Dogs love to experience the world through their sense of taste. Your dog probably licks their food bowl, their fur, their toys, and of course, your hands and face. But have you ever seen your dog lick the air? Is there something stuck in their mouth or are they tasting the air? In fact, dogs lick the air for all kinds of reasons. Alhough some of them are adorable, others might offer cause for concern.
Why Does My Dog Lick the Air When Happy or Excited?
Air licking can indicate your dog’s good mood. According to Dr. Mary Burch, certified applied animal behaviorist and director of the AKC Family Dog program, some dogs lick the air when they are happy or excited. That might occur, she says, “when a tasty treat is on the way, or you have signaled a favorite activity is coming.”
This is particularly obvious at your dog’s mealtime or when you’re cooking something tasty. Your dog is anticipating eating something delicious, and their air licking shows their delight. Dr. Burch explains it may also have a more practical purpose. “Sticky food such as peanut butter, or if the dog gets a piece of candy, may cause the dog to air lick. This sometimes has the function of moving the food so it can be swallowed.”
Why Does My Dog Lick the Air When Scratching or Being Pet?
Some dogs lick the air when they are enjoying an especially good scratch or petting session. In essence, they are telling you how much they appreciate your efforts. Dr. Burch explains, “My Border Collie, Laddie, would back up to a person to get his back scratched and when it appeared that we scratched his favorite spot, he would lick the air. In this case, air licking was related to the pleasure or happiness that comes from feel-good scratches.”
Why Does My Dog Lick the Air When Smelling?
Smell is a dog’s dominant sense, and air licking plays a role here, too. “Air licking can be related to the dog maximizing his sense of smell,” says Dr. Burch, “such as when on a car ride, the dog sticks his head out the window to take in smells.”
But why does air licking help your dog better detect smells? It’s because of the Jacobson’s organ, also known as the vomeronasal organ, located in the roof of a dog’s mouth. Bringing air into the mouth and towards the opening of the organ helps dogs take in more odor, including pheromones, which are special odor molecules found in biological scents like pee or poop.
If you see your dog curling their upper lip and wrinkling their nose while air licking, you’ll know they are directing scent to the Jacobson’s organ. They might chatter their teeth as well. This is all part of what’s called the Flehmen response, and it’s a perfectly normal part of your dog’s behavior.
Why Does My Dog Lick the Air When Thirsty or Overheated?
A thirsty dog may lick the air to stimulate saliva production and combat a dry mouth. You can also see this behavior when your dog is hot or overheated. As dogs only sweat from their paw pads, they need to pant to lower their body temperature. So, air licking may contribute to cooling down by helping moisture evaporate off the tongue.
Should I Worry If My Dog Licks the Air?
So far, the reasons for air licking are positive or natural behaviors. But is licking the air always so benign? No. Sometimes air licking alerts you to something worrying, from fear to cognitive issues. The following are reasons for air licking that are cause for concern:
- Anxiety. According to Dr. Burch, “While on one end of the continuum, air licking can be a sign of happiness, on the other, it may be a sign of anxiety. I recently watched a nervous Schnauzer lick the air while in a veterinarian’s waiting room.”
- Upset stomach. If a dog has a digestive problem like nausea or acid reflux, air licking may be a way to ease their discomfort. Many dogs lick the air, their lips, or other surfaces right before vomiting.
- A foreign body in the mouth. Dr. Burch says, “I once had a Spaniel who suddenly started air licking. I checked his mouth and discovered he had developed a small tumor on his lower gum. The benign tumor was removed by my dog’s veterinarian, he came home the same day, and it was an instant cure for air licking. Another time, I was working with someone’s Wheaten Terrier in a training class. The dog came to class and was air licking. I checked her mouth, and she had a stick that was wedged on the roof of her mouth—it went from one side to the other. I removed the stick and the air licking stopped. Some dogs will also air lick if they have a dental problem.”
- Cognitive issues. Air licking can be a type of compulsive disorder like pacing or tail chasing. This is when normal behaviors are repeated so often that they interfere with the dog’s ability to function. Licking the air can also develop as a dog gets older as a sign of cognitive impairment as in cognitive dysfunction syndrome, the dog version of Alzheimer’s disease.
What to Do When Your Dog Licks the Air
How do you know when to be concerned about air licking? Dr. Burch advises, “Whenever a dog is licking the air, the main thing to consider is if the behavior is frequent or ongoing. If air licking is more than a single short episode, depending on the cause, a trip to the veterinarian is warranted.”
Whether it’s anxiety or gastrointestinal upset, your veterinarian can help you narrow down the cause of the air licking and decide on appropriate treatment. That might be something as simple as switching your dog’s food. Or it might be as involved as working with a trainer or animal behaviorist to modify your dog’s behavior. Consider taking video of the air licking to show your veterinarian exactly what’s going on, so your dog can get relief as soon as possible.