When a dog cleans itself by licking its fur, this behavior is called grooming. Grooming is a natural instinct and part of normal dog behavior. It serves several purposes for dogs including cleaning their coat, regulating body temperature, and even relieving stress.
Why Do Dogs Groom Themselves?
There are a few main reasons dogs groom themselves:
- Removing dirt and debris – Dog saliva contains enzymes that help loosen trapped debris and dirt in their fur. Grooming helps keep their coat free of mud, leaves, twigs, food, feces, and anything else that may get caught in their fur.
- Distributing natural oils – Sebaceous glands under a dog’s skin secrete oil that helps condition the dog’s hair and skin. Licking spreads these oils down the hair shaft to condition the entire coat.
- Relieving itchy skin – Grooming can stimulate blood flow to the skin and provide relief from dry, itchy skin or irritation from pests like fleas or mites.
- Removing loose hair – Loose hair and fur is caught in the mouth during grooming and swallowed. This helps remove dead hair to make way for new hair growth.
- Cooling down – Dogs do not sweat like humans. Grooming helps them regulate body temperature by spreading saliva over their coat which evaporates to cool them.
- Social bonding – Group grooming is a social activity in packs of dogs. It helps strengthen social bonds and relationships.
- Relieving stress or anxiety – The rhythmic nature of licking provides comfort and helps relieve anxiety, similar to cat purring.
How Often Do Dogs Groom Themselves?
Most dogs will groom themselves every day and it is not uncommon to see bursts of licking, nibbling, face rubbing, and scratching throughout the day. Some dogs are more fastidious groomers than others. Length and type of coat also plays a role in grooming frequency:
- Short-haired dogs – Require less frequent grooming than long-haired dogs. Their shorter coats become saturated with oils faster. They may groom a few times a week.
- Long-haired dogs – Prone to matting and need to groom more frequently, sometimes daily. Long hair captures more debris and loose hair.
- Wire-haired dogs – Their water-resistant, dense coats require grooming to remove dirt and distribute oils properly.
- Dogs with skin allergies or irritation – Tend to groom excessively due to itchiness or discomfort.
- Puppies – Spend much more time grooming than adult dogs as they are learning proper grooming habits.
- Unspayed females – Increased grooming before and during estrus cycles due to hormonal changes.
In general, most dogs will groom daily even if just a quick lick, but 10-20 minutes of concentrated grooming sessions 1-3 times per week is typical for the average adult dog.
Common Grooming Behaviors
Some common grooming behaviors dogs display include:
- Licking legs, paws, genitals – Saliva distributed throughout the coat.
- Nibbling fur – Gently takes fur in mouth and pulls to remove loose hairs.
- Biting at skin – Pinpoints specific spots to direct grooming too.
- Rubbing face on surfaces – Deposits scent and scratches facial areas dogs cannot reach.
- Scratching body – Dislodges debris and stimulates skin.
- Rolling in grass or on back – Crushes debris into fur and distributes oils over the body.
- Chewing paws – Clean between toes and pad areas.
- Shaking head – Flings out excess moisture and debris after grooming.
Proper Grooming Techniques
While grooming comes naturally, dogs sometimes need to be taught proper grooming manners including:
- Asking permission before grooming people – This prevents jumping up to lick faces.
- No excessive licking – This can lead to hair loss or skin irritation.
- Grooming designated areas – Teaching them acceptable grooming locations in the home.
- Proper nail care – needs frequent trimming to avoid splitting and overgrowth.
- Brushing – Helps remove loose hair dogs cannot ingest when grooming.
- Bathing – Washing coats instead of excessive licking when overly dirty.
How Grooming Differs from Bathing
While both are important for coat care, grooming and bathing serve different purposes:
- Grooming is more frequent than bathing. Dogs naturally groom themselves almost daily whereas bathing is only done occasionally.
- Bathing involves use of water and shampoo to thoroughly cleanse the coat. Grooming just utilizes saliva.
- Brushing before a bath helps loosen debris so the bath can fully clean the coat.
- Bathing strips oils so grooming after is beneficial to replenish them.
- Overbathing too frequently can cause dry, irritated skin. Excessive grooming usually only impacts certain spots.
Grooming maintains basic cleanliness and coat condition in between periodic baths as needed. Bathing gives the coat a deep clean without relying solely on the cleansing properties of dog saliva.
Benefits of Self-Grooming for Dogs
Allowing dogs to groom themselves provides several health and wellbeing benefits:
- Promotes better skin health – Saliva contains antimicrobial properties to ward off infections.
- Helps them smell like themselves – Scent glands in saliva give them their natural smell.
- Relieves anxiety and stress – The repetitive motion has a calming effect.
- Supports bonding – Group grooming in multi-dog households increases social cohesion.
- Aids temperature regulation – Coat insulation properties are optimized.
- Keeps their coat dirt-free – Natural grooming prevents buildup between baths.
- Important life skill development – Puppies learn how to care for their new bodies.
Since grooming is a natural instinct for dogs, it should be encouraged within reason. Proper training helps redirect harmful excessive licking into healthy grooming habits.
Risks of Excessive Grooming
While regular grooming is healthy, excessive grooming to the point of harming the skin or fur should be addressed including:
- Hair loss – Constant licking or chewing of one spot can cause a bald patch.
- Hot spots – Moist dermatitis lesions from bacteria thriving in constantly saliva soaked fur.
- Skin trauma – Irritation, scratches, or wounds from repeated biting at skin.
- Hairball blockages – Swallowing too much loose fur while grooming can lead to internal blockages.
- Self-mutilation – Severe stress or anxiety can cause dogs to self-mutilate through obsessive grooming.
Excessive grooming usually signals an underlying medical or behavioral issue. Veterinary examination is needed to diagnose and treat the primary cause.
Signs of Potential Excessive Grooming
Look for the following signs that may indicate problematic excessive grooming:
- visible bald patches
- raw, irritated skin
- recurrent skin infections
- inflamed hot spots
- hair buildup in feces
- grooming the same area repetitively
- sudden increase in grooming frequency or duration
- licking, chewing, or scratching to the point of injury
- grooming that seems compulsory or ritualistic
Seeking veterinary help as soon as excessive grooming is noticed maximizes the chances of resolving the underlying issue.
How to Reduce Excessive Grooming
Steps to curb excessive grooming behavior include:
- Addressing medical causes – Treat skin infections, parasites, pain, allergies, or other issues making them groom excessively.
- Managing stress – Create a predictable routine. Make sure they get plenty of exercise and mental stimulation.
- Using an Elizabethan collar – Prevent licking and chewing problem areas while they heal.
- Monitoring – Keep an eye on grooming frequency and duration.
- Redirecting – Interrupt excessive grooming and redirect energy into a positive activity.
- Positive reinforcement – Reward and praise periods of rest from disruptive grooming.
- Removing environmental triggers – Fleas, mites, grass seeds, carpet fibers, or anything that can become embedded in the coat and make them excessively groom.
In severe cases medication may be needed to manage compulsive disorders. Combined with behavior modification therapy, medication can help break disruptive grooming habits.
Grooming vs Overgrooming Summary Table
This table summarizes differences between natural grooming behaviors and problematic excessive grooming:
|Occasional throughout day||Repetitive, compulsive, excessive|
|Stimulated by dirt and debris in coat||Not relieved by grooming completion|
|Calms anxiety||Creates self-harming anxiety|
|Improves coat condition||Damages coat and skin condition|
|Whole body grooming||Specific spot obsessively targeted|
|Social group activity||Solitary activity|
Regular grooming provides dogs with numerous benefits and is a healthy maintenance behavior when not done excessively. Any sudden increase in grooming frequency, duration or over-attention to a specific area should be addressed. Stopping excessive grooming relies on identifying and resolving the underlying cause, whether it be medical, behavioral or environmental. With proper training and care, destructive obsessive grooming habits can be curbed and redirected into healthy moderation.