Why Dogs Lick Their Privates

By Krista Williams, BSc, DVM, CCRP; Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

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 amount of licking is part of normal grooming behavior. For example, a male or female dog may lick the genital area after urinating to clean 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 a medical problem. 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 caused by bacteria and usually respond to treatment with antibiotics. Multiple oral antibiotics are readily available, in both pill and liquid forms, and are effective in resolving bladder infections. The addition of supplements or special diets to the treatment regimen (such as Hill's® Prescription Diet® c/d®, Royal Canin® Urinary SO™, or Purina® Pro Plan® Veterinary Diets Urinary St/Ox™) may alter the bladder environment and help prevent repeated infections. Laboratory tests, including urinalysis, urine culture, and blood tests, will help determine the best course and length of therapy.


Environmental and food allergies can cause itching in the genital area. When food allergy is the culprit, itching occurs all year long, while environmental allergies are generally seasonal, depending on what plants or trees are pollinating – unless the 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. Cleaning our dog may not completely eliminate the pollen, but it will reduce the amount of pollen and minimize exposure to the allergen.

"Both food and environmental allergies may require medical therapy as well as avoidance."

Food allergies are triggered when the dog is sensitized to proteins (typically chicken, beef, or dairy) or other molecules in the food. These allergies are controlled by feeding the dog a hypoallergenic diet with a unique novel protein (such as salmon, kangaroo, or rabbit) to which the dog hasn’t been exposed, or hydrolyzed proteins that have been broken down into their smaller components, which are less likely to cause an allergic reaction.

Both food and environmental allergies may require medical therapy as well as avoidance. Medical therapy may include immune-modulating medications, hyposensitization (allergy desensitization), cyclosporine (brand name Atopica®), lokivetmab (brand name Cytopoint®), or oclactinib (brand name Apoquel®), and topical treatments. These options 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 short-term use or severe cases. 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 ensure none of these contain cold/flu medications.

Skin Infection

The presence of bacteria and yeast on the skin is normal, but if either appears in excess, if the skin barrier is unhealthy, or if the dog is immunocompromised, an infection can occur and cause itching. An infection can cause pustules, red bumps, or an abnormal odor. Your vet may recommend tests (skin cytology and/or culture) to look for excessive bacteria or yeast on the skin so they know the best treatment for the infection. Both bacterial and yeast infections usually respond better when topical therapy is part of the treatment regimen (e.g., medicated shampoos or wipes).

Anal Gland Impaction

Dogs have two anal glands located near the rectum. These glands fill with smelly fluid and empty themselves when the rectal muscles apply pressure during a bowel movement. When the anal glands are working normally, pets and their owners do not realize they are there; however, when anal glands become overfilled, 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. The problem is usually resolved by manually evacuating the distended anal glands via hand manipulation, so call your veterinarian for an appointment.

"Impaction often leads to infection."

If the glands are ignored, they may become impacted, 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 (e.g., amoxicillin, cephalexin, or fluoroquinolones). Oral, topical, or injectable antibiotics 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.

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