Most of the time dogs are a source of amusement, but sometimes they can be a source of embarrassment. While pet owners may enjoy watching a dog dance in a circle or sing (bark) on command, they may not be amused at some of their activities. One of the more embarrassing things that dogs do is to lick their “private” parts in public. There is no sex discrimination associated with the act of licking and there is no polite way to discuss it. A male dog will lick his penis. A female dog will lick her vulva. And they will both lick their anal regions. This less than appealing behavior annoys pet owners everywhere.
Is licking private parts ever acceptable?
In the dog world, a moderate degree of licking is part of normal grooming behavior. For example, a male or female dog may lick the genital area after urinating as a means of cleaning the area. When this is the case, licking is only related to elimination and is not persistent. Just a quick swipe of the area takes care of business.
It is not as common for dogs to lick the anal area after eliminating; however, if the stool is sticky or watery, the dog may feel the need to tidy up a bit. Normal, firm bowel movements are not usually followed by licking.
When is licking private parts considered a problem?
Frequent or sustained licking of the urogenital (urinary and genital) area may indicate that a medical problem exists. Alert your veterinarian if you see any of the following signs:
- swollen or red penis, vulva, or anus
- presence of pustules (pimples) or red bumps on the skin
- discoloration of the skin (black or rust colored)
- straining to urinate
- increased frequency of urination
- scooting or rubbing the rectal area on the ground
- presence of a foul odor between eliminations
- discharge from penis or vulva
What causes these signs associated with licking?
There are several medical reasons that prompt a dog to persistently lick the genital or anal regions. Here are some of the more common problems:
Urinary Tract Infection or Bladder Stones/Crystals. Dogs with a bladder infection or stone/crystal material may lick the penis or vulva for an extended period after urinating or may lick between eliminations. They may urinate more frequently and may strain to urinate. Often, they feel an urgency to urinate and produce very little urine. Bladder infections are fairly common and are caused by bacteria that usually respond to treatment with antibiotics. Multiple oral antibiotics are readily available, in both pill and liquid forms and quite effective in resolving bladder Injectable antibiotics are typically reserved for in hospital treatment. A long-term drug called cefovecin (brand name Covenia®) may be useful but is not a preferred first line treatment. The addition of supplements or special diets (such as Hill's® Prescription Diet® c/d®, Royal Canin® Urinary SO™, or Purina® Pro Plan® Veterinary Diets Urinary St/Ox™) to the treatment regimen may alter the environment in the bladder and help prevent repeated infections. If the upper urinary tract or kidneys are infected, the treatment may be prolonged for 4-6 weeks on average. Laboratory tests including urinalysis, urine culture, and blood tests will help determine the best course and length of therapy.
Allergies. Environmental or food allergies can both cause itching in the genital area. When food allergy is the culprit the itching occurs all year long while environmental allergies may be seasonal depending on what plants or trees are pollinating, unless the inciting allergen is indoors. Avoiding the allergen will decrease licking. For example, dogs with environmental allergies should be walked in the early morning and late evening when the dew on the ground reduces pollen in the air. After going outside, your dog’s feet, belly, and any other area that contacts the ground should be cleaned with a damp towel or baby wipe to remove some of the pollen attached to the hair. Your dog may not be completely free of pollen, but the amount will be reduced minimizing exposure. Food allergies are triggered when the dog is sensitized to proteins (typically chicken, beef, or pork) or other molecules in the food. These allergies are controlled by feeding the dog a hypo-allergenic diet with unique novel proteins (such as lamb, salmon, kangaroo, rabbit, etc.), or hydrolyzed or man-made proteins to which the dog has not been exposed. Both food and environmental allergies may require medical therapy as well as avoidance therapy. Immune modulating medications including hyposensitization injections (allergy desensitization), cyclosporine (brand name Atopica®), lokivetmab (brand name Cytopoint®), or oclactinib (brand name Apoquel®), and topical treatments are available that provide safe, effective, long-term allergy relief without the side effects of steroids. Steroids (usually prednisone or combinations with an antihistamine, such as Temaril-P®, Vanectyl-P®) can be effective but are often reserved for severe cases or as a last resort. Over the counter antihistamines have variable effectiveness with dogs and may be used on the advice of your veterinarian, though caution must be used to avoid any of these containing cold/flu medications.
Skin Infection. The presence of bacteria and yeast on the skin is normal; however, if either appears in excess, or if the skin barrier is unhealthy, or if the dog is immunocompromised, an infection can occur. Bacterial or yeast infections of the skin can be very itchy and result in constant licking of the affected area. The presence of pustules or red bumps usually indicates a bacterial infection and warrants antibiotic therapy. A musty odor or reddish-black discoloration of the skin may indicate a yeast infection that requires an additional therapy. Both bacterial and yeast infections usually respond better when topical therapy in the form of medicated shampoos or wipes are added to the oral treatment regimen.
Anal Gland Impaction. Dogs have two anal glands, remnants of scent glands, located near the rectum. These glands fill with smelly fluid and empty themselves when pressure is applied by the rectal muscles during a bowel movement. When working normally, pets and their owners do not even realize that anal glands are there; however, when anal glands become over-filled, they become readily apparent. Impacted glands emit a noxious odor and the anal area may become swollen and irritated. In response to the irritation, the dog may lick the rectal region or scoot and rub the anus on the ground. Manually evacuating the distended anal glands usually resolves the problem, so call your veterinarian for an appointment. If ignored, an impaction may occur as the fluid becomes so thick that it does not flow through the narrow opening to the rectum. Impaction often leads to infection. Severe infections may lead to the formation of an abscess that ruptures through the skin to the outside area around the anus. These infections require treatment with antibiotics (common choices include amoxicillin, cephalexin, or fluoroquinolones) and oral, topical, or injectable forms may be used. Pain medication and warm water soaks may alleviate the discomfort. Repeated infections may require surgical removal of the glands.
If your dog licks more than he should, see your veterinarian for help. Appropriate medical therapy can reduce your dog’s discomfort.