Our expert addresses a common myth about letting them lick your wounds.

By Roxanna Coldiron
September 25, 2019

Dogs bring joy and love to our families. We look forward to seeing our pup at the end of a long day, and that sloppy kiss we receive in their greeting is the best part of coming home. "Licking, which people confuse with kissing, originates in the neonatal and juvenile periods of development in dogs," explains Pia Silvani, CPDT-KA, CCBC, director of behavior rehabilitation at the ASPCA. "Puppies will typically lick things in the environment as a means of gathering information." Dogs lick us for a variety of reasons including to show friendliness or affection. "Think about the times when your dog might lick your face: Is it first thing in the morning? Is it when you are upset? Is it when you are angry?" Silvani says. "A lick in the morning is probably a sign of friendliness since your dog is excited that you are finally awake! When you are upset or angry, the lick might be a sign of appeasement or submission since the dog doesn't understand if your anger is directed towards him." Licks are one of the ways that our dogs communicate with us.

But, in the news, there have been dire warnings about such dog "kisses:" People—such as this man from Wisconsin or another woman in the U.K.—have contracted a bacterial infection and lost their appendages as a result of their dog licking them. The bacteria called Capnocytophaga canimorsus is usually the culprit behind these extreme cases of illness and death. "Yes, dog mouths do carry pathogens," says Dr. Michael Koster, a pediatric hospitalist at Hasbro Children's Hospital. "Capnocytophaga canimorsus can cause sepsis, but it is a very rare event." People who have suppressed immune systems are most vulnerable to becoming ill when they come into contact with the bacteria. This is why Dr. Koster warns against allowing your dog to lick your wounds: "It's a pervasive myth that dog licks can help wounds to heal, but you don't want to let your dog lick open wounds."

Related: Why It's Important to Clean Your Dog or Cat's Teeth

The biggest concern for people who come into contact with dogs is not Capnocytophaga canimorsus, but rabies, he explains. Most dogs should be vaccinated against rabies, and you should avoid any dog that shows signs of having rabies. Other pathogens can be introduced to our systems through dog bites, not licks. Pasteurella and brucella canis are transferred through dog bites, but they are also rare. "Brucella, for example, is more so found in animals that live on farms," Dr. Koster says. In most cases, your dog will not have any of these pathogens in their saliva. That said, if you are ever bitten by a dog, it is always best to seek medical treatment right away.

The possibility of transmitting Capnocytophaga canimorsus is the main reason why health professionals find dog kisses so controversial, but most doctors will advise that you follow the usual health precautions that you take to avoid getting sick. Wash your hands, clean your wounds with soap and water, and seek medical attention if you notice signs of an infection. Deep wounds—especially those from dog bites—should always be seen by a doctor.

So, the question remains: Should you stop accepting those dog "kisses" from your pup? Unless you have an allergy to your dog's saliva, it should be fine to let your dog lick you. "The vast majority of people will be safe when their dogs give them a kiss," says Dr. Koster. "As long as the licks are on unbroken skin and not near a mucous membrane—like on your nose, mouth, or eyes—you are not likely to get sick." Make sure to take your dog to the veterinarian on a regular basis for checkups and vaccinations, and practice good hygiene by washing your hands after handling your pets and before you prepare or eat food. You may want to avoid dogs that are known for nipping and biting, especially if you have small children. And, of course, if you know a dog is ill, be careful to avoid licks and bites from the animal. It is still safe to have pets, so we can breathe easier knowing that.

"Dogs are good for us," explains Dr. Koster. "Having a dog can decrease hypertension and cholesterol levels. And we regularly use dogs as comfort care for our patients who have longer hospital stays."

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