When we first adopted our dog Izzy, in 1998, she had a habit of licking the varnish off our floors. She’d just lie there, seemingly at ease, licking the space between her forepaws till the wood was bare. She was an active young dog, and the problem went away after I started taking her for a long off-leash walk in the park every morning, so I assumed she’d been working off energy and had also been bored.
Since then, working with dogs who have behavior problems, I’ve generally seen persistent licking of surfaces as either an attention-seeking behavior or a form of Canine Compulsive Disorder. But a recent study by Véronique Bécuwe of the University of Montreal’s veterinary school found that it ain’t necessarily so.
Bécuwe studied 30 dogs: 10 healthy controls, 10 dogs with excessive licking of surfaces (ELS) who also had signs of gastrointestinal problems, and 10 dogs with ELS and no obvious gastrointestinal problems. The dogs in the three groups showed no difference in how anxious they were overall — the big behavioral difference among them was just the licking.
Lo and behold, when the dogs got complete workups, it turned out that 14 of the 20 with ELS had a diagnosable gastrointestinal condition. Clearly, that includes some of the dogs who showed no obvious sign of a problem. Among the diagnoses: delayed gastric emptying, irritable bowel syndrome, and eosinophilic infiltration of the gastrointestinal tract (a condition whose symptoms include abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting).
When the GI conditions were treated, the majority of these dogs improved significantly, and in half the ELS disappeared completely.
Now, this is just one study, and it’s not huge. Not all the dogs were “cured,” by any means. But if I had a dog with ELS now, I would get a gastrointestinal workup in a heartbeat. Because not only did Izzy lick floors, she also had irritable bowel syndrome. And we happened to get a handle on that just around the same time I started taking her for those long walks every day. Goodness knows my clever, active dog needed the exercise anyway, but now I wonder whether it wasn’t the irritable bowel treatment that saved our floors while it was saving Iz a whole lot of gut cramping, diarrhea, and general misery.