or licking can also be a response to orthopedic problems, including arthritis and hip dysplasia.
- Parasites. Among the most common causes for compulsive dog licking, chewing, or scratching behaviors are fleas, ticks, and mites. Although ticks are often visible to the naked eye, fleas often go unseen until there is a large infestation, and mites are microscopic. So don’t assume that your dog isn’t suffering from parasites just because you can’t see them.
Treatment for Your Dog’s Compulsive Scratching, Licking, and Chewing
Because there are so many reasons why dogs chew or scratch, be sure to check with your veterinarian as soon as you notice a problem. The veterinarian will help figure out the cause of the behavior and determine the best treatment plan. Depending on the cause of your dog’s compulsive behavior, this might include:
- Eliminating parasites. There are a variety of flea and tick products that your veterinarian can recommend. Additionally, if your dog’s biting or chewing problems are caused by fleas, be sure to wash your dog’s bed and vacuum your carpeting and upholstered furniture on a regular basis to reduce the likelihood of reinfestation. You also need to treat any other animals in the household.
- Changing foods. If food allergies are making your dog itch, eliminating potential trigger foods (such as beef or wheat) can make a huge difference. Your vet may recommend a special diet if this appears to be the case. The addition of fatty acid supplements to your pet’s regular food can also help address dry skin issues and keep your dog’s coat healthy.
- Using medication. Your veterinarian may prescribe medications to treat underlying problems contributing to your dog’s persistent scratching. Additionally, your vet may recommend the use of topical or systemic antibiotics, steroids, or anti-itch products to treat existing hot spots or skin infections.
- Preventing the behavior. Because compulsive behaviors can cause serious damage and affect your dog’s quality of life, it’s important to do your best to stop your dog from chewing, licking, or scratching too much. Some ideas include using bitter sprays to discourage licking, having your dog wear a special collar to prevent access to hot spots, or keeping your dog close by your side when you’re home.
- Addressing anxiety or boredom. In some cases, compulsive biting, chewing, or licking develops in response to fear, stress, or inadequate stimulation. To reduce this likelihood, be sure your dog receives enough exercise, attention, and love. It can also be helpful to train your dog to chew on toys or bones to relieve stress as a replacement for inappropriate chewing or licking behaviors.