Among the many odd things dogs do, dogs licking the air or dogs snapping at the air are behaviors that often leave owners baffled, wondering what may be going on. If your dog is licking and snapping the air, and he's not in playful mood or feeling threatened, don't just assume it's an odd, perhaps even funny behavior, and leave it as that. Licking the air may seem like one of those behavior "quirks" dogs often display, but it can be triggered by some underlying medical condition. If your dog is sitting quietly and then gets these "spells" of licking the air, this behavior warrants investigation. A regular vet may help find the underlying cause, but sometimes, in challenging cases, a consultation with a board-certified veterinary specialist is needed.
Air Snapping in Dogs
Dog owners often describe their dogs as if biting at some imaginary fly hovering in the air, but in reality there are no bugs around. For this reason, this behavior of air licking is also known as "fly biting" or "fly snapping." Other dog owners describe it as a dog who is chasing imaginary things, up to the point of making them wonder whether their dogs are responding to some sort of paranormal activity!
Dogs who are repeatedly licking their lips are sometimes said to be lip smacking but this behavior is a tad bit different than air snapping.
In air snapping, as the name implies, the dog is watching something and then moving the head forward and snapping as if trying to catch something; whereas, in lip smacking, the dog is only repeatedly passing his tongue over his lips and making smacking noises as if there's peanut butter stuck to the roof of the dog's mouth.
With this distinction pointed out, following are are several causes for dogs licking the air:
Possible Partial Seizure
We often imagine seizures as the abrupt onset of uncontrollable muscle activity with the dog falling to his side, paddling and foaming at the mouth. These dramatic and scary episodes are known as gran mal seizures, but partial seizures are a type of seizures that are more on the discreet side.
Also known as focal seizures, partial seizures are limited to only a part of the brain's hemisphere and therefore produces symptoms based on what part of the brain is affected. Affected dogs may just twitch a part of their body or engage in fly catching.
Diagnosing seizures is not easy in dogs as it would require recording the brain waves produced during the epileptic event in hopes of detecting the associated brain wave abnormalities, but it's not like dogs can sit still for extended periods of time with electrodes stuck on their bodies while waiting for a seizure to happen!
Generally, if the episodes are infrequent, and therefore, quite sporadic, they're not much cause for concern unless they increase in frequency or are accompanied by grand-mal seizures, explains board-certified veterinary neurologist, David O' Brien.
However, if the dog's seizures happen frequently enough, dogs are often put on an anti-seizure medication trial. The dog owner therefore observes the dog while he's on an anti-epileptic medication and reports to the vet any seizure activity occurring during the trial. If the the dog air licking episodes subside, then it's indicative that the spells were likely indeed seizures.
"The fly-biters are still a bit of a question mark for veterinary neurologists. We think they are a type of complex partial seizure, but the evidence is not conclusive."~David O' Brien
Presence of Vitreous Floaters
Floaters are not limited to humans, they can affect dogs as well. What exactly are floaters and how do they affect dogs? Just like us, the dog's eye is filled with a gel-like substance known as "vitreous."
As dogs age, this substance thins and pulls away from the retina, a condition known as posterior vitreous detachment. When this occurs, floaters, which are small particles of vitreous gel, may be present.
In humans, floaters are described as being seen like debris that floats on the eyes and disturbing vision. In dogs, there's belief that floaters may not be well understood and dogs may therefore believe that there are actual objects floating around triggering the instinct to want to catch them.
For this reason, vitreous floaters are sometimes referred to as "flying flies." While floaters can be easily diagnosed by a vet by carefully looking into the dog's eyes using an ophthalmoscope, there are chances that fly biting behaviors are not due to eye problems. Vitreous floaters are not only uncommon, but also fly biting is more likely to occur because of some dysfunction of the dog's temporal or occipital lobe, explains Kirk N. Gelatt, a veterinary ophthalmologist in the book "Essentials of Veterinary Ophthalmology."
A Digestive Disorder
In some cases, licking the air has been found to be indicative of a digestive disorder. A study conducted by researchers from the University of Montréal Veterinary Teaching Hospital evaluated 7 dogs with a history of fly biting with their episodes lasting anywhere from once daily to an episode every hour.
Recordings of their fly biting events showed that the dogs were raising their heads and extending their necks prior to snapping at the air, a behavior that was suggestive of some sort of discomfort with their esophagus. When these dogs were examined, they were all found to have a digestive abnormality. Medical treatment successfully solved most of these dog's underlying digestive issues and therefore tackled the fly biting behavior.
" All dogs with oral repetitive behaviors should undergo a complete medical work-up to rule out GI disease before evaluation for behavioral disorder."~John Ciribassi
A Behavioral Disorder
In behavioral medicine, licking the air and fly biting have been reported to possibly be caused by a compulsive behavior disorder. It's a mistake to assume fly biting is behavioral issue from the get-go without first having the dog evaluated for underlying medical problems. Once medical problems have been ruled out, then, the next step may be consulting with a veterinarian specializing in behavior problems.
Dogs are known for often exhibiting odd, repetitive and bizarre behaviors such as chasing lights, flank sucking, chasing tails, spinning and fly biting is one of them. Fly biting when performed repeatedly by the dog and intently, so much so that it is difficult to interrupt, may be a sign of a compulsive disorder.
Such compulsive disorders can be problematic as they interfere with the dog's normal activities. The behavior may start out of conflict or frustration and then become a default behavior that dogs use, often occupying a high percentage of their time.
Treatment in this case entails pharmacological intervention most often using serotonin reuptake inhibitors along with behavior modification in hopes of reducing the behavior and re-directing the dog to normal activities.
Disclaimer: this article is not meant to be used as a substitute for professional veterinary advice. If your dog is engaging in air licking, air snapping or fly biting, please consult with your vet.
- Frank D, Bélanger MC, Bécuwe-Bonnet V, et al. Prospective medical evaluation of 7 dogs presented with fly biting. Can Vet J 2012;53:1279-1284.
- DVM360, Compulsive disorders: Have you considered GI involvement? retrieved from the web on December 10th, 2016
- Flickr. Creative Commons, Tony Alter, Nose Check CCBY2.0
- A vet examines a dog in New York, Archivist1174 - Own work, Photo of New York State Assemblyman Dr. Stephen M. "Steve" Katz at the Bronx Veterinary Center.CC BY-SA 3.0