Why do dogs suckle in their sleep?
Sleep suckling is widely reported by dog owners, but we don’t know for sure why dogs do it.
It could be self soothing, or a reflection of what they are dreaming about. Occasionally it is a symptom of an underlying health condition.
In this article, we take a look at what we do know about why dogs suckle in their sleep, and what’s still waiting to be discovered.
Why Do Dogs Suckle In Their Sleep?
Anecdotes of Labradors suckling in their sleep have come up several times on our forum over the years.
Several of our other members usually chime in to tell their own stories, and swap opinions of it being cute, funny, noisy and annoying, or just plain baffling.
In this article, we’ve rounded up everything we know abut dogs’ sleep suckling behaviors:
- What is sleep suckling?
- Where does is come from?
- Why do they do it?
- Should you do anything about it?
What Is Sleep Suckling?
The chances are that you’ve arrived here because you already have a pretty good idea of what sleep suckling looks like, and you’ve seen your dog doing it.
But what about if your dog behaves unusually in his sleep, and you’re not sure how to describe it?
If you didn’t meet him while he was nursing from mum, you might not be confident of what suckling behavior in dogs really looks like.
Here’s what to look and listen out for:
- Their tongue poking out
- Twitching around their lips and nose
- Rhythmic gulping motions under their chin or at the top of their throat – most of the muscles used in suckling are actually towards the back of the jaw!
- Their paws making a treading motion
- Slurping, slapping, or whining noises
Where Does Sleep Suckling Come From?
Suckling is one of the few behaviors that puppies don’t need to learn, or be taught.
It is completely instinctive, and they know how to do it from the moment they are born.
The reason why is very simple – they need to be able to suckle in order to nurse from their mom, and survive!
The fact that suckling is such a deeply hardwired behavior is one reason why dogs might continue to do it long after they have weaned.
Some dogs move on to sucking their blankets and toys while they are awake, whilst others only ever suckle in their sleep.
1. They’re Hungry
The first reason puppies may suckle in their sleep, whilst they’re still nursing from their mom, is because they’re getting hungry again.
They’re likely to wake up soon, and begin rooting – search for a nipple to feed from.
2. To Self-Soothe
Suckling is such a deeply ingrained behavior that it doesn’t need conscious thought.
And it has lots of positive associations – of being close to mom, of feeling safe and secure in her care, and of getting a meal!
So for some dogs, suckling in their sleep might be a self-soothing reflex.
3. They’re Dreaming About Suckling
Just like us, dogs experience dream sequences which mimic their waking lives.
And whilst most of it only takes place in their head, occasionally they perform some of the sounds and movements which go with their dream.
So dogs who dream about suckling might act out motions suckling whilst asleep.
This is most likely to be the case in puppies who are still nursing, or only recently weaned.
Or older dogs who still like to suck their toys and blankets whilst awake.
4. It’s A Symptom Of An Underlying Condition
Occasionally suckling in their sleep might be a sign of an underlying health condition.
Tonsilitis, for example, causes dogs to need to swallow more often. Which may look like a suckling motion whilst they’re asleep.
Dogs with obstructed airways might also sleep with their tongue hanging out to allow more airflow, and make similar “wet” noises to a dogs who is sleep suckling.
Obstructed airways are a common problem of flat faced breeds, such as Pugs and French Bulldogs.
Finally, dogs who use sucking behaviors to self soothe might start doing them more often if they are feeling anxious about something – a new home, or a new dog in the house for example.
What To Do About A Dog Who Suckles In Their Sleep
In most cases, suckling in their sleep doesn’t do dogs any harm.
If you share a bedroom and the noise is bothering you, it might be time to move them into a different room at night time, or invest in some ear plugs!
Dogs who use sucking behavior to self soothe might enjoy having some plush toys of their own to suckle at bed times.
Make sure you choose ones without any small plastic parts that can come loose.
If your dog has started suckling in their sleep without any history of doing it, or they start suckling much more than usual, or they have any other signs of illness, consult their vet.
Why Do Dogs Suckle In Their Sleep – Summary
Suckling in their sleep is a fairly common behavior in dogs, and it is rarely problematic in Labs.
We can use clues like a dog’s age and waking habits to guess why they might be suckling in their sleep.
But there’s always an element of guesswork, which means we can’t be 100% sure.
If your dog suckles in their sleep and you’d like to hear from other people whose Labs do the same, why not visit us on our forum?
Arteaga et al. Smell, Suck, Survive: Chemical Signals and Suckling in the Rabbit, Cat, and Dog. Chemical Signals in Vertebrates 12. Springer. 2012.
Arteaga et al. The Pattern of Nipple Use Before Weaning Among Littermates of the Domestic Dog. Ethology. 2012.
Moon-Fanelli et al. Blanket and flank sucking in Doberman Pinschers. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2007.
Development, Communication and Social Behavior in the Dog. University of Illinois. Accessed November 2020.
The Labrador Site Founder
Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.
She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program
Pippa's online training courses were launched in 2019 and you can find the latest course dates on the Dogsnet website