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The simple fact is that our dogs can be quite gross.
Most of us try not to think about this when we cuddle up next to them after a long day but without our supervision, most dogs will happily eat, lick or chew just about anything they can come across. It’s easy to understand licking food items or floors that may have had food spilled on them but some habits are not so easy to understand.
Like licking the ears of other dogs.
What’s actually going on here? Why do some dogs lick other dogs’ ears?
Dogs may lick another dog’s ear to say hello and let them know that they’re friendly. They may also do it as part of a grooming and bonding process or simply because they enjoy the taste of earwax. Some dogs may be more likely to lick ears when they’re bored.
That’s the quick answer but let’s dive a little deeper into this weird canine behavior with everything you need to know about why dogs lick canine ears.
Reason 1: Licking Ears Can Be A Friendly Greeting And An Appeasement Behavior
In the human world, licking the ears of someone you just met would not go well.
But in the canine world, it can be a great way to not only say hello but also let the other dog know that you come in peace!
Traditional behavior theory about dogs and wolves suggested that dominance was a critical part of their everyday life. This idea found its way into behavior training too but has since been debunked. As social animals, there is certainly a social structure or hierarchy to the canine world but it’s not all about being the top dog or alpha pack leader.
Ear licking when meeting a new dog would fall into the traditional category of submissive behavior but is probably better described as an appeasement behavior or a behavior that signals friendliness and respect to other dogs.
Appeasement behavior includes things like avoiding eye contact, licking other dogs’ eyes or faces, lifting paws, showing submissive smiles, and of course licking ears along with many other behaviors.
Licks that are part of a friendly greeting or appeasement behavior are usually short, quick, and accompanied by other more submissive postures and body language. This video does a great job showing what these licks look like and these are the type of ear licks you’d expect when your dog meets a new canine friend at the park:
Many owners may be worried that their dog is trying to start a fight by walking right up and licking the ear of a strange dog and while that would be a great way to stir up trouble in the human world it has quite the opposite effect when it comes to canines!
Reason 2: Dogs Like The Taste…And Infected Ears Taste Better
Our first explanation sounds almost cute and a dog that quickly licks the ear is similar to a quick peck on the cheek in the human world.
Well, cute is now officially over and gross is in.
That’s because many dogs enjoy the taste of ear wax and other gunk that makes its way into a dog’s ear canal. Even better if there’s a mild infection, especially a yeast infection since this will only double the grossness and triple the appeal.
But what’s so appealing about ear wax and stinky smells?
First, there’s the aspect of salt and most bodily secretions are at least a little salty. Salt is a big deal and not only can dogs taste salt but just like most living creatures they also crave it as a basic and essential nutrient. Studies have found that even insects crave salt and it’s one of the most valuable resources that an animal could find in the wild.
However, ear wax isn’t all about salt, and according to some particularly curious journalists, human ear wax tastes quite bitter. I’m sorry to say that I’m not quite committed enough to taste a dog’s ear wax so we’ll have to assume that it’s also somewhat bitter which is another category of taste that dogs can experience.
While bitter isn’t something that we’d normally be interested in, the novelty of it seems to be appealing for dogs and it’s likely the combination of natural tastes mixed with dirt and debris that creates the perfect (and disgusting) ear canal cocktail.
As if all that wasn’t gross enough, it seems that dogs are particularly interested in infected ears which would certainly have a different taste, smell, and even texture. Dogs with floppy ears are particularly prone to ear infections which can cause the discharge of pus. Yeast infections are also common in canine ears and can cause some very strange smells and many folks suggest that they smell like Fritos.
I can guarantee you that if you put some Fritos in front of your dog they will happily chow down so despite being extremely gross it should be no surprise that dogs can’t resist licking a yeast-infected ear.
Dogs that lick ears for the taste of it may constantly try to get to their canine companion’s ear. They’ll also lick much deeper than pups that are using the behavior as a friendly greeting. So if your dog looks like they’re treating their friend’s ear like a jar of peanut butter, it’s safe to say that they’re probably motivated by taste.
Reason 3: To Help Out With Grooming
Now that we have the grossest explanation out of the way, let’s turn back to an explanation that’s closely tied to cute and friendly pack behavior!
Even though dogs don’t have the reputation for grooming that our cats have, they still need to lick themselves to stay clean. Cats have also mastered the graceful use of their paw to groom their face, eyes, and ears while dogs…just haven’t.
That means they could use a little help when it comes to cleaning their ears and some dogs are more than happy to help. Sure, they may be more interested in the taste of some ear wax rather than some form of canine altruism but the result is the same.
It’s also likely that the dog that’s getting their ears licked will be happy for the attention. Just as dogs love some human help with all the hard-to-reach spots, many dogs will enjoy the feeling of having their ears licked.
Despite the possibility of good intentions, ear licking is more likely to result in infections instead of cleaner ears. Bacteria and yeast grow best in environments with some moisture and the constant licking from another dog can add the needed moisture to spur an infection.
Grooming is likely to be a part of the ear licking explanation if dogs are licking the ear of their close companions or familiar dogs. Especially if it occurs during downtime when dogs are lounging or relaxing.
Reason 4: Bond Building And Companionship
Closely related to grooming, dogs may lick each other’s face, eyes and ears are part of bond-building and a sign of companionship.
Puppies are licked by their mom as soon as they’re born and they will continue to be licked by their mother well into their adolescent stage. Additionally, puppies will lick their mom’s mouth in order to request food. It’s a little gross but you can read more about that behavior here.
But the takeaway here is that licking is one of the earliest positive experiences a dog will have and for most dogs, it will be a sign of closeness and familiarity. Of course, there’s nothing special about the ear when it comes to bonding but some dogs may decide to both build the bond and enjoy the taste and smell of the ear canal at the same time.
Licking that’s related to bonding will not just be limited to the ears and include other parts of their canine companion as well.
Reason 5: Ear Licking Dogs Could Be Bored And Curious
There’s an old saying that a tired dog is a happy dog and in the human world, idle hands are a well-known cause of problems.
Boredom that leads into some natural curiosity could be all it takes for dogs to start exploring their canine friend’s ears with a few sniffs then a few licks.
Even more so if there’s any kind of infection present which will only make the ear even more interesting and novel. That may sound gross, but when you think of the world through your dog’s eyes it doesn’t seem so crazy. Your dog’s nose is so powerful that it’s going to be hard for them to just ignore a sudden change in smell that comes with an infection or even a little extra moisture mixing with ear wax.
The folks at Nova explain that a dog’s nose is as much as 100,000 times more powerful than our own. For a little perspective on what that really means, they explain that “If you make the analogy to vision, what you and I can see at a third of a mile, a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away and still see as well.”
So of course your dog will smell any change in their canine companion’s ears and the natural next step is to lick. Not just because our dogs can be gross but because the mouth is one of the most important aspects of how dogs interact with and explore their world.
Reason 6: Compulsive or Obsessive Licking
In rare cases, ear licking could be part of compulsive or obsessive licking behavior. More often, dogs will lick themselves or things around the house like the floor or bedding but it could turn into licking their canine roommate too. The ear can be a favorite location because the dog receiving the licking may enjoy it and we’ve already established the appeal of earwax…at least for dogs.
Dogs that are compulsively licking may show other signs of obsessive behavior like circling, licking other items, and even looking up at objects that aren’t there. However, these conditions are somewhat rare but if you suspect your dog may be suffering from obsessive or compulsive licking behavior then you should contact your veterinarian.
Should You Worry?
A little ear licking is completely normal canine behavior and the canine equivalent of a handshake or head nod between new acquaintances. A bit more ear licking is also normal for dogs that are bonded and mutual grooming is a common sign of companionship across the animal companion.
But there is a point when ear licking crosses a line and becomes too much.
When dogs seem obsessed with licking ears or ears are left visibly wet after so much licking then it becomes a problem. Not only could it be a sign of a bigger issue but if left unchecked the moisture from licking could lead to an ear infection which could actually encourage more ear licking. This could even create a positive feedback loop of ear licking.
Not only could ear licking make the infections worse, but it also means that the dog doing the licking could ingest a long list of different bacterias and potentially medicine if the ears are under treatment.
Of course, it takes time to get to that point but when ear licking seems to happen more often it’s a good idea to consult your veterinarian.
How To Stop Ear Licking Behavior
Whether ear licking has become a problem or not, you may want to try to curb the behavior and prevent it from becoming an issue in the future.
So what can you do?
Let’s break down the steps to follow.
Step 1: Rule Out Any Medical Concerns
It’s common practice to look for any medical concerns before trying to tackle a behavior problem.
After all, if dogs are suffering from a medical condition then no amount of behavior training will help and it’s no different here. Look for an ear infection, wound, or any other change to the ear of the dog that’s being licked.
You’ll also want to rule out obsessive or compulsive disorders in the dog that’s doing the licking. Your veterinarian can help with both.
Step 2: Redirect The Behavior
Once medical concerns are ruled out, you’ll want to give your dog something else to do besides licking ears. This is called redirecting the behavior and it’s like saying to your dog “You can’t do that, but you can do this.”
Whatever you provide as an alternative should be similar and my favorite choice is the Licki Mat which is somewhere between a toy and a food puzzle. You can spread something tasty all over the Licki Mat and dogs will spend their time slowly licking it off.
Because of all the cracks, crooks, and nooks, it can end up taking some dogs quite a long time and it has many of the same appeal that licking an ear does. It’s also one of the better options for dogs that don’t usually like toys since food will motivate most pups to start licking. You can read reviews and check today’s price for my favorite Licki Mat variation on Amazon by clicking here.
Whatever you pick as an alternative, consider what your dog likes doing the most and try to find toys that match their style. Whether it’s toys that cater to digging or just anything interactive, find something that’s more interesting than licking ears.
Ear licking could also be a sign of boredom and while a new toy can help relieve some of that, you’ll also want to make sure your dog is getting the appropriate amount of exercise and interactive play.
Step 3: Teach The “Leave It” Command
In many cases, just trying to redirect the behavior will be enough to stop the licking.
But to further enforce the behavior you can teach your dog the “Leave It” command to let them know that dog ears are off-limits. This command is also extremely helpful in day-to-day life so it’s worth teaching your pup even after the ear licking problem has been solved.
This video does a great job showing you how to teach the leave it command with just a few pieces of kibble:
Does Gender Matter When It Comes To Ear Licking?
Do the explanations above still hold up across all canine genders?
In other words, is the reason why female dogs lick the ears the same as it would be for male dogs?
Female dogs lick ears for all the same reasons as male dogs including a way of saying hello, grooming, bonding, and just for the taste of ear wax. Female dogs that have had a litter of puppies would have vigorously licked their puppies for several months but that doesn’t mean they’d lick more often.
Others may argue that female dogs are more likely to ear lick as a sign of submissiveness but as we’ve already explained dominance isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and there’s no correlation between specific genders and leadership within the canine pack.
So even though it may seem like dogs of a specific gender lick more often than others, I haven’t found any concrete evidence that female or male dogs lick more than other genders.
Ear licking is one of the many weird ways that dogs communicate and interact with each other.
When you realize it’s like a little canine handshake or peck on the cheek you may start to see it in a different light and this behavior can be quite cute.
But if instead your dog is motivated by the taste of ear wax or the smell of infection, then suddenly this behavior doesn’t seem so cute at all. While ear licking can be normal canine behavior, it can also get out of hand and even lead to ear infections if left unchecked.
What do you think? What reason best explains your dog’s love of licking ears?