Common Questions and Answers about your Dog’s Tongue

By: Orvis Staff

Photo by Deborah, Valparaiso

Depending on your point of view, one of the most endearing—or off-putting—features of a dog is his tongue. Everpresent, busy, and often intrusive, a dog’s tongue can also be one of his most defining characteristics. Most of us have either owned or have been acquainted with dogs who insist on greeting us by planting slobbery “kisses” on our hands and faces, or licking us incessantly to get our attention. And while it is commonly accepted wisdom that dogs’ mouths are cleaner than humans, does it mean they can lick us with abandon, and without any negative health consequences—assuming it’s even true? Following is an answer to that question, and more.

Do dogs’ tongues contain germs potentially dangerous to humans?

In addition to being relatively alkaline, which prevents cavities, dog saliva contains antibacterial chemicals to help with grooming and minor wound care. However, the saliva’s chemical composition doesn’t render it antiseptic to humans. Dogs’ saliva contains a multitude of bacteria which can be transmitted to humans through licking. Fortunately, most of the time, our skin and other immune functions ward off any potential pathogens.

Why do dogs lick?

Dogs lick people, dogs, and other objects for a variety of reasons but principally because it makes them feel good. Licking releases endorphins in the dog’s body, which provides comfort and relieves stress. And, when humans respond positively—bestowing attention on the dog upon being licked—it serves to reinforce the dog’s behavior, quickly turning it into a habit.

Photo by Angelica, Milano

Dogs also lick because using their mouths is how they explore the world. Licking a human’s skin, for example, not only comforts dogs, but gives them valuable feedback about what the human has been up to and what she’s feeling.

Other reasons for licking include signaling affection or submission to humans or other dogs. Excessive and/or incessant licking of body parts can signal a problem which should be evaluated by a veterinarian.

Why do dogs’ tongues hang out of their mouths?

While it’s a well-known fact that dogs pant with their tongues hanging out in order to cool off, many people may not appreciate that it’s one of the few mechanisms at dogs’ disposal to regulate their body temperature. Dogs don’t perspire through their skin like humans; they perspire only through their feet, which makes it much harder for them to cool off efficiently when they get hot. Excessive panting and drooling can be a sign of heat exhaustion, which should be addressed immediately.

Some dogs habitually let their tongues hang out, even when they’re sleeping, as an efficient way to regulate their body temperature. Other dogs’ tongues hang out of their mouths due to physical issues related to genetics. For example, brachycephalic breeds (pugs and other ‘smooshed face’ dogs) may have an overbite or underbite causing their tongues to hang out.

Photo by Maryellen, Pinellas Park

Why do some dogs have a black tongue?

Dogs’ tongues vary in appearance, similar to the rest of their bodies, and can have different colored markings. Some breeds are known particularly for their black or spotted tongues, including Chows and Shar Peis. Other breeds can have these markings as well, including Golden Retrievers, Labs, and Shepherds, to name a few. This pigmentation can extend to their gums, lips, and noses.

New, raised, or unusually textured spots on your dog’s tongue could indicate a problem which should be discussed with your veterinarian. (Abnormally pale gums signal a problem and warrant a call to the veterinarian immediately.)

Why is my dog’s tongue cold?

Dogs have only 1706 taste buds on their tongue compared to humans’ 9000, but dogs have something humans don’t: the ability to detect water, which has undoubtedly helped their species survive over time. Similar to humans, dogs can detect sweet, sour, and bitter tastes but not salt. But most of them always have an appetite for treats!

Dogs are amazing animals and, for the most part, terrific pets. But each dog has his idiosyncrasies often related to the use of his tongue—which is, more often than not, hanging outside of his mouth. This seems strange until you understand and appreciate that dogs’ tongues are a key part of their evolution and serve a number of important functions to help them survive.

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