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Health & Wellness

What is acral lick dermatitis, or excessive licking, in dogs?

And how to keep your dog from licking.

Acral lick dermatitis is a skin condition that’s pretty common in dogs. Also known as acral lick granulomas, this condition occurs when dogs continually lick an area of their skin, leading to redness and loss of hair. Usually, they choose the lower foreleg as their preferred licking spot, but you might see acral lick dermatitis in other areas, too. 

Anywhere a dog can lick is susceptible to becoming an acral lick granuloma. And all breeds and ages of dogs are susceptible to this condition, although it’s more common in larger dogs. Here’s how to stop your dog from licking. 

Signs of lick granuloma or acral lick dermatitis

Acral lick dermatitis starts out small. You may notice your dog licking their arm once or twice, but before you know it, what started as a barely noticeable spot turns into a large, irritated wound after repetitive, almost obsessive licking. Once this occurs, your dog gets caught in a cycle of possible infection, compulsion and more and more licking.

“The more your dog licks the area, the worse the redness will become,” Dr. Shannon Barrett, DVM, owner and veterinarian at Island Veterinary Care in Charleston, South Carolina, says. “If allowed to progress, this area can become a thickened lesion made of scar tissue that may need to be surgically removed in severe cases.” 

Wounds can appear suddenly after licking since dogs’ sensitive skin can show irritation quickly. While this condition isn’t an emergency, you should stop your dog from licking as soon as possible.

What causes acral lick dermatitis

Many things can contribute to a dog's excessive licking. The biggest factors are allergies and/or anxiety — although there are other triggers, like cuts or matting. In older dogs, arthritis pain or even cancer can also cause the pup to lick. 

“Acral lick dermatitis occurs secondary to an inciting incident, usually stress or allergies, which causes a dog to lick this area obsessively,” Dr. Barrett says. “This self-trauma leads to a red plaque-like lesion. One of the most common places to find this lesion is on a dog's forearm.” 

Lick granulomas are almost always symptoms of a bigger issue, so if you notice your dog persistently licking the same area, you should contact your vet to determine the cause.

“Since dogs with allergies and anxiety tend to be most at risk, the key is to reduce these underlying causes,” Dr. Barrett says. “ If anxiety is the underlying cause, whether it be separation anxiety or noise phobia, employ tactics to reduce their anxiety. Increasing their exercise and activity can help in both of these situations.” 

Boredom and confinement can also cause acral lick dermatitis since dogs with nothing else to do will busy themselves with licking. Licking is a compulsive, often soothing, behavior in dogs, so it’s important to keep them comfortable and relaxed, especially when left alone. 

RELATED: Separation anxiety in dogs

Treating acral lick dermatitis

If you notice acral lick dermatitis on your dog, visit your vet as soon as possible. Breaking the licking cycle early can help with treatment and prevent wounds from forming. 

“Regardless of the underlying cause, once acral lick dermatitis starts, time is of the essence,” Dr. Barrett says. “The main goal of treatment is to prevent further licking and help break the lick-itch cycle. The longer it continues, the harder it becomes to treat.”  

Once you and your vet figure out what’s causing your dog to lick, they’ll want to treat the secondary bacterial infection and break the licking cycle. Topical and systemic antibiotics and steroids are usually prescribed, and a physical barrier to stop the licking must be used. This can be an e-collar or bandage, whichever works best for your pet.

Pups with recurrent or chronic cases of acral lick granulomas may benefit from medications meant to treat the behavioral aspect of the condition. Each dog is different and responds differently to the various treatments available. Work with your veterinarian to come up with a solution that works for your family, even if it means trying every trick in the book.

The Dig, Fetch Pet Insurance's expert-backed editorial, answers all of the questions you forget to ask your vet or are too embarrassed to ask at the dog park. We help make sure you and your best friend have more good days, but we’re there on bad days, too.

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