DOGS that ritualistically scratch and lick could well be indicating that there is an allergic reaction to the food they are eating, or to an ingredient in the food. If the body defence mechanisms are in action, this will in turn trigger off cells, which release histamine into the body.
In the dog, these cells are located in their greatest numbers on the feet and the legs, around the ears, eyes and nose, on the root of the tail and on the chest and abdomen. Frantic licking or scratching in these areas, especially shortly after eating a meal, will eventually damage the skin and leave it open to infection.
Some behaviours of licking and scratching are so extreme that they get to the point where the dog or cat does not want to sleep. They only want to do this particular behaviour.
Tail chasing and tail chewing in Bull Terriers, flank sucking in Dobermans, hind end licking and sucking in Schnauzers is well reported many dogs suffer imaginary flies and chase them.
It is important that if you find your animal is scratching or licking excessively that the first report is made to your vet who will be able to determine if in fact this is an allergic reaction to food or whether the behaviour has medical cause. Parasites, skin problems or arthritis could cause excessive licking; liver disease could also cause unusual behaviour; and bowel or anal problems could result in hind end checking by your vet.
Some vets now understand the value of a canine behaviourist and often refer to them to enable a study of the particular behaviour to see if it is a learned response to the animal’s owner. After physical causes and learned behaviours are ruled out, a vet or animal behaviourist takes a detailed history of events to find out what is triggering the behaviour.
Some of the common causes include a new baby or spouse in the family, moving to a new home, holiday periods like Christmas when the animal gets less attention, when children go off to boarding school. Less attention paid to the pet or even less exercise, frustration at being left alone in too small an area or being confined for too long and harsh or inconsistent punishment. If a pet does not know what to expect from its owners, then this can cause conflict.
In many cases where a dog is seen licking itself by its owner with the owner getting frustrated shouting ‘Stop licking,’ it is enough to cause conflict in the pet’s mind.
Stress levels should be reduced by maintaining regular schedules like feeding three times a day at a set time, habitual and increased exercise and consistent use of commands followed by immediate reward of ‘Good dog.’
Sometimes drug therapy is required to correct the animal’s imbalances in the brain, as it is difficult with behaviour modification alone.