Dogs do the strangest of things, and much of their behavior is relatively easy to explain. But there are certain things which aren’t so simple to understand. For example, my dog recently started to sniff at lick at my eyes. He also wanted to lick my son’s face when he was crying.
I decided to research why dogs like to lick eyes, and believe I have the most comprehensive of answer you can expect to find. Here’s the short answer first, followed by the research and studies.
Why does my dog lick my eyes? Dogs lick your eyes for reasons as diverse liking the salty taste when you cry, being affectionate, grooming you, obsessive compulsive disorder, or even a medical problems relating to constant licking.
Why does my dog lick my eyes, nose, and ears?
Dog licking is usually interpreted as an expression of affection. However, it has also been attributed to medical conditions such as allergies, infections, breed-related genetic predisposition, and gastrointestinal diseases.
Studies have also shown that dogs lick eyes, ears, and noses due to behavioral reasons including anxiety, stress, boredom, or obsessive-compulsive disorders.
While most pet owners tolerate a certain amount of dog licking, there are documented cases of serious illness arising from dog to human transmission and thus, this practice should be avoided.
For example, when my dog wants to lick my son’s eyes when he was crying, I quickly put a stop to it – just the same as I would with any young child as dog saliva can be harmful.
1. Your small breed dogs is more likely to lick eyes
I used to own an American Pitbull Terrier, Barry, who weighed 31 kg. He was a large dog and prefers to amuse himself by chewing objects, digging holes and burying his toys, chasing cats… he would never want to lick our eyes, even when we were crying.
We now have a smaller dog, a Frenchie. This dog does like to lick eye, and research suggests this might not be as unusual.
Small dogs are more of the licking kind. In a study on the influence of size on undesirable behaviors of domestic dogs, small dogs more frequently displayed exaggerated jumping-up on owners when they come back. This included barking when left alone, barking insistently when not alone, and licking insistently the mouth and other parts of their owner’s body.
Although your dog might not appear to be a licker, you still might get this with larger dogs. For example, I remember with Barry when I would cuddle up to hear near his face… that was until he stuck his out tongue and attempts to lick me.
Aside from size, some dog breeds have been identified as having a predisposition to the licking behavior. One study on the English Bulldog reported that they frequently exhibit licking of the body and mouth of the owner, which can also include eyes.
2. Your dog licks your eyes due to wanting to groom you
When your dog licks your eyes, it could be viewed as a normal grooming activity. But it could also be a pathologic behavior if done repeatedly or incessantly to the point of causing discomfort to the owner.
This relates back to their pack mentality. It’s seen in so many dog behaviors such as them wanting to sleep on top of you, or following you around the home. Some dogs will lick any part of your body that can reach, even your feet.
3. Your dog licks your eyes due to canine OCD
There is a growing body of research exploring the occurrence of obsessive-compulsive behavior manifesting as excessive licking in dogs. Two examples are excessive licking of paws leading to canine lick granuloma, and excessive licking of surfaces.
Canine lick granuloma, also known as Acral Lick Dermatitis (ALD), is the formation of well-delineated, bald, thickened, or abraded areas of the skin of the paw, anywhere from the foot to the elbow, due to excessive licking.
Dog breeds predisposed to this condition include Doberman Pinscher, Labrador Retriever, Golden retriever, Great Dane, Boxer, Weimaraner, and Irish Setter (view study source).
You might think what does that have to do with you. Well, dogs with this OCD have been known to lick their owners more, and that can extend to the eyes.
4. Your dog licks your eyes due to a medical condition
The eye licking behavior may be initiated by a medical condition such as food allergy, infection, or injury which causes itching in the dog’s paw. Licking provides transient relief but may aggravate the condition, causing more itching, leading to repeated licking.
This itch-lick cycle eventually leads to the formation of the thickened, sore area of the skin. The compulsive behavior is manifested when the dog resorts to licking the area not only because of the itch, but to relieve stress or boredom.
It stands to reason then, that if you’re near your dog, they could also start licking you including your eyes, due to stress and boredom.
Going back to Compulsive Licking, another form of this behavior is Excessive Licking of Surfaces (ELS) such as floors, walls, carpets, and furniture. A study done on ELS dogs compared to normal dogs showed abnormalities in the digestive tract in the ELS dogs.
These abnormalities include inflammation of the stomach, delay in stomach emptying, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammation of the pancreas, and parasitic infection.
Furthermore, treatment of the digestive tract disease led to improvement or disappearance of the ELS behavior. Thus, dogs exhibiting ELS should be screened for gastrointestinal disorders before labeling them as compulsive/obsessive-compulsive or reacting to stress or anxiety.
This condition might manifest itself with your dog licking your eyes too.
Why does my dog lick my eyes when I cry?
The reasons for your dog licking your eyes when you cry has a potential different meaning. It might be that your dog likes the salty taste of your tears.
It could also be that your dog understands that you are upset and so wants to soothe and comfort you – and licking is often their only way of doing this.
Is it bad if a dog licks your eye?
It can be bad if a dog licks your eye, as bacteria from their saliva can then enter your system, leading to a potential illness.
In movies we see dogs licking the smiling faces of their pet owners, both dog and human glowing with the warmth of shared affection. You might think that disease transmission through this practice is probably more of a theoretical possibility.
Are there actual cases?
Unfortunately, there are. Whilst rare, it is still possible for you to get sick when a dog licks your eye, and this is backed up by science.
In 1989, Dr. Martin Tammegagi, the Nostradamus of human diseases which can be caused by dog-licking, submitted a letter to the Canadian Veterinary Journal:
“Dear Sir, the cover of the September 1989 issue of the Canadian Veterinary Journal is eye-catching and attractive, but depicts a practice that is not exemplary, and should be discouraged. Mouth-to-face contact, licking, or kissing between humans and pets can result in human illness, and the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, its Journal, and President should not condone and glamorize such behavior. Certainly, such behavior is common and in most instances leads to no harm, but medical literature has documented numerous cases in which serious human infections resulted from nontraumatic exposure to the saliva of pets.”
He also mentioned characteristics of people who are at high risk for contracting a disease through this practice of a dog licking your eye: age extremes (very young and very old), alcoholism, intake of cytotoxic drugs or high dose corticosteroids, diabetes, liver disease, and kidney diseases, among others.
Recently, medical journals have published reports on dog to human transmission of disease through casual licking.
For example, in the British Medical Journal Case Report of June 2016, it read:
“A 70-year-old woman was brought to the emergency room for seizures and stayed in the intensive care unit for 2 weeks. She had severe infection with multi-organ system dysfunction from Capnocytophaga canimorsus, a bacteria frequently isolated from the mouth of dogs and cats. She had no scratch or bite marks but the patient reported close petting, including licking from her Italian greyhound.”
Then in the Canadian Journal of Infectious Disease and Medical Microbiology in July to August 2015.
“A 55-year-old woman was brought to the emergency department for chills, hip pain, and difficulty in walking. She had right hip surgery 8 years before this admission and has had several episodes of infection in the surgical wound site. The current infection was from Pasteurella multocida, a bacteria normally found in the mouth of dogs and cats. This patient lives with 5 dogs and 2 cats. She has allowed her dogs to lick a wound on her right leg. The authors report that this is the 6thdocumented case of Pasteurella joint infection from a dog lick.”
Another example of illness being spread form a dog lick was in The Lancet in May of 2019:
“A 12-day-old baby was admitted for fever, irritability, and poor feeding. The cerebrospinal fluid culture showed Pasteurella multocida. The baby was treated for meningitis. The family reported that they had no cats but had 2 dogs: a Maltese poodle and a Bichon Shih Tzu. The dogs showed their affection for the baby by licking his face.”
These are just examples of actual cases of dog to human transmission of disease-causing bacteria through dogs licking eyes, ears, and mouths of humans. These cases are rare and we probably can still enjoy having our faces licked by our beloved dogs as long as we don’t have open wounds or abrasions, and wash our face immediately with soap and water.
Furthermore, people at high risk for severe illness, such as the group identified by Dr. Martin Tammegagi (very young and very old), alcoholism, intake of cytotoxic drugs or high dose corticosteroids, diabetes, liver disease, and kidney diseases), should avoid this kind of fun times with their dog.
Handy Hint: I also recommend you read my research into the possibility of getting rabies from dogs licking your hands and face.
My Frenchie’s eye licking behavior is not of the repetitive, obsessive-compulsive type. Based on that, you would think it’s not so bad for my dog to lick my eye now and again.
Now knowing what I do though, it’s something I don’t recommend you do.
So, how do we stop our dog from repeated, incessant, or unwanted licking of our eyes, faces or ears?
According to Dr. Gary Ladsberg, behavior modification takes time and commitment from pet owners. This will involve avoiding situations that trigger the abnormal behavior, promoting and rewarding desirable behavior, and sometimes, using behavior-modifying drugs for resistant cases.
Dr. Ladsberg also warned that training based on punishment or confrontations is not recommended because they lead to fear, avoidance, and increased aggression.
You might also like…
Here’s more recent content and research about strange dog behavior.
- Why dogs like to lick their owner’s arms all the time
- Reasons for sudden clingy behavior in dogs
- Reasons why your dog is starting to pee on your clothing
Image in header via https://pixabay.com/photos/chinook-dog-dog-lick-canine-3031009/