Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Obsessive Licking, Hot Spots and Cancer: Is There a Connection?

While the Red Dog Blog began as a way to keep friends and family apprised of our dog's progress in her courageous battle with cancer, it has evolved into a small but vibrant community where we can share a mixture of fun and facts with the dog lovers in our lives. Through our experiences with cancer, we have learned much - both about ourselves and the disease itself - and we want to share some of this with those of you who are interested.

(We also plan to implement some of the suggestions shared in response to our recent "Curious" post. Special thanks to both Amy & LiveWorkDream for the awesome feedback!)

Today, we'll talk about what we consider to be a potential "canary in the coal mine" indicator for the disease itself. Although little has been said about obsessive licking and hot spots being possible warning signs that your dog might have cancer, much discussion has centered on the facts that these behaviors can indicate anxiety, discomfort and pain. In our experience, all may have validity.

One potential mitigating factor is that Golden Retrievers can lick obsessively as a breed characteristic; what we are discussing, however, is not so easily explained. That the behavior can be expressed in any breed or mix gives credence to the belief that the behavior is not idiopathic, but rather has causation. In addition, veterinary scientists have documented many instances where underlying conditions were present prior to the behavior. This also suggests causation.

In our cases, all instances involved Shiva (Golden Retriever), Katy (Golden Retriever) or Snoopy (Basset/ACD mix). All have obsessively licked, thereby creating "hot spots" on multiple occasions for both physiological and psychological reasons, although both Retrievers also have obsessively licked surfaces such as furniture fabric and carpet. Ideally, both causes could be identified, although explaining the motivations and psyche of a dog tends to stray into the realm of speculation. In these instances, all we can do is hypothesize the most probable cause or causes of the behavior.

For that reason, as well as our hypothesis that cancer may be one potential underlying cause of the behavior, we will focus on instances having likely physiological causes. Although Shiva initially presented the behavior sporadically at a fairly young age (which we attributed to psychological motives), it was not until a recent instance that a definitive physiological condition could be linked to it.

Prior to receiving her diagnosis of osteosarcoma in 2009 - and prior to any limping behavior - Shiva began obsessively licking the anterior (front) side of her lower rear leg (metatarsus segment). Over the course of a week or two, she developed a classic hot spot. Unsure of her motivation, we sprayed an anti-itch agent on the area to discourage her from continuing.

Given her history with psychological stressors, we knew it could get much worse without intervention. In this case, she refrained for a short while, turned her attention to licking her dog bed and then resumed licking her leg with diminished regard for the distasteful agent. Within another week, she began very subtle, intermittent limping while continuing to obsessively lick her rear leg. This behavior increased in frequency and severity with some rapidity, which triggered a trip to the veterinarian.

The rest of the journey of surgery and recovery can be viewed here. After the removal of her right front leg and its subsequent healing, the licking behavior vanished. Please note that the limb affected by cancer and the one she licked were not the same.

As many of you know, a few weeks ago I discovered a mass between the toes of her remaining front leg. What you don't know, however, is that a couple weeks prior to this discovery she began obsessively licking the same spot on her rear leg as in the previous instance. She also licked the fabric on our couch into a soggy mess on multiple occasions. Since the removal of the new mass (which also proved to be cancer - melanoma this time), the behavior once more stopped. Again, the affected limb and the limb she licked were not the same.

In both instances, the intensity of the licking behavior and subsequent hot spots were indicators of something being amiss elsewhere in her body. For this very important reason, we suggest casting a wide net when searching for possible causes if your dog presents and persists with this behavior. While the cause may be in the limb being licked (cuts, sprains, foreign objects in paw etc.), in our experience it just as likely is not.

In Katy's case, her licking behavior has been less consistent, as well as more focused on fabric surfaces. The one exception is immediately prior to her recent diagnosis of hemangiosarcoma. In hindsight, there was a marked increase of obsessive licking and general unease which likely indicated her internal discomfort. Since the removal of her spleen, very little licking behavior has been evident.

With Snoopy, we were fortunate that neither instance pointed to cancer. The first example of obsessive licking indicated a soft tissue sprain in a rear leg. Unlike Shiva, he focused his attention on the pads of a front foot. After treatment, the behavior stopped. The second episode actually involved the same foot being licked, but the source of discomfort was a different spot than he was licking. Upon closer inspection, we discovered he had split his dewclaw down to the quick and was suffering acute pain from the injury. Sedation and careful trimming by our vet - followed by pain meds - solved that dilemma, as well as his licking behavior.

The bottom line for us is to never forget to take a whole-body approach when investigating persistent symptoms in your dog. Things are not always as they appear.

Our hope here is to foster discussion - and ultimately research - on this subject, so that those of us unfortunate enough to face cancer in our beloved dogs can have every opportunity of successfully fighting it. In most cases, the window for effective intervention is small, so time is of the essence. Perhaps obsessive licking behavior is one more diagnostic advantage we can use to tip the balance in favor of our canine friends.

Please share this entry with dog lovers everywhere, and add your own experiences and opinions to the comments below.


  1. Very interesting theory Brian. My brothers dog expressed similar "anxieties". Licking his legs and the pads of his paws. We were always told it was allergies, but he was then diagnosed with osteocarcoma of the upper mandible and then lymphoma a few years later. Has definitely gotten my wheels turning!! Thank you!

  2. I find the theory interesting too. However, now you have me worried... Taye tends to lick everything - himself, his bed, the carpet, us - but its not really obsessive. At least, he doesn't lick hotspots on himself and he doesn't devote more than 10 minutes at a time licking any one particular thing, but he does do it on a consistent basis. So how do you tell when the behavior should be investigated fully? He is absolutely terrified of the vet so I really hate to put him through it, but now I want to take him and have him tested for EVERYTHING! Having lost one dog to cancer (no warning on that one - no telltale symptoms for acute lymphoblastic lukemia and it takes them fast!) I'm now extremely nervous whenever Taye displays any kind of unusual behavior or symptom - this just gives me one more to worry about. However, I am glad you brought this to my attention.

  3. Thanks for the feedback, Jenny. It does get the wheels turning, especially if you've seen it before.

    And as for your concerns Uneekgyrl, my best advice is to consider what is abnormal or out of the ordinary about the behavior - if anything. We saw a stark difference between general/normal licking and the obsessive variety that led us to the vet.

    Your best bet right now is to err on the side of caution while keeping in mind your pup's past history.

    I hope this helps, and thanks for the great feedback!

  4. I agree completely- i have felt this for a long long time. Thanks Brian- excellent piece as always

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  6. My Golden was licking her front paw and created a hot spot. Then soon after started coughing and became very lethargic. Fast forward 4 weeks later with multiple trips to vet and a specialist Cody was diagnosed with lung cancer. We are extremely devastated.

  7. My Golden was licking her front paw and created a hot spot. Then soon after started coughing and became very lethargic. Fast forward 4 weeks later with multiple trips to vet and a specialist Cody was diagnosed with lung cancer. We are extremely devastated.

  8. I noticed my black lab 7 years old has started licking herself, us and the sofa. Sadly we discovered two weeks ago she has hemangiosarcoma.

  9. I noticed my black lab 7 years old has started licking herself, us and the sofa. Sadly we discovered two weeks ago she has hemangiosarcoma.

  10. Both of my Goldens licked their feet obsessively in the months leading up to their passsing from cancer. I didn't make the connection until after I lost my second dog. In the future I'll take it as a warning sign. I wish I could have saved them.

  11. 5 weeks ago i came home and noticed a large wet spot on the couch....a few hours later i xame downstairs and saw my golden licking the spot like crazy....fast forward 5 weeks and we are now weeks into trying to grasp her diagnosis of mast cell tumor. She had continued to lick at her rear leg and only stops if i lay next to her and am physically touching her. Cant tell if its pain or anxiety.....but its heartbreaking

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  13. If someone could help me its been three days that my dog has been licking constantly Hus front leg its very red and I've tried looking to see but he cries and tries to bite me. What should I do take him to the vet one time he was limping and licking his front let took him to the vet didn't see anything till the next day we looked and he had a splinter and I took it out and problem resolved. Just paid the vet for nothin. But now I want someone to help me out. Thanks

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