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Why Dogs Lick Their "Privates"

Why do Dogs Lick their “Privates” in Public?

why-dogs-lick-privatesMost 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 other canine 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 public licking and there is no genteel 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 canine 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’s 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 area may indicate that a medical problem exists. Alert your veterinarian if you see any of the following signs:

  1. Swollen or red penis, vulva, or anus
  2. Presence of pustules (pimples) or red bumps on the skin
  3. Discoloration of the skin (black or rust colored)
  4. Straining to urinate
  5. Increased frequency of urination
  6. Scooting or rubbing the rectal area on the ground
  7. Presence of a foul odor between eliminations
  8. 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:

  1. Urinary tract infection. Dogs with a bladder infection may lick the penis or vulva for an extended period of time 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. Both oral and injectable antibiotics are readily available and are quite effective in resolving bladder infections. The addition of supplements or special diets 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. Laboratory tests including urine analysis, urine culture, and blood work will help determine the best course and length of therapy.
  2. Allergies. Inhalant or food allergies can both cause itching in the genital area. When food allergy is the culprit the itching occurs all year long while inhalant allergies may be seasonal depending on what plants or trees are pollinating.  Avoiding the allergen will decrease licking. For example, dogs with inhalant 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, the 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. The dog may not be completely free of pollen, but the amount of pollen can be reduced which minimizes inhalant exposure. Food allergies are triggered when the dog is sensitized to proteins or other molecules in the food. These allergies are controlled by feeding the dog a hypo-allergenic diet with unique natural proteins (lamb, salmon, kangaroo, rabbit, etc.) or man-made proteins to which the dog has not been exposed. Both food and inhalant allergies may require medical therapy as well as avoidance therapy. Immune modulating and anti-inflammatory medications are available that provide safe, effective, long-term allergy relief without the side effects of steroids.
  3. 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 immune-compromised, 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 anti-biotic 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.
  4. 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 don’t 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 left untended, an impaction may occur as the fluid becomes so thick that it doesn’t 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 both topical and oral antibiotics. Pain medication and warm water soaks may alleviate the discomfort. Repeated infections may require surgical removal of the glands.

Dogs are always going to lick and it may be cute when they lick your face. It may even be cute when they lick your ice cream cone. But, it’s never cute when they lick their private parts. If your dog licks more than he should, see your veterinarian for help. Appropriate medical therapy can reduce your dog’s discomfort as well as your embarrassment.

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

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