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Why Do Dogs Lick the Air When You Scratch Them?

Have you ever been scratching your dog’s back, and he just starts licking the air?

What is that about? Why do they do that?

It looks like they’re trying to drink from an imaginary bowl, or are licking an imaginary ice cream cone!

You’re probably assuming that licking the air is your dog’s way of telling you that what you’re doing feels really good – and you’d be right!

Canine experts note that there is no deeper meaning to this behavior other than simply letting you know that what you are doing is pleasurable to them.

Interestingly, dogs may lick the air as a sign of overstimulation. And, perhaps just as interesting is that the area on their back right before their butt is actually an erogenous zone for dogs.

However, if you’re not scratching your dog’s back and he’s licking the air, then you may need to investigate further to see if something’s bothering him.

Let’s take a deeper look at why your dog may be licking the air.

You’re Doing Something that Feels Good to Him

The top of your dog’s back, as you know, is a hard-to-reach area for your pup.

So, when you scratch this for him, it is very similar to when someone scratches the middle of your back for you.

Of course, dogs don’t have a voice, so they can’t say “oooOOOhhh, that feels good!”

So, they do the next best thing – they lick the air!

This is also a way for your dog to bond with you and show you he’s having a good time.

The Link Between the Pleasure and the Lick

So, what is the medical explanation for why a dog will lick the air when you scratch his back?

Simply put, that area where your dog’s back meets the base of his tail is comprised of lots of nerve endings.

Photo of Dog Licking

So, it stands to reason that when you scratch this area for him, it feels good – like when we stick a Q-Tip in our ear (though we know we shouldn’t).

However, because this area is so sensitive, you shouldn’t just go up to random dogs and scratch their backs, hoping to make friends with them.

This is not the best way to break the ice with a dog.

Are There Breeds Who are More Likely to Lick the Air than Other Breeds?

The long and the short of it is, every dog is an individual.

That said, there is no one particular breed who is more likely to lick the air than other breeds.

When it comes to licking not related to scratching or petting, then this depends on the individual dog’s personality even more.

For instance, dogs who are more anxious or sensitive may be more vulnerable to air licking than more contented, confident dogs.

Dogs who have suffered from stress or trauma in the past may also be more likely to lick the air, as well as themselves.

Particularly dogs who have trauma in their past may lick the air more often as an attempt to help themselves feel better.

They may also do this to try to please you so that you are less likely to grow impatient or angry with them.

And, of course, dogs who are sick are more likely to lick the air as well, which you can read more about below.

Other Reasons for Licking the Air that are Not Related to Scratching

If you’re not scratching your dog, and you’ve noticed he’s licking the air, there are several reasons why he may be doing this – and they may not be good ones.

This is especially true if your dog keeps licking the air continuously.

It could be completely harmless, but there are actually several situations that involve discomfort or health issues that can cause your dog to “lick” the air.

Photo of Welsh Springer Spaniels Licking Face | Dog Temperament | Dog Temperament

It is therefore important to observe your dog to see if he is exhibiting any other signs of potential illness.

Here are some possible health and behavioral issues to look out for.

Stress

Dogs who are stressed out frequently resort to licking as a way to comfort themselves.

Granted, most of the time they will lick themselves, rather than the air, but some dogs do lick the air to show their distress.

Dogs often develop anxiety as a result of a situation they don’t know how to handle, like fireworks on the Fourth of July.

Many dogs develop separation anxiety when their owners have to leave home for hours at a time.

You may be able to treat their anxiety with medication, but it’s best to research dog temperaments before you even get a dog.

That way you know which breeds are better with your leaving them home alone, as opposed to breeds who most certainly are not.

Other signs the licking may be related to stress include having accidents in the home or finding places to hide.

If that’s the case, you may want to speak to your vet about recommendations for a certified animal behaviorist who may be able to help.

Skin Issues

So, here’s something interesting: dogs with dermatological problems may lick the air in response to skin discomfort.

Usually a dog with a skin condition that causes him to feel itchy all the time will lick his paws, but he may also lick the air.

Injured Dog Paw from Licking

This is especially true if you’ve punished him in the past for licking himself. He feels like, well, I need to lick something, so the air it is!

Fleas can cause your dog to itch, too. So, if you think he’s licking in response to feeling itchy, you should probably take him to a vet to rule out (or pin down) the cause.

Finally, a cut, bee sting, or some other such abrasion to his nose or mouth may cause your dog to lick the air in an attempt to relieve the pain.

Gastrointestinal Issues

Some dogs may lick the air if they are suffering from a gastrointestinal issue, like reflux or nausea.

You may notice your dog start to lick the air just before he’s about to throw up.

He’s trying to abate the feeling, but as we all know, the only way to abate the feeling is to just give in and do it.

Because the feeling is unpleasant, this is your dog’s way of dealing with it.

Other signs there may be something wrong with your dog’s gastrointestinal tract include lack of appetite, discomfort in the abdomen, vomiting, and/or diarrhea.

Seizures

Dogs who suffer from seizures may exhibit behaviors that look like they’re licking the air, but it’s actually part of the seizure.

Another sign of a seizure is that some dogs will lay on their backs and paddle their legs. They look as if they’re pawing at a bug but they’re actually having a seizure.

Dental Issues

Dogs with dental issues may sometimes lick the air, or their lips or noses.

Typically, dental issues also come with other signs, like drooling, bad breath, and a lack of appetite (for fear of hurting their mouths).

Dental disease in dogs can advance to gum disease, which can result in tooth loss, abscesses and pain.

That’s why it’s important you brush your dog’s teeth regularly and take him to the vet for regular checkups.

Dogs with something stuck in their mouths may also lick the air and paw at their mouths in an attempt to free the foreign body.

Boredom

Some dogs will lick the air for no other reason than the fact that they are feeling bored.

It’s just a way to entertain themselves without having to get up for a toy!

Always get a vet to rule out any potential health concerns, though, before chalking up regular licking to boredom.

The Flehman Response

Have you ever noticed a dog or even a cat may lift their heads up, wrinkle their noses, and pull their upper lip back to smell a certain scent?

This is the “Flehman response,” and it’s something animals do as a way to take in a deeper smell of a particular scent.

By making this motion, animals expose their “Jacobson’s organ,” or vomeronasal organ, which allows them to take in deeper smells.

Animals will typically have a Flehman response to odors like urine, feces, or blood.

So, while your dog may look like he’s “licking” the air, he’s actually just trying to take in a deeper smell of it.

When to Involve the Vet

Of course, if you’re just scratching your dog’s back and he licks the air, this is no cause at all for concern.

Your dog may have an issue worth seeing the vet over, though, if he is constantly licking the air with no real reason for doing so.

This may be a sign that he has come kind of compulsive disorder, or perhaps an underlying health issue you need to address.

It may be helpful to provide your vet with a journal wherein you note the dates and times of your dog’s licking.

From there, your vet may be able to determine if there is a pattern or some sort of catalyst causing the behavior.

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