Compulsive scratching and licking

Scratch, scratch, scratch. Lick, lick, lick. Repeat. Just like when a CD glitches! And when your dog does it over and over again, it can become annoying. This is especially true when it’s not a medical issue but rather a behavioural one. Instead of losing your patience with your dog, get help so that both of you can relax and be happy again.

Vet check

Before you just assume that your dog’s scratching or licking is purely an annoying behaviour, you need to get medical advice first. Kathy Clayton, behaviourist, says that with any behavioural problem, before a behaviourist starts a consultation, he or she will insist that the owner sees a vet for a thorough check-up. All medical problems need to be addressed before a behaviourist will discuss and give behaviour modification advice.

“I know personally, and from seeing other dogs licking and scratching, that this can be pain related. When a dog is experiencing pain, he tries to get rid of it by licking or biting the area, or a nearby area. Some dogs have back or hip pain and they experience a referred pain in their legs or paws, which they then start to lick or bite, thinking this is where the pain is coming from.”

The most common signs of a medical problem are constant scratching and licking at specific areas on the body.

She says once a dog is given a clear medical report from the vet, the behaviourist will start asking questions, like:

  1. When does the dog itch? Is it only when the owner is around? Does he itch all the time, or at specific times?
  2. Is the dog walking or sleeping in specific areas that could be causing an allergy?
  3. How is the bedding being washed – what detergent is used?
  4. Has the vet addressed the dog’s food? Could it be an allergy to food? If it’s not the dog’s actual food, maybe the owner is giving the dog treats that are causing the itching.
  5. Does the dog have fleas? Many owners think that their dog doesn’t have fleas because they can’t see any on the dog. But fleas can jump on the dog, bite him, and then jump off again. It’s best to look for residual black dirt, or flea poo, at the base of the dog’s tail and on the underside of his body.

Stop the itch

Whether it is due to a medical or behavioural issue, it is important to stop the scratching and licking, as it can be harmful for the dog. “Your dog will develop sores as continuous licking leads to lick granuloma, which causes a very ugly, oozing sore. Scratching can cause hair loss, and if the nails catch the skin, it may bleed and also cause a wound.

“When this happens, your vet will put a collar on your dog to stop the licking. Another way to stop the licking or scratching is to put a T-shirt on your dog to protect the area,” advises Kathy.


Kathy says that giving attention to your dog can be a main cause for his behavioural scratching and licking. “When a dog does something and gets a response from his owner and continues to get a response for the same action, he learns that the action results in a response. Even a negative response (like ‘no, stop it’) is a response and means he gets attention.

“Dogs want their owners to look at, speak to, and touch them. So, when the dog gets attention from his owner, he will continue with the action – even if the area is not itchy.”

She says that paw licking is another way to get attention. It may start out as a medical issue, like when your dog hurts a paw, gets something caught in the pads or between the toes and tries to get it out, or when something irritates a paw – all of these can cause him to start licking or chewing his paws. Once you start to give him attention, he likes that attention and will continue to lick or chew his paws.

“Licking is also pleasurable to a dog. The endorphins are stimulated and the pleasing sensation makes your dog lick more. Two pleasing activities that stimulate the mind are sniffing and licking. The more attention that your dog gets for licking, the more he will do it to get the attention and the pleasure,” explains Kathy.


She adds that when your dog is scratching or licking himself, you need to avoid giving him attention. The best is to distract your dog away from what he is doing, to something else that is pleasurable.

“There are wonderful brain games available such a snuffle mats, and for those dogs who lick, a LickiMat. Instead of licking himself, get your dog to lick the mat with something tasty on it, like peanut butter.

Other brain games include those made by Nina Ottoson and these can be purchased in stores or online. There are different levels, and this will keep your dog occupied and away from the licking and scratching. “You can also stimulate your dog’s brain with a snuffle mat or LickiMat, as this will tire him and distract him from the annoying behaviour. There are various ideas on the internet,” concludes Kathy.



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