You may have noticed your dog enjoys rubbing their face on the corner of the couch. Or, you may spot them nosing about in the dirt, rolling and rubbing in excitement. But, are there times when your dog rubbing their face on the ground is a problem? Learn more about what face rubbing means, signs that it’s something more serious, and what you can do to help.
What Is Face Rubbing?
Face rubbing is the act of your dog rubbing their face against another object. This may include furniture, walls, the ground, or even other pets and people. You may notice your dog grunts or groans while rubbing their face. They may also seek out and rub their faces in the same spot over and over.
Face rubbing can sometimes be a behavioral problem or an illness-related one. Boredom, anxiety, and stress may all cause face rubbing. Illnesses such as neurologic diseases, allergies, injuries, and more can also cause your dog to rub their face more often. If you do notice a sudden uptick in face rubbing, be sure to monitor your dog. Watch for any signs of behavioral or health-related changes and discuss them with your vet.
Causes of Your Dog Rubbing Their Face on the Ground
Here are some of the most common causes of face rubbing in dogs, both behavioral and health-related:
Boredom and Fun
The most common cause of face rubbing isn’t an illness or a behavioral issue. Some dogs just enjoy rubbing their faces against items. It may be that it feels good, leaves some of their scent behind, or is just fun to do. Some dogs also enjoy products such as wall-mounted brushes that they can rub against and self-groom. Others tend to enjoy rubbing their faces on items that belong to them, such as their beds or toys.
With any change in behavior, a vet visit to rule out issues is always a good first step. However, if your dog is otherwise healthy and happy, doesn’t have any skin issues ongoing, and isn’t obsessively rubbing, it may just be a normal behavior for them. If you suspect your dog is bored, providing activities that encourage motion or using the brain such as puzzle toys, chew toys, or fetch toys can help keep your dog occupied.
Most dogs enjoy digging to some extent. What may look like face rubbing could actually be your dog performing this behavior. Dogs dig in a number of places, including the yard, in their bedding, or around food dishes. Your dog may attempt to bury their food or treats in various places around the house or hide toys and bones in small holes in your backyard.
While digging isn’t a problem by itself, some dogs can become destructive. If your dog is digging large holes and escaping, covering the perimeter in buried hardware cloth or wire can help prevent escapes. Deterrents such as noise makers, bad-tasting sprays, and placing physical objects like large rocks can also help. However, very determined dogs may ignore this. Dogs that dig often may also damage the skin around their nose. Be sure to clean any cuts or scrapes to avoid infections. There are also creams that can be placed on the nose to help protect it from excessive rubbing.
In some cases, providing your dog with a place to dig can encourage their use without destruction of the rest of the yard. A sandbox filled with dirt and buried toys is a great alternative. For dogs that enjoy burying their treats or food, you can encourage foraging behavior, and keep your dog exercised, by hiding small caches of treat- or kibble-filled toys around the house.
Environmental and food allergies can affect any part of the body. This includes the face, especially with irritants that cause contact dermatitis. This may cause your dog to rub their face on the ground, against their food dishes, or on objects such as a couch or carpeting to relieve it. In addition to itchiness, you may spot redness around the face or snout, small raised bumps on the face, open sores or wounds, or full-body redness. In the case of food allergies, your dog may also experience GI symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, or a painful abdomen.
Your vet can help rule out any other issues that may be causing itchiness around the face. They may recommend taking a few samples of any wounds or sores present. If allergies are suspected, treatment usually involves trialing a few different allergy medications, changing your dog’s behavior, or trying out a new diet. Over-the-counter medications can help with minor allergies, while prescription medications are beneficial for severe or long-term problems. Food trials are great for pinpointing specific ingredient allergens, but can take several months before results are seen.
In addition to medication and diet changes, be sure to wipe down your dog’s face and paws. This is important if they are allergic to outdoor triggers like grass or pollen. Indoors, keeping their environment clean and dust-free can help reduce exposure.
Parasites such as fleas, ticks, and lice can cause your dog to become itchy or experience an allergic reaction. This can, in turn, lead to face rubbing. While fleas are more commonly found in locations such as the base of the tail and the belly, they can be present anywhere on your dog’s body. Ticks can easily attach to the face or snout, especially if your dog has been nosing through brushy or wooded areas outdoors.
It’s generally easy to spot parasites on your dog. Ticks often appear as dark black or red objects embedded in the skin that grow in size. Fleas leave behind small flecks of dark brown or red “flea dirt” attached to the base of the hair. Sometimes, visible lice or fleas can also be seen on the hair follicle.
Treatment involves removing the parasites, either via a flea comb or careful removal of ticks from the body, and then treating with a preventive that both kills and stops these parasites from returning. Most topical and oral medications treat fleas, ticks, and lice all in one and help break the lifecycle of the parasite. Medicated shampoos and sprays can also be used, but often need to be reapplied multiple times to remain effective.
It’s important to use flea and tick preventives, especially if your dog is outdoors often, as these parasites can cause more than itchy skin. Severe infestations can lead to anemia, Lyme disease, and other illnesses that can harm or even kill your dog. If you’ll be out in a heavily wooded area, pre-apply any medications, and have items on hand to quickly remove or treat any parasites found on the body.
Infections of the Face or Neck
Infections, like allergies, can cause redness and irritation anywhere on the body, including the face. This can lead to your dog rubbing their face on the ground in an attempt to relieve the discomfort. In addition to face rubbing, you may notice swelling, oozing of pus or debris, open sores or wounds, or areas that are hot to the touch. Bacteria, yeast, and fungi can all cause irritation and infections.
The cause of an infection can vary. Open wounds or sores caused by initial allergies or irritation can have bacteria or yeast take hold. Moist skinfolds are also ideal locations for yeast to grow, as they like the wet environment. Fungi like ringworm are very contagious and easily spread. Your vet can determine if bacteria, fungus, or yeast are to blame with a Wood’s lamp test and skin scraping. They can also check for underlying health conditions that may make your dog more susceptible to infections. From there, your vet can treat with antibiotics, medicated shampoos, and more.
While it can be hard to prevent infections, keep your dog’s face clean and dry. This is important if they have extra skin folds around the nose or mouth. If you’ve been exposed to contagious fungal infections such as ringworm, thoroughly washing hands, clothing, and bedding can reduce the spread.
Tooth and Gum Disease
When you notice your dog rubbing his face on the ground, you may not suspect the cause to be internal. In the case of tooth and gum disease, irritation of the gums or dental disease can lead to pain or discomfort. This may cause your dog to rub on objects to relieve it. In addition, you may spot other signs of trouble such as bad breath, tartar and plaque buildup on the teeth along the gumline, and red or swollen gums. In more severe cases, the gum may have growths or there may be visibly cracked teeth.
An oral exam from your vet can check for dental disease. Dental cleanings are the typical recommendation to treat the issue. While under anesthesia, your vet can also take X-rays to check for broken teeth or tooth-root infections and can take samples of any growths on the gum line. After a cleaning, oral antibiotics, pain medications, or dental-cleaning aids such as special kibble or treats may be prescribed.
Regular checkups can help spot any growths or dental disease before it worsens. Brushing your dog’s teeth with a pet-safe toothbrush and toothpaste or feeding prescription dental diets or treats can also help reduce gum disease.
Pain and Headaches
One more serious cause of face rubbing is in the case of pain or headaches. Dogs experiencing severe facial or head pain, trauma, or some types of tumors may begin to obsessively head-press. This can be against walls, couches, or other vertical objects. It can appear as a repetitive motion, or as a single, prolonged pressing of their face into the object. You may also notice other symptoms. These include strange arching of the neck or back, visible confusion, pacing in a circle, or head tilt. If you notice your dog exhibiting these symptoms, seek veterinary care immediately.
Your vet will likely run several tests to determine what is going on, including neurologic testing; checking the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth; and an X-ray or ultrasound of the head and neck to look for tumors. Depending on the cause, treatment can range from pain medications and antibiotics to treat issues such as inner ear infections, medications to stop and prevent seizures, or prolonged treatments of cancers. A referral to an internal medicine or oncology specialist may also be recommended depending on the cause.
Tumors are a very broad category. They include growths of the face, nose, mouth and gums, brain tissue, or other parts of the head or neck. They can be benign, such as in the case of cysts, blisters, or skin tags, or malignant, in the case of cancer. If they’re located in an area that causes irritation, your dog may rub their face on the ground. You may also spot other changes, such as rapid growth or changes in size and shape, open wounds or sores forming, or the growth filling with fluid or debris.
A biopsy of the growth is always the best course of action, especially if the growth is new or changing rapidly. Your vet can take a fine needle aspirate or punch biopsy to look under a microscope or send to a lab for testing. Depending on the growth’s location and composition, removal is best. If the growth is benign or in a hard to remove spot, your vet may instead recommend monitoring it. While it’s hard to prevent growths, especially in senior pets, quick action for anything new or growing can reduce the chances of it becoming more severe.
While your dog rubbing their face on the ground may look concerning, there are many reasons why it might happen, both normal and not. By monitoring your dog’s behavior, any other signs or symptoms, and scheduling regular vet care, you can help reduce any issues.