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Why Is My Dog Chomping His Teeth at Me? What It Really Means - PawSafe

Why Is My Dog Chomping His Teeth at Me? What It Really Means

Photo of Tamsin De La Harpe

Written by Tamsin De La Harpe

why is my dog chomping his teeth at me

Have you ever noticed your dog chomping his teeth at you and wondered what it means? You’re not alone. As a dedicated dog owner and an avid observer of canine behavior, I’ve often been intrigued by these subtle yet significant gestures. 

To unravel this mystery, we turn to the insights of Dr. Bonnie Beaver, DVM a distinguished expert in veterinary behavior. Her work, recognized by prestigious awards such as the 2020 AVMA Award, sheds light on the complexities of canine behaviors and their underlying causes.

In this article, we’ll explore the various reasons why dogs might chomp their teeth, ranging from behavioral seizures to attention-seeking actions. Dr. Beaver’s research reveals that this behavior can be spontaneous and directed, sometimes resembling the act of snapping at imaginary flies. 

Key Takeaways:

  1. Context Is Crucial: The most important thing to remember is the context in which these behaviors occur. By paying attention to the situations that trigger these actions, you can gain a deeper understanding of your dog’s needs, emotions, and responses to their environment.
  2. Normal But Noteworthy: While these behaviors are typically normal, keeping an eye on them is essential. Changes in frequency or intensity can be indicators of underlying issues, whether they’re medical (eye diseases or neurological disorders, emotional, or behavioral.
  3. A Sign of Communication: Remember, these actions are part of how your dog communicates. They might be showing excitement, responding to something new in their environment, or expressing a need for attention or comfort.

Before we take a closer look at these common causes, let’s look at what teeth chomping or snapping actually is in dogs. Remember, a dog snapping their teeth together is different from when they nibble on you, which we discuss in our article on cobbing and pibble nibbles.

This is also different from when dog teeth are chattering, and we will discuss chattering teeth briefly below.

Understanding Dog Tooth Snapping or Chomping

Dog tooth snapping or chomping is a distinctive behavior where a dog rapidly opens and closes its mouth, causing the teeth to snap together. This action can produce a noticeable sound and is different from regular chewing or biting movements. Understanding this behavior requires observing the context in which it occurs, as it can have various meanings and origins depending on the situation.

8 Reasons for Dog Tooth Chomping

So, let’s look at why dogs chomp their teeth at you or snap at the air.

1. Playful Gesture

In many instances, tooth snapping is a playful action. Dogs  and puppies often exhibit this behavior during playtime, especially when they are excited or engaging in a mock fight. It’s a way for them to express their playful mood without causing harm.

2. Defensive Signal

Tooth snapping can also be a defensive behavior. If a dog feels threatened or anxious, it might snap its teeth as a warning sign. This is more common in situations where the dog feels the need to establish boundaries or defend itself.

3. Compulsive Behavior

In some cases, tooth snapping can be a sign of compulsive behavior, especially if it occurs frequently and in specific patterns. This could be due to anxiety, stress, or other underlying issues that need to be addressed.

4. Eye Disease and  Air or Fly Snapping in Dogs

Imagine your dog suddenly jumping up and snapping at what seems to be thin air, as if catching an invisible fly. This action is sudden, specific, and happens off and on and it can be one way that you might see your dog “chomping their teeth.”

While we already talked about fly snapping as a type of behavioral seizure, Dr. Beaver notes that it can also be caused by other things, including eye or ocular diseases.

Some dogs might have remnants of fetal blood vessels in their eyes or other problems that affect their vision. This can make them see things that aren’t there, leading to fly snapping.

In some cases, upon examining dogs after they’ve passed away (a process called necropsy), experts have found issues in the parts of the brain connected to vision (like the optic tracts and lateral geniculates). These issues can mess with how dogs see and react to things.

Dogs can start doing this as young as 1 year old or even later in life. The frequency can vary a lot – some might do it 30 times an hour, while others only once a day or even less. Interestingly, fly snapping can stop on its own for a while and then start again. These breaks can last from a week to several months.

Other Signs to Watch For:

  • Additional Behaviors: Over half of the dogs showing air snapping also display other changes in behavior around the same time, like licking their feet a lot, being aggressive, or eating strange things (pica).

In summary, if you notice your dog snapping at the air, it could be more than just an odd quirk. It might be linked to an eye problem, a neurological issue, or even a learned behavior. Keeping an eye on when and how often it happens can help determine if a trip to the vet is needed.

5.  Seizures

Alright, let’s talk about something a bit unexpected about why your dog might be chomping their teeth. Dr. Bonnie Beaver, who knows a ton about animal behavior, points out that sometimes, this chomping could actually be linked to a kind of epilepsy or neurological disorder. Yep, seizures, but not the kind you might be picturing with a lot of shaking. These are sneakier and are called behavioral or focal seizures.

Sometimes, the weird stuff your dog does, like chomping their teeth, might happen right before or after a seizure. This could be a heads-up that something’s not quite right.

Apart from chomping teeth, your dog might do things like:

These kinds of seizures are tough to spot because they sort of blend in with normal dog behaviors. You might not even think twice about them.

The Challenge in Figuring It Out:

It’s not always easy to connect these behaviors to seizures. Even vets can miss them because they can look like regular dog stuff. If you notice your dog doing these strange things more often, or in a certain pattern, that’s important info to share with your vet.

6. Dental Reasons

Occasionally, tooth chomping could indicate a medical issue. Dental problems, or discomfort in the mouth, might lead to this behavior. It’s important to observe if the snapping is accompanied by other symptoms like drooling, bad breath, or reluctance to eat.

7. Attention-Seeking Behavior

Some dogs might snap their teeth to get attention. If a dog learns that this behavior draws a reaction from its owner, it might repeat the action to elicit a response, whether it’s positive or negative.

8. Displacement behavior

Sometimes, dogs perform certain behaviors as a way to cope with conflicting emotions or situations. Chomping can be a displacement behavior in response to stress or uncertainty. Keep a close eye on your dog’s overall behavior and look for potential stressors in their environment.

Common stressors for dogs include:

  •     New environments;
  •     Loud noises; and
  •     Separation from owners.

Stopping Your Dog from Chomping Their Teeth at You: Advice from Dr. Beaver

If your dog is chomping their teeth at you, and you’re wondering what to do about it, Dr. Bonnie Beaver’s insights can be quite helpful. The approach to stopping this behavior depends largely on what’s causing it in the first place.

Identifying the Cause:

  • Different Reasons, Different Treatments: The way to stop the chomping depends on why your dog is doing it. Not every method works for every dog, and sometimes what seems like improvement might just be the behavior taking a break on its own. If your dog has an eye problem or a kind of epilepsy causing the teeth to chatter, then your dog will need medical attention. This is also true if your dog has periodontal disease and need professional oral health care to deal with oral pain.

For Learned Fly-Snapping Behavior:

  • Distract or Ignore: If your dog has picked up chomping as a habit (like fly-snapping in certain situations), it’s usually easy to distract them. You can also try ignoring the behavior so they learn it doesn’t get your attention.
  • Substitute Behaviors: Another tactic is to teach your dog a different behavior to do instead, like sitting, which you can then reward. This helps them unlearn the chomping habit.

When Stress is the Trigger:

  • Change the Environment: If your dog chomps their teeth because of stress, you’ll need to figure out what’s stressing them and change their environment to reduce these triggers.
  • Medication Might Help: In some cases, anti-anxiety medications can be useful. Phenothiazine, for example, has been effective in at least one complicated case. Your dog may also need anti-convulsant medication if they are having neurological issues like epilepsy.

Understanding Tooth Snapping:

  • A Sign of Different Things: Tooth snapping – the sound made when a dog’s teeth hit each other as their jaw closes quickly – can mean a few things. It can be a playful gesture, a defense mechanism, or a warning sign.
  • Escalation to Aggression: It’s important to note that this behavior can escalate. What starts as a simple tooth snap might grow into more aggressive actions.

Remember, addressing your dog’s tooth chomping effectively starts with understanding why they’re doing it. Whether it’s learned behavior, a response to stress, or a sign of play, the right approach can make a big difference in stopping it. If you’re unsure or the behavior persists, consulting a veterinarian or a dog behaviorist is always a good idea.

Explaining Dog teeth chomping vs. lip smacking vs. teeth chattering

When observing canine behavior, it’s crucial to distinguish between different mouth actions, like a dog chomping their teeth and smacking their lips, as each behavior can indicate different emotions or needs.

Dog Chomping Their Teeth:

  • What It Is: Chomping involves a dog rapidly opening and closing its mouth, causing the teeth to snap together. It produces a noticeable sound and is distinct from regular chewing or biting.
  • Why It Happens: Teeth chomping can be a sign of excitement, aggression, playfulness, or even a response to stress. In some cases, as we discussed earlier, it can be related to behavioral seizures or learned behaviors. Dogs might also chomp their teeth when they’re excited about something, like the prospect of playing or being fed.

Dog Smacking Their Lips:

  • What It Is: Lip smacking is a softer, quieter action where a dog repeatedly opens and closes its mouth in a more subtle manner, causing the lips to make a smacking sound. You will usually also see small tongue movements.
  • Why It Happens: This behavior is often associated with anticipation or anxiety. Dogs might smack their lips when they’re feeling nervous or expecting something, like food or a treat. Dogs may also smack their lips when petted, which can be a sign of contentment or a soothing self-gesture.

What Does Teeth Chattering Look Like?

  • Rapid Jaw Movement: Unlike the more pronounced action of teeth chomping, chattering behavior is quicker and involves a series of fast, small movements of the jaw.
  • Clicking Sound: These rapid movements produce a distinctive clicking sound, which is a key feature of teeth chattering.

Why Do Dogs Chatter Their Teeth?

  • Excitement and Anticipation:  some dogs often chatter their teeth when they’re excited or anticipating something enjoyable. This could be in response to a favorite toy, the prospect of a walk, or mealtime.
  • Response to New Scents: Teeth chattering can also occur after a dog encounters a new or strong scent, particularly the urine of other animals. This is believed to be part of their way of processing and analyzing the scent.
  • Heightened Emotion: It can also be a sign of heightened emotions, not just positive excitement but sometimes nervousness or uncertainty.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Why do dogs chomp their teeth when they smell something?

When dogs chomp their teeth upon smelling something, it’s often an involuntary response to a strong, new, or interesting scent. This is called the flehmen response, which involves drawing in air through the mouth to help get a better sense of the smell. Dogs have a specialized organ called the vomeronasal organ that helps them detect and analyze pheromones and other scents.

What causes teeth chattering in dogs while they sleep?

Teeth chattering in dogs during sleep is relatively common and can be attributed to a few factors. One possible reason is that they’re simply dreaming, and their body is reacting to the events in their dream. Another potential cause is muscle contractions as a result of the relaxation and tensing of muscles during different sleep stages.

Is teeth chattering in dogs a sign of a neurological issue?

While teeth chattering can be a normal behavior in dogs, it can sometimes be a sign of a neurological issue. If you notice excessive teeth chattering that happens frequently or comes with other concerning symptoms, such as muscle tremors, difficulty walking, or seizures, it’s essential to consult with a veterinarian to determine the underlying cause and necessary treatment.

What does teeth chomping mean in female and male dogs?

Teeth chomping can have various meanings in both female and male dogs, depending on the situation. It can be a form of communication, expressing excitement, nervousness, or warning another animal that they’re uncomfortable. In some cases, teeth chomping might not have any particular meaning, but rather be a result of an involuntary reflex or the dog’s way of coping with a situation.

Why is my dog’s bottom jaw chattering and drooling?

Bottom jaw chattering accompanied by drooling may indicate a dental issue, such as an infected tooth, gum disease, or a foreign object lodged in the mouth. It may also be a sign of anxiety, stress, or even pain due to other factors in the body. In any case, it’s important to consult with a veterinarian to determine the cause and provide proper treatment if necessary.

Is teeth chattering in dogs related to temperature or other factors?

While teeth chattering in dogs can sometimes be a response to being cold, it’s not the only factor that can cause this behavior. Dogs may also chatter their teeth due to excitement, anxiety, physical discomfort, or even as a response to certain scents. Observing the context in which your dog is chattering their teeth can provide valuable insight into the possible cause. If you’re concerned, it’s always best to consult with a veterinarian for professional advice.

Final Thoughts: Deciphering Canine Dental Dialects

As we conclude this exploration into the intriguing world of canine mouth behaviors – from chomping and lip smacking to teeth chattering – it’s clear that our furry friends have a complex and varied language of their own. Each behavior, whether it’s the loud snap of teeth chomping, the gentle sound of lip smacking, or the rapid clicking of teeth chattering, serves as a window into our dogs’ emotional and mental states.

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Meet Your Experts

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Tamsin De La Harpe

Author

Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.

Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.