I’ve lived with Riley all of my life. He’s my best friend and constant companion. He’s the brawn and I’m the brains, or so I like to think. Early last year, he had surgery that left him with a few stitches. He started to lick the incision area incessantly, to the point that he was injuring himself. He created what is known as a lick granuloma. This disease causes chronic skin lesions that often result in ulceration. While we all thought this was a strange development, no one in our family understood the nightmare that was ahead.

In the beginning, my people tried discouraging the compulsive licking with cones and bandages. Nothing worked. If Riley couldn’t get to the exact spot, he would start obsessively licking a different spot. His demeanor, meanwhile, seemed absolutely fine. He did not exhibit any signs of stress whatsoever, other than the fact that he absolutely, positively, would not stop licking.

Of course, my family consulted a vet. That yielded no conclusive diagnosis or solution. Meanwhile, the behavior continued for months. Desperate, my family finally had to resort to a basket muzzle that allowed Riley to drink water, but made it almost impossible for him to get to the wound. His compulsion to lick remained so strong, however, that he would begin licking within seconds after the muzzle came off. It was heartbreaking for all of us. Riley, a 14-year-old Weimaraner, is not a young dog. We didn’t want him spending any time in a muzzle – much less the precious time of senior years. And yet, we had no choice.

Throughout the saga, I learned a lot about the condition, which is more prevalent in large breeds. In fact, certain breeds are especially prone to lick granulomas, including Weimaraners, Dobermans, Labradors, Golden Retrievers, Boxers, and German Shepherds. Males are twice as susceptible as females. Most of what I found out was disheartening. Riley’s long and difficult path to recovery is relatively normal for this situation. Vets agree that there can be many underlying causes, but no quick cures.

Those underlying causes can include irritants, allergies, wounds, and arthritis, as well as psychological stressors like separation anxiety and boredom. Some professionals theorize that licking produces endorphins, encouraging the dog to repeat the behavior even if the initial trigger goes away. One thing is certain: regardless of what starts the behavior, it becomes something deeply psychological and dangerous. Dogs will often lick themselves until they have serious wounds with associated infections.

If you notice your dog licking one spot to excess, watch carefully to determine if there is the potential for a lick granuloma. If there is, go to the vet right away, administer medication as needed, be consistent with whatever treatment options you use, reduce stress and boredom as much as possible, and, by all means, do not become angry with your dog. He or she will need lots of love and attention to break the pattern and heal.

More than a year has passed, and Riley is finally able to be without his muzzle. Even now, we are still on alert, fearful that his compulsion will return at any minute. So far, however, things are going well. The old guy is playing fetch, sleeping, eating, and doing all the happy things healthy dogs do. I think he has licked his condition for good!

Albert, a Jack Russell Terrier, is Chairman of the Board of Wylie Wagg, a shop for dogs, cats, and their people, with locations in VA and DC.

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