Why do dogs lick the air? There may be worrying reasons behind it

Szénási Szimonetta

2024. March 17 - Photos: Getty Images Hungary

It is a common sight to see a dog lift their nose to the sky and then start licking nothing. There are several explanations for this behaviour.


In different situations in life, you may experience this phenomenon, which some find funny, some find surprising, and others find downright worrying. Some dogs will start it after eating a treat, while others will lick the air while scratching their bellies. In addition, sometimes your pet reacts to something with this while you’re walking. And this is no accident but the cause differs between situations.

This answers the unspoken question of whether this phenomenon is normal or not. According to the experts from PetMD a veterinary site, it is much better to ask when is it a cause for concern if your dog is licking the air. So, let’s look at the possible causes in more detail!

1.) To smell things better

Your pet’s sense of smell is about a hundred thousand times better than yours. Wow, right?! That’s because there are 125-250 million olfactory receptors in their nose, compared to your 5-6 million.

This heightened sense of smell is due to a special organ, the vomeronasal organ (or Jacobson’s organ), which is located in the nasal cavity of the dog and opens into the palate, specifically behind the front teeth.

When dogs open their upper lips and flare their nostrils, they are opening their vomeronasal organs to smell their surroundings even more. By licking the air, dogs can further increase the number of odorants reaching this sensitive organ, sending more odor-carrying signals to the brain. So, this is not at all worrying.

2.) Stress or anxiety

In the canine world, when a more dominant or aggressive dog approaches, there are a number of behaviours that signal submission or reassurance. Licking is one of them.

If you notice that your dog licks his lips when you speak sternly or stare at him, he’s letting you know that he understands you’re in charge. If your puppy regularly licks the air when you approach him, avoid eye contact and speak to him in a low, high-pitched voice. This may reduce the tension enough so that they will stop licking.

There’s some food for thought here because it’s not good to have a four-legged companion who gets tense around you. Try to organise as many activities together as possible, and think about whether you are communicating with them properly in every situation. If changes do not work, it is recommended that you consult with your vet or a trainer on how to improve the relationship between you.

Do this even if your dog is anxious or anxious about something else. Prolonged stress is not good for their physical health either!

3.) Dental problems

A loose or painful tooth can change the pattern of your dog’s bite. This can make it look like he is licking the air, when he is only trying to ease his pain. In addition to licking, increased drooling, loss of appetite or refusal of food and unpleasant breath are also warning signs.

There is no question that in this case, you need a doctor who can help you!

4.) They have something in their mouth

Just as you use your tongue to pick out food stuck between your teeth; dogs do the same. Think of this if your pet is chewing on a bone or stick and suddenly starts licking at the air. It is very important to stress that you should only let him chew on safe objects! A broken piece can lead to blockage of the airways and, if swallowed, to perforation or intestinal torsion. All life-threatening conditions!

Only let your dog chew on safe bones and toys!

5) Gastrointestinal problems

Dogs may also lick air to relieve nausea, but it can also be an accompanying symptom of digestive complaints. If vomiting, diarrhoea or loss of appetite are also present with the behaviour, you should see your doctor. Pancreatitis or irritable bowel syndrome may also be the cause, as well as many other digestive diseases.

6.) Skin complaints

Dogs with skin problems or infected with external parasites such as fleas usually lick or bite their skin to relieve itching. However, if the dog has previously been scolded for licking, or if they can’t quite reach the itchy parts because of obesity or arthritis, they may lick the air in an attempt to “mentally” scratch their itch.

In pets with sensitive skin, food allergies are often found to be the cause. It is therefore worth asking your doctor for help in treating the symptoms. They can also help you put together the right diet if necessary.

Licking is sometimes used as a substitute for scratching.

7.) Obsession

If your dog’s air licking started because of anxiety, but now seems to be happening more often or in new situations, then it may have developed into a compulsive behaviour which they can no longer stop on their own. We must stress that you consult with your vet!

8.) Cognitive dysfunction

It is estimated that 14% of dogs aged 8 and above (increasing with age) suffer from canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS), which similar to Alzheimer’s disease in humans. One of the many symptoms of CDS is repetitive behaviour, such as licking, chewing or circling. Talk to your vet if you think your four-legged friend might be suffering from this.

The old stray dog had been living on the streets for months.

9.) Seizures

Sometimes licking can be an accompanying sign of an ongoing seizures. Minor twitching may also be seen on the dog’s face or body. It helps a lot to recognise these situations if you make a video of your pet.

10.) They really enjoy something

Finally, let’s conclude with sweeter and also harmless reason: many dogs lick the air because they like something a lot. For example, the way their owner scratches their tummy. This is tantamount to saying “don’t stop”!

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