We know that dogs like to lick—a peanut butter treat, their own paws, us, and sometimes, soft things in the house like the carpet or the sofa. They use their tongues to self-groom, to show their humans affection, because they like the taste of our salty skin, or to savor something delicious. But if you notice that your dog is frequently and persistently licking the furniture, there may be more worrisome reasons. Does your dog lick the sofa, your favorite chair, the bed pillows, and other surfaces? It’s probably not because the sofa is slathered with peanut butter. Licking the furniture can signal a dog’s anxiety or stress or even a medical condition.
A dog may lick furniture because he’s bored. Lacking any other stimulation to engage his mind and body, he might just be trying to pass the time. If the behavior isn’t constant and if he’s easily distracted from it, try to make sure he has toys, games, and treats to occupy himself with when you’re not available.
Anxiety and stress can also result in obsessive licking and can be brought on by a change in the dog’s environment or routine. For example, is there someone new in the house, or a big uptick in activity? Dogs are creatures of habit and changes in their routine can make your dog anxious. Repetitive licking releases endorphins and is a way for dogs to self-soothe. In many cases, licking the sofa is an occasional response to occasional stress, loneliness, or boredom. However, it can become a habit if not checked.
Try adding more exercise, stimulation, and socialization to your dog’s life. Play more often; bring in new toys and challenging puzzles; arrange play dates; or take up a new activity like a dog sport. Exercise and activity are known stress relievers and, by the way, that works with humans, too. It’s the simplest remedy and there’s really no downside, even if it doesn’t solve the problem.
Furniture Licking and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
In some dogs, excessive furniture licking is genuinely obsessive-compulsive behavior. If your dog can’t be distracted from licking, licks with intensity or aggression, or seems almost spaced out, that is obsessive and/or compulsive behavior. In humans, it’s the difference between biting your nails when you’re anxious or not being able to leave the house without checking seven times that the door is locked.
No particular breed is more or less susceptible to canine OCD, but some dogs may be more prone to compulsive behaviors than others. One sees this in dogs that experienced severely restricted, sterile environments, like being chained in a yard or caged without exercise or socialization. These dogs may exhibit a stereotypy, defined as a singular, specific, nonfunctional behavior that they repeat constantly, in this case licking furniture. Even moving to a caring, stimulus-rich environment may not change the behavior, because stereotypies can become ingrained behavior that’s difficult to break.
But dogs brought up in a consistent, loving, and healthy environment can also have obsessive-compulsive disorder. Distraction and stimulation may not work in this case. Talk to your veterinarian about possible treatments, like anti-anxiety medication and behavior modification therapy. Over time, you’ll also learn to distinguish triggers and anticipate the behavior.
Excessive furniture licking can also have physical causes. Dogs have sensitive digestive systems and it may indicate that your dog is nauseated or has an upset stomach. Older dogs may have canine cognitive dysfunction (dementia) and that can bring on compulsive licking.
So, Before Your Dog Licks the Sofa Threadbare, What Can You Do?
If you can figure out what’s causing the behavior you have a good chance of stopping it.
- Assume the simplest explanation, boredom, and offer him alternative stimulation, like a toy or game.
- Watch for stressors in his environment, like visitors, a new baby, loud noises outside, or the doorbell ringing. Once you’re aware of what triggers the behavior, you may be able to either eliminate the cause or distract your dog with more appropriate stimulation.
- Consider medical issues, like gastrointestinal problems or dementia.
- Consult your veterinarian. Once she rules out specific medical causes, she may offer treatment for anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorder.
If your dog occasionally licks the sofa and can be distracted from it, that’s not necessarily abnormal behavior. After all, dogs will lick all sorts of things as a way to explore and experience their environment. It’s also a not uncommon way to handle anxiety. But when licking causes sodden sofa cushions or damp chair arms, and is persistent to the point of obsessive, it time’s to take steps. You’ll save your furniture from ruin and your pet from mental or physical discomfort.