NMVMA listserve Behavior Tip #2
Here is a brief description of an often overlooked physical cause of licking and ingestive behaviors of dogs. I hope you find it helpful.
All the best,
Jeff Nichol, DVM
Behavior resident in private practice training
Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Centers
Albuquerque and Santa Fe
Behavioral Signs of Nausea & GI Disease
Dogs that lick surfaces (floors, walls, carpet), their owner’s skin, fabric, or the air have been long believed to suffer from compulsive behavior. While compulsive disorders can certainly be manifest by this type of repetitive, out-of-context behavior research has shown that GI disease should be considered before treatment with behavior therapy and/or anxiolytic drugs.
A study of 19 dogs with excessive licking of surfaces (ELS) 1 found a specific GI diagnosis and significant improvement following medical treatment in the majority of cases. Other work has implicated medical causes in some cases of lick granuloma, pica, and coprophagia. In-depth diagnostics are often necessary to determine the specific etiology.
My practice experience has been consistent with these research findings. Endoscopic biopsies, serum chemistries, and imaging studies have shifted some of my cases of excessive licking and ingestive behaviors out of my realm and back into the hands of the referring veterinarians.
Every behavior case needs to have appropriate medical differentials considered. A thorough physical exam, a full serum chemistry profile, and CBC are essential. Many cases also warrant a urinalysis and thyroid screen as part of the minimum data base. Any suspicion of neurologic or internal disease should be addressed first. A behavioral diagnosis and treatment plan should follow the effective management of physical disease.
Jeff Nichol, DVM
1 Gastrointestinal disorders in dogs with excessive licking of surfaces. Ve´ronique Be´cuwe-Bonneta, et al. Journal of Veterinary Behavior (2012) 7, 194-204.
Excessive licking of surfaces (ELS) refers to licking of objects and surfaces in excess of duration, frequency, or intensity as compared with that required for exploration. This behavior is a nonspecific sign and may be the consequence of several conditions. The objectives of our prospective clinical study were to characterize ELS behavior in dogs and to examine the extent to which it may be a sign of an underlying gastrointestinal (GI) pathology as opposed to a primarily behavioral concern. Nineteen dogs presented with ELS were included in the licking group and 10 healthy dogs were assigned to a control group. Behavioral, physical, and neurological examinations were performed before a complete evaluation of the GI system. Treatment was recommended on the basis of diagnostic findings. Following initialization of treatment, dogs were then monitored for 90 days during which their licking behavior was recorded. GI abnormalities were identified in 14 of 19 dogs in the licking group. These abnormalities included eosinophilic and/or lymphoplasmacytic infiltration of the GI tract, delayed gastric emptying, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic pancreatitis, gastric foreign body, and giardiasis. Significant improvement in both frequency and duration of the basal ELS behavior was observed in 10 of 17 dogs (59%). Resolution of ELS occurred in 9 of 17 dogs (53%). Based on video analysis, it was found that ELS dogs were not significantly more anxious than the dogs in control group in the veterinary context. In conclusion, GI disorders should be considered in the differential diagnosis of canine ELS.