Why Do Dogs Rub Their Face?

Why Do Dogs Rub Their Face?

If your dog keeps rubbing their face on things—the carpet, grass, furniture, or even you—pay close attention. Dog face rubbing can be a sign of an underlying issue that requires treatment.

So why do dogs rub their face and what should you do about it? Here’s what you need to know.

Dog Face Rubbing: What’s Normal?

Dog face rubbing is less common than it is in cats. However, that doesn’t mean that dogs never rub their face on stuff.

Dogs may rub their face for medically unconcerning reasons, such as scratching a quick itch, displaying affection, scent marking, or enjoying the smell of something stinky. 

Happy dogs may rub their faces in the grass when they’re let outside, adds Leslie Sinn, DVM, DACVB, who runs Behavior Solutions in Ashburn, Virginia. But typically, that behavior is not so face-focused. The dog is sort of rubbing their whole body over the grass, including their back and belly, when they’re feeling excited and playful.

When your dog is fixated on rubbing their face, however, it’s most likely a sign that something isn’t quite right. One way to test this is to try and distract your dog with food or a favorite toy, suggests Elizabeth Drake, DVM, DACVD, a veterinary dermatologist and associate professor at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. Think about whether your dog is food-motivated or play-motivated when choosing an appropriate distraction. If the distraction doesn’t work, and your dog continues to rub their face, it could be indicative of pain or discomfort.

Some dogs may vocalize while scratching or rubbing their face, which could provide another clue that there is a physical ailment causing the behavior, Dr. Drake adds.

Why Do Dogs Rub Their Face?

Dogs may rub their face on furniture, the carpet, or other surfaces for a variety of reasons, such as allergies, external parasites, infections, or pain. 

Dogs often rub their faces because they are itchy. Allergies are one of the most common causes of itching in dogs. If you tend to see a seasonal pattern in this type of behavior, it’s likely a sign that environmental allergies are the culprit, Dr. Sinn says. “If an owner reports a spike in the fall, the cause is probably grasses. In the spring, it’s tree pollen,” she adds.

If your dog has allergies, you may notice them excessively rubbing their face with their paws or against surfaces that create an easy, soothing friction to help relieve the itch. Dr. Sinn says it can be fairly easy to identify because it’s not a playful behavior. Terriers and Golden Retrievers seem to be especially cursed with allergic itch, Dr. Sinn says. “They really seem to have a tough time with allergies.”

External parasites, including fleas, sarcoptic mites, and ear mites, can also make dogs excessively itchy. Some dogs are hypersensitive to flea bites and experience a more severe reaction than other dogs. Mosquito bites and tick bites can also trigger itching and inflammation. 

If your dog appears to be pawing at or rubbing their eye on objects, this could be a sign of an eye allergy, eye infection, or another eye issue, such as ulcers or eyelids rolling inward (entropion). Similarly, if your dog appears to be focused on rubbing their ears, they could have an ear infection. 

Oral health problems, such as dental disease or infection in the lip folds, could also compel your dog to paw at their face or rub their mouth, Dr. Drake says. Other signs of dental problems in dogs include bad breath, red or swollen gums, swelling on the face, and decreased appetite.  “If the pet is only rubbing one side of the face and not both sides,” she says, “that implies something on that side of the face is causing discomfort, and thorough examination is indicated.”

Some pet parents may mistake head pressing in dogs as face rubbing. This is when a dog presses their head against a wall or other object, and is often due to a brain issue. Head pressing requires immediate medical attention. 

Why Does My Dog Rub His Face on Me?

Some dogs just like to be scratched and rubbed in general. Your dog may rub their face on you, — leaning in for scratching and petting. If pet parents reinforce the behavior, they may see an increase in the behavior, Dr. Sinn says.

In that case, Dr. Sinn says a dog rubbing their face on you is only really a problem if it becomes a nuisance. “If they’re nudging you to be rubbed, they’re seeking attention,” she says. “So if you reinforce it all the time and pet him whenever he rubs up against you, it’s going to get to the point where the dog gets insistent and may begin really hassling you to be rubbed.”

Your dog may simply rest their muzzle in your lap or alongside of you, rather than rub their face on you. “Your dog is probably just saying, ‘It’s time to pay me attention,’” Dr. Sinn says. 

The best way to still be affectionate when your dog is asking for pets or rubs like this is to ask them to do something else — sit or a trick, for example — before they’re rewarded with a pet, Dr. Sinn says. 

Face Rubbing in Dogs: Next Steps

If your dog is excessively rubbing their face, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. Once your veterinarian identifies the cause, you can determine the best course of action.

If your dog has environmental allergies, for example, your veterinarian may prescribe a dog allergy medication, such as Apoquel or Cytopoint, to help alleviate and manage your dog’s symptoms. In some cases, your veterinarian may suggest dog allergy testing to identify the offending allergens, Dr. Sinn says. There are blood (serum) and skin exposure (intradermal) tests available, but skin testing is the gold standard, she says. Skin testing is when small amounts of allergens are individually injected under the skin to assess for reactions. If a food allergy is suspected, your veterinarian may recommend an allergy food trial, which involves exclusively feeding an allergy diet for eight weeks.

In the case of external parasites, your veterinarian will collect skin samples to check for mites and other parasites under a microscope. This is called skin scraping. Ear mite treatments for dogs may include ear drops and oral or topical anti-parasitics. If your dog has a flea infestation, treatment will include flea medicine, medicated shampoo, and environmental cleaning to eliminate fleas from the home. Year-round flea and tick control is recommended for dogs.

For suspected eye issues, your veterinarian will perform an eye (ophthalmic) exam and other eye (ocular) tests to pinpoint the issue. Eye tests may include staining the eye to look for ulcers, a Schirmer tear test to assess tear production, or bacterial or viral cultures to rule out infection. Depending on the cause, your dog may be prescribed eye drops, eye ointment, or oral medication to help alleviate symptoms. Dogs rub at eye problems so much that it’s highly likely your veterinarian will recommend using an Elizabethan collar (e-collar) to prevent your dog from rubbing. 

If your dog is scratching and shaking their head, your veterinarian will examine the external ear and also use an otoscope to look inside your dog’s ear canal. They will then take a sample of your dog’s ear debris with a swab and review it under a microscope to check for mites, bacteria or yeast overgrowth. Ear infection treatment will depend on the underlying cause but may include topical medication or ear drops.

If your veterinarian suspects oral pain, they will look inside your dog’s mouth and feel around the facial area. They may take dental X-rays (radiographs) to make a more accurate assessment. To take dental X-rays, your dog will need to be sedated. Most oral causes of pain require treatment, such as dental cleaning, tooth extraction, or root canals. Oral antibiotics like clindamycin may also be prescribed.

If your dog is pressing their head, as opposed to rubbing their face, they will require a neurologic exam. They will likely be referred to a neurologist for a cerebrospinal fluid tap (CSF) and MRI.

It’s possible for face rubbing to become so frequent and intense that your dog opens up their skin, which could lead to secondary infections, or starts losing fur in a specific area, Dr. Sinn says. This is another reason why you should always pay attention to your dog’s behavior, trust your instincts when something doesn’t seem right, and seek prompt veterinary treatment.

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