Excessive licking and bad breath are two extremely common issues that I have seen in veterinary practice, and in some cases, they can even be related. Understanding the connection and underlying issues is crucial to ensuring your furry family member’s overall health and well-being; here’s a vet’s perspective on what you should know.
Overview of bad breath in dogs
There are many possible causes of halitosis (bad breath) in dogs. Consuming certain foods, like garbage or decomposed matter, are frequent culprits. Unfortunately, some dogs also have the unpleasant habit of eating feces, whether their own or from other animals, which can significantly contribute to foul breath. Certain medical conditions, such as kidney disease or oral cancer, can also lead to smelly ulcers, infections, or masses in the mouth. However, the most common cause of bad breath in dogs is periodontal disease associated with tartar buildup.
Related post: bad breath in senior dogs.
Overview of excessive licking in dogs
Dogs are naturally inclined to use their tongues to explore their environment, groom themselves, and display affection. But when a dog starts to lick more than usual, they could be trying to convey something more. Allergies or skin irritation is the most common cause of increased licking. In other cases, excessive licking could also be a symptom of boredom, anxiety, physical discomfort, or gastrointestinal upset.
Is excessive licking with bad breath a reason to be worried?
While unlikely to be medical emergencies, both excessive licking and bad breath are medical concerns and reasons to see your vet. It could be that your dog is suffering from multiple issues, such as allergies and periodontal disease. However, in some cases, there may be a connection between the two symptoms. For instance:
- If a dog is experiencing discomfort from dental or oral issues, they might lick more frequently.
- If a dog has an issue with their anal glands causing them to lick or bite at the area, this could result in bad breath.
There are many different things that could cause either excessive licking and/or bad breath in dogs. Here are a few possibilities that could cause both symptoms at the same time:
- Oral Health Issues: Dental problems such as periodontal disease, tooth abscesses, or oral tumors can result in bad breath. These conditions can cause discomfort or pain, prompting a dog to lick their lips or mouth more frequently.
- Digestive Disturbances: If a dog has digestive problems, they might lick their lips excessively due to nausea. Conditions such as gastroesophageal reflux can also lead to bad breath because of the upwelling of stomach acids or partially digested food.
- Dietary Choices: Dogs who consume garbage, decomposed matter, or feces (coprophagia) are ingesting items that can lead to foul breath. Additionally, the consumption of these unsavory items may irritate their stomach or oral cavity, leading to more licking.
- Anal Gland Issues: When a dog’s anal glands are full, impacted, or infected, they can have a very distinct fishy odor. Dogs will frequently scoot and lick at their rear end in response to this discomfort, and the odor from the anal glands can contribute to the perception of bad breath.
- Ingested Foreign Objects: Dogs sometimes swallow non-food items, which can get stuck in their teeth or further down in their digestive tract (a medical emergency). This can lead to bad breath and, if causing discomfort, might also result in the dog licking around their mouth.
- Skin Infections Around the Mouth: If a dog has skin infections or yeast overgrowth in skin folds around the mouth, it can produce a foul smell and cause irritation, leading the dog to lick the area more frequently.
Top symptoms to keep an eye on
Here are some symptoms that pet parents should keep an eye out for if concerned about excessive licking or bad breath in their dog:
- Persistent Bad Breath: While occasional bad breath after certain foods can be normal, constant foul-smelling breath can be a sign of underlying issues, as discussed above.
- Licking Specific Body Parts: If your dog is persistently licking a particular area, such as the paws, rear end, or any other body part, it could indicate localized pain, irritation, allergy, or infection.
- Red, Swollen, or Bleeding Gums: These are signs of periodontal disease or other oral health problems.
- Difficulty Eating or Chewing: If a dog is hesitant to eat, drops food, or chews on one side, there might be oral discomfort or dental issues.
- Discoloration or Tartar Buildup on Teeth: Yellowing of the teeth or noticeable tartar accumulation can lead to dental disease and bad breath.
- Loss of Appetite: Oral pain or digestive issues linked with excessive licking might reduce a dog’s willingness to eat.
- Visible Oral Growths or Oral Sores: Any growth, lump, or lesion in the mouth could contribute to bad breath and discomfort.
- Frequent Pawing at the Mouth: This can be a sign of oral discomfort or something lodged in the mouth.
- Nausea Signs: Lip licking, swallowing or drooling more than usual can be subtle signs of nausea. Gastrointestinal upset can also lead to vomiting and diarrhea.
8 steps to take to help a dog with excessive licking and bad breath
If your dog is displaying symptoms of excessive licking and bad breath, here’s a step-by-step guide to help address these issues:
1. Brush your dog’s teeth daily. Use products recommended by the Veterinary Oral Health Council, are the best ways to help prevent periodontal disease and associated bad breath. However, this is no substitute for a dental cleaning and exam under anesthesia if your dog’s teeth already have a lot of tartar build up. Read our article about the best ways to reduce or remove tartar.
3. Prevent access to unwanted foods. Ensure trash cans are secure, clean up after your dog immediately during walks to discourage coprophagia (feces-eating behavior), and train and reinforce “leave it” commands to prevent the consumption of undesirable items.
4. Check for parasites such as fleas, mites, or ticks. Parasites might cause skin irritation. Consider a hydrolyzed protein or limited ingredient diet, medications, and lifestyle changes for food and environmental allergies. Learn about flea scabs, tick scabs or mites.
5. If your dog is licking a specific area, check for injuries, rashes, or infections. For persistent rear-end licking, the anal glands may need to be checked and expressed by a professional. Learn about the best ways to find out if your dog’s anal glands are full.
6. Consider behavioral interventions: If you suspect anxiety, boredom, or stress as the cause, consider introducing stimulating toys, puzzle feeders, or additional playtime. Training or working with a canine behaviorist can help address compulsive behaviors.
7. Give your dog fresh water. Always ensure your dog has access to clean, fresh water to help wash away food particles.
8. Consult your vet for persistent issues: If the symptoms persist or worsen, seek further consultation with your vet, as there may be underlying issues like gastrointestinal disorders, dental disease, or other health conditions at play. If you notice any other signs of illness, or anything unusual with your dog, it is best to consult your veterinarian.
Veterinarian visit or wait-and-see
Deciding between a veterinarian visit and adopting a wait-and-see approach depends on the symptoms, their severity, and duration. Severe or systemic signs of illness, such as sudden changes in behavior, refusal to eat or drink, vomiting or diarrhea, weight loss, and lethargy, require an urgent appointment. Additionally, conditions such as allergies, anal gland issues, and periodontal disease are not generally emergent; however, will worsen with time until appropriate veterinary treatment is received. If ever in doubt, it’s always better to be safe and have your pet examined by a professional.
Your visit at the vet: diagnosis & example treatments
Upon noticing persistent bad breath and excessive licking in a dog, a visit to the veterinarian typically involves several diagnostic tests. The vet might begin with a comprehensive oral examination to inspect for signs of dental disease, such as gingivitis, tartar buildup, infection, or oral masses. Blood tests could be recommended to rule out systemic issues such as kidney disease. Additionally, a fecal exam will help ensure there aren’t gastrointestinal parasites, especially if the dog has a history of eating feces. Tests to check for external parasites, skin infections, and allergies may also be recommended.
Once a diagnosis is made, treatments will vary based on the underlying cause. For dental diseases, a professional dental cleaning under anesthesia with possible tooth extractions will be needed. Allergies are often treated with diet, medication, and lifestyle changes. Minor cases of GI upset will often respond well to medications and diet. In most cases, addressing the root cause will alleviate the symptoms of bad breath and excessive licking.
Disclaimer: This content is not a substitute for veterinary care. Always consult with your vet for health decisions. Learn more.