Why Do Dogs Lick the Air?

Dogs have a lot of quirky behaviors. Some make sense, others don’t, some are funny, while others are puzzling.

And, for better or for worse, some of those weird behaviors can also be symptoms of unpleasant health conditions.

So, if you’re wondering “why do dogs lick the air?” – the answer is often exactly one of those worrying behaviors.

Many times, licking the air might just be a quirk – something done out of boredom or confusion.

So, differentiating between the harmless and harmful causes of this behavior can be a bit challenging.

So, we’ll try to list all possible causes below and explain what makes each of them special. Let’s get into it! 

Why Do Dogs Lick the Air: 11 Normal and Harmless Reasons

Of course, a lot of the reasons why dogs lick their noses, their upper lips, and the air in front of them, are harmless.

We are in no way saying that every time your pup is licking its nose, you should rush to the vet.

So, while we’ll mention some worrying exceptions later in the article, let’s start with the harmless explanations for this behavior.

1. Hunger

This is the simplest and very common reason for licking the air. It’s as intuitive as it sounds – it’s caused by the excitement and anticipation of food.

It’s similar to a human getting their mouth full of saliva when food is mentioned, seen, or smelt (our bodies do this involuntarily).

In dogs, there are lots of digestive enzymes that activate when the dog is hungry, which further leads to more licking.

So, if you’re only seeing your dog lick the air before mealtime, it’s probably nothing serious.

Even if it’s not yet time for food but you’re cooking something, the dog may be licking the air out of excitement for that.

2. Thirst

Beagle drinks water from a tin bowl

This is another very simple and obvious cause. Your dog’s mouth can get dry sometimes, at which point the pooch will start licking to produce more saliva.

While this isn’t a major cause of concern, it does mean that you should give your dog some water as soon as possible.

Dogs can get dehydrated or overheated easily, especially in the heat of the summer and/or during long hikes.

As such, licking the air can be a symptom of dehydration.

At the same time, even if your dog isn’t dehydrated but is exceptionally thirsty all the time, this can be a symptom of polydipsia

Differentiating between either of those and normal thirst, is all a matter of frequency and severity. Always seek a veterinarian’s professional opinion to help you differentiate this. 

3. Pleasure

This is another one of the simplest explanations to this question. Similar to the wagging of a tail, licking the air can be done purely out of excitement, happiness, and pleasure.

4. Stress Relief

Dog seeking comfort from its owner

Stress relief is also a possible explanation. Similar to how people often play with their hair, chew their nails, or other such behaviors, licking the air can be calming for dogs.

So, if you only see your dog do this occasionally and in stressful situations, it can simply mean that your dog is trying to calm himself down.

5. Mimicking Licking

If you are petting or scratching your dog somewhere, the dog may mimic licking itself as a response. This is similar to the dog moving its back leg when you’re scratching its ear.

Both behaviors are instinctual and are nothing to be worried about.

6. Mouth Cleaning

Dogs cleaning their mouth is common, and it looks as if the dog is licking the air. In reality, however, the dog likely has something stuck between its teeth.

It can be as simple as the dog’s teeth being dirty because of a lack of dental hygiene, and/or a lack of chewing toys at home.

Or, it could just be that the dog has eaten something sticky such as peanut butter.

7. Smelling of the Air

Black dog sniffing the air

The “flehmen response” is when an animal curls up their upper lip and wrinkles their nose. Dogs are also guilty of doing this.

Dogs do this to expose the organ located in their nose to better sense the many smells around them. 

However, this action often looks like the dog is licking the air because it tries to push its lip up using its tongue.

So if you’re wondering if your dog is trying to lick the air, it’s probably just trying to smell new scents.

8. Boredom

Having nothing to do can easily be another reason for this behavior. There really isn’t much more to this – it’s just something your dog may do from time to time if there is nothing else to do.

Of course, you don’t want your dog to be bored too often as that can lead to some unpleasant conditions down the line.

We’ll mention some of them below. So if you’re wondering why do dogs lick the air, make sure your pup isn’t bored first of all.

9. Comfort

The dog trying to comfort itself can also be expressed by licking the air.

If you notice this behavior during thunderstorms or after you’ve scolded your pooch about something, that’s normal.

10. Attention Seeking

Seeking attention can also be expressed in this way.

Dogs are smart – if they notice that we always pet them or even just giggle when they lick their nose, they’ll start doing that more and more often.

It’s a reverse-Pavlovian response in a way – the dog knows we react in a certain way to the licking and it tries to reproduce that reaction.

11. Confusion

Confused brown Cocker Spaniel under the blanket

Confusion may be another reason for licking the air.

It can be an instinctive reaction to confusing circumstances, or an attempt to better smell the air and understand what’s happening around them.

Either way, this is a pretty harmless reason too.

Neurological Explanations for Why Dogs Lick the Air

So let’s now talk about the more potentially unfortunate causes of this behavior. There are a few neurological and psychological explanations you’d want to avoid.

Some of them are avoidable, but others aren’t.

1. Cognitive Dysfunction

This is not uncommon for some senile dogs. This can include Alzheimer’s disease, other forms of dementia etc. 

Some of the symptoms of such conditions include changes to the sleep cycle, fewer interactions with you, and overall apathy, as well as increased licking of the air.

2. Compulsive Behaviors

Compulsive disorders in dogs aren’t that different to compulsive disorders in humans. This includes OCD. 

Such disorders can cause the person or dog to start repeating certain actions under specific circumstances, or even seemingly without reason.

Think of a person with OCD who needs to frequently turn the lights off and on again.

In dogs, such behaviors can include licking their paws, patting their foot on the floor, howling, whining, or just licking the air.

Experts argue that this can help them reduce their stress in some cases. However, even when that doesn’t happen, the action is still compulsory.

Unfortunately, this condition doesn’t seem to be curable. 

3. Anxiety, Stress, and Depression

We touched upon those a bit above when we talked about boredom and stress.

However, chronic anxiety and depression can be much more significant than just a bit of stress caused by a thunderstorm. 

If your dog is under a lot of stress, this can lead to a myriad of other health concerns.

In those cases, noticing the excessive licking of the air can be a helpful symptom to lead you into helping your dog.

Things that can lead to chronic anxiety or depression include:

  • Being adopted into a new family
  • Moving into a new home
  • Losing a loved one, be it a fellow pet or a human
  • Getting a new family member, be it a new pet or a new person in the household
  • Prolonged home renovation work
  • An underlying pain or disease
  • Unaddressed separation anxiety
  • An abusive previous owner

This list is not exhaustive. Fortunately, with the right care, most of these problems and their causes can be addressed.

Serious Medical and Physical Problems That Cause This Behavior

Dog at the vets

There are quite a few physical causes that can lead to dogs licking the air.

These can be both external and internal, with the latter sometimes being annoyingly difficult to spot. In such cases, noticing the excessive licking can be a very helpful diagnostic symptom.

1. Nausea

Nausea in dogs is often followed by licking of the lips, licking of the air, and a bit of drooling. Some dogs will also try to eat some grass when they are feeling nauseous.

The underlying causes of the nausea can be numerous – your dog may be about to vomit after eating something bad, for example.

Alternatively, nausea can be a symptom of some nasty problems such as kidney failure, diabetes mellitus, cancer, etc.

2. Allergic Reaction

Allergic reactions can also be causing licking of the lips and the air. Dogs suffer from quite a few allergies, especially of the skin. 

These can be triggered by some bathing and grooming products, by medications, by outdoor sources, and even by certain types of food.

If a dog has an allergic reaction to something and can’t reach the affected area, it may just lick the air in an attempt to express its discomfort.

This can be helpful for you to identify the cause of the allergy and remove it.

3. Chronic Pancreatitis

Chronic pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas – an organ near the stomach responsible for regulating blood sugar and certain digestive enzymes. 

When the pancreas gets inflamed, it releases a digestive secretion that can cause pain, fibrosis of the soft tissues, swelling, and other unpleasant and dangerous effects. 

This chronic pain and the often accompanying nausea tend to lead to constant licking of the air.

4. Seizures

Seizures in dogs can result in a lot of different behaviors and physical movements. Often, the dog would just lie on its side and paddle its legs aimlessly.

Partial seizures, however, are often expressed by licking of the lips, of the air, and other oral movements.

5. Trauma

Pug with a butterfly on its tongue

Physical trauma can be a much simpler but still significant cause of air licking. Such trauma can be a simple cut or puncture to the mouth area, nose, or face of the dog.

Abrasions, knocks, and other traumas are also possible. Especially in dogs with long and dense coats, such problems can be difficult to notice.

So what you perceive as your dog licking the air, may just be the dog licking a wound.

6. GI Issues

Gastrointestinal problems such as ulcers of the stomach or the intestines, an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), gastrointestinal foreign bodies etc. can cause a lot of problems for your dog. 

They often lead to a sharp internal pain that the dog can’t really address or properly express. Licking of the air is often the only or main way a dog will react to such internal pain.

7. Pain

Pain from other sources can also cause this behavior. If the pain is external, the dog will often try to address it by licking the affected spot.

However, if the pain is internal - be it muscular, respiratory, intestinal, in the urinal tract etc. - all the dog may do is just sit, whine, and lick the air.

8. Oral Issues

Dental problems can be much more severe than just unclean teeth.

Gum disease and tooth loss are some of the milder problems your dog may face, with some much more significant issues also being possible. 

This is why experts will recommend that dog owners get their canines used to tooth brushing. An additional prevention method for dental problems is to get your dog a lot of chew toys.

9. Objects Stuck in the Throat

Foreign objects stuck in the dog’s mouth can be a far more immediate problem than just toothaches.

This can often happen if you give your dog cooked bones or fish bones, neither of which is recommended.

Of course, there are lots of other objects that can get stuck in a dog’s mouth and throat – sticks, stones, toys, and virtually any small object that catches their attention.

Licking of the air will be just one of several ways a dog can signal that it has this type of problem. In many cases, you should be able to remove the bone or object on your own.

However, sometimes you may need emergency veterinary help.

10. Skin Problems

Skin issues can include far more problems than just allergies. Especially for dogs with dense undercoats that are prone to matting, skin infections are a very common problem.

If the dog can reach the affected area, it may try to solve the problem on its own.

However, if the issue is in a hard-to-reach spot and/or on the dog’s face, licking the air may be the only thing your dog can do.

11. Insect Stings and Bites

Stings and bites from insects can also cause more than enough discomfort for your dog to start licking the air, its nose, or lips.

Stings and bites often happen on the face area precisely because dogs tend to approach everything face-first.

Often, you should be able to notice a particularly nasty sting or bite. However, if your dog’s coat is too long and dense, the licking of the air may be the only sign of an insect bite or sting.

What to Do if Your Dog Is Licking the Air Too Much

Dalmatian licking the air

When you first notice your dog licking the air in an unusual way, it’s important not to panic. Chances are that it’s nothing to worry about.

So all you need to do at first is just observe your dog and try to identify the cause of the behavior.

If none of the more common and harmless reasons seem to be the cause, you may want to contact your vet.

If you don’t want to stress out your dog with an unnecessary trip to the vet, you can first capture the behavior on video and send that to your vet.

This can help them get an idea as to what is happening and give you some insight from a distance.

If the vet tells you to bring the dog over after that – you should probably do so.

Either it won’t be too serious after all, or you will have caught a major problem early on – both cases are much better than allowing a nasty underlying problem to fester.

Final Thoughts

So, why do dogs lick the air? It can be any of the dozens of different reasons that we mentioned in this article. Fortunately, many of the more common ones are completely harmless.

However, this doesn’t mean that you should be complacent.

Especially in older dogs but in mid-aged and younger pups as well, excessive licking of the nose, lips, and the air, can be a signal for underlying issues.

So if after a brief observation of your dog’s behavior and visible condition, you still haven’t identified the problem, consulting with a vet is probably for the best.

Vet bills can be unpleasant at times of course. However, the flip side to that is that the sooner you catch a problem, the easier it is to deal with.

Fortunately, licking the air is often one of the first symptoms of a lot of conditions, therefore giving you time to react.