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Compulsive Scratching and Licking in Dogs

Compulsive scratching and licking behaviors are quite common in dogs and have a variety of causes. They can also be harmful. Although most of the time excessive itching is not serious and a quick fix, it should not be overlooked, as it can be dangerous in some cases.

Excessive self-licking and scratching can be caused by a medical issue. It can also be a behavioral problem, a classic example of an obsessive/compulsive disorder. Either way, it’s annoying to the dog’s human companion, and dangerous to the health of the dog.

One of the first signs your dog has a problem might be the development of a “hot spot” — a red, wet, irritated area that arises from persistent chewing, licking, scratching or rubbing. Although hot spots, or “acute moist dermatitis,” can occur anywhere on your dog’s body, they are most often found on the head, chest, or hips.

To determine the exact cause of your dog’s scratching, you should bring them to the vet for a professional diagnosis.

Reasons for Compulsive Scratching and Licking in Dogs

Obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD)

OCD in dogs is a condition where a dog is compelled to repeat a specific behavior (such as scratching) repeatedly. They can become so distracted by it that they are unable to stop that behavior on their own.

If this scratching goes on too long, the dog will continue the behavior long after the stimulus (itching) is gone. This is when a behavior becomes a compulsion, or OCD


When dog scratching gets out of hand, it is often the result of allergies to food or environmental triggers, including mold and pollen. Dogs may also develop a skin irritation called contact dermatitis when they encounter substances like pesticides or soap.

Boredom or anxiety. 

Just as people with anxiety might bite their nails or twirl their hair, dogs can have physical responses to psychological upset too. In fact, some dogs develop a condition akin to human obsessive-compulsive disorder. It can manifest itself in scratching, licking, or chewing behaviors that can cause severe damage.


Parasites such as fleas, mites and ticks can cause scratching. Fleas can cause irritation when they bite, which can make your dog want to itch. Some pets can tolerate flea bites better than others, as some dogs can have a hypersensitivity to the saliva that gets injected into the skin as the fleas feed. Dogs with a hypersensitivity will develop pink skin that will have scabby crusts and will be itching, scratching and licking their coat. In some cases, hotspots will also form. If your dog has fleas, the most common place that they will scratch is down their hind legs and on their rump.

Hormonal Imbalances

Too little thyroid hormone or not enough cortisol can cause superficial infections that can cause bald spots with scratching. Your vet can order lab tests to check for these.

Dry Skin

One common cause of itching is dry skin. If you live in a region with low humidity, it’s more likely that your dog will have dry skin, which is fairly easy to recognize. When you part your dog’s hair, you see flakes of dandruff in the undercoat, and the skin itself may be cracked and tough.

Treatment of Compulsive Scratching and Licking In Dogs

Consult with Your Vet

Bring your dog to his veterinarian for a check up. Nothing you do to address the dog’s behavior will be of much use if your dog itches as a result of environmental allergies or some other medical condition. If you treat the medical condition, the licking and scratching may stop. If not, it’s also become a behavioral issue.


If the licking and scratching is due to significant generalized anxiety, or the behavior has become a compulsive disorder. Talk with a veterinary behaviorist or a vet with a special interest in behavior about anti-anxiety medication. This is to improve your dog’s quality of life and decrease the compulsive licking and chewing.

Behavioral modification

You may need to consult and animal behaviorist. The behaviorist will work with you to develop a plan of treatment based on positive reinforcement. They will likely use desensitization, a technique that gradually trains a dog to be less sensitive to a trigger.

Another technique they will likely use is counterconditioning. This is a positive reinforcement method that teaches a dog to replace the negative emotion it feels toward a trigger with a positive one.

Change Food

If food allergies are making your dog itch, eliminating potential trigger foods (such as beef or wheat) can make a huge difference. Your vet may recommend a special diet if this appears to be the case. The addition of fatty acid supplements to your pet’s regular food can also help address dry skin issues and keep your dog’s coat healthy.


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