There’s lots of legend surrounding the healing powers of dog saliva, but plenty of drawbacks too.
So why do dogs lick wounds? Is it healing in any way? Or is this something that should really be discouraged and prevented?
Why do Dogs Lick Their Own Wounds?
After injuring themselves, the first thing a dog looks to do is comfort themselves from the pain – and licking is just the way to do it.
Just as humans rub their head after knocking it, dogs will lick because the physical action helps to block the feeling of pain and releases a mild dose of feel-good serotonin.
Dog saliva also contains anti-bacterial properties and tissue factor; the former of which will help clean the wound and the latter will encourage blood clotting, setting them on the path to healing.
This video tells us about the natural response of why animals like to lick their wounds:
Why do Dogs Lick Human Wounds?
Your dog won’t just stop at his own wounds, however, and is likely to lick any grazes, cuts or injuries you may have sustained as well.
Part of this is down to affection and their presumed duty of care towards you; just as their mother would have licked any wounds they sustained as puppies, your dog will try to care for you through licking if you’ve hurt yourself.
It is an instinctive response in dogs, humans, and other animals to attend quickly to wounds, and dogs are just one species who will lick at them to cleanse the area – cats, rodents, and monkeys do the same.
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Does Dog Saliva Heal Wounds? Does it Have Healing Properties?
Although there are a lot of risks associated with letting dogs lick wounds, canine saliva does contain a few compounds that may help to disinfect and clean wounds.
The practice of allowing dogs to ‘heal’ wounds with licking dates back as far as the Egyptian age, where dogs were allowed to lick the open wounds of humans in the belief that their saliva could heal.
The following compounds are present in canine saliva and are thought to have antimicrobial and healing properties:
- Lysozyme and peroxidase enzymes help kill certain bacteria
- Lactoferrin, defensins and cystatins are antibacterial
- Opiorphin relieves pain
- Thrombospondin is antiviral
- Nitrate compounds inhibit bacterial growth
- Protease inhibitor and epidermal growth factor help speed healing
Additionally, the mechanical action of licking helps remove debris from the wound area, cleaning it.
What are the Risks of Dogs Licking Wounds?
Unfortunately, although dog saliva does have some healing properties, the risks carried by allowing dogs to lick wounds are simply too high to warrant licking as a healing tool.
When it comes to dogs licking their own wounds, a heavy amount of licking is likely to break down stitches and suture and re-open any closed wounds, leaving them vulnerable to infection and the accumulation of dirt and debris.
They can also damage their skin and develop hot spots from excessive licking, which will not do any favors in helping a wound to heal.
Also, repetitive licking can quickly develop into an obsessive-compulsive behavior that can cause anxiety and stress in dogs. You should try to stop a compulsive licking habit before it develops; consult your vet if you need any behavioral advice.
The biggest risk of allowing dogs to lick human wounds is infection.
Dogs carry so many different bacteria in their mouths that will readily transmit into your bloodstream. Worms and Germs describe a dog’s oral cavity as containing “billions of bacteria from hundreds of different bacterial species.” You don’t want those getting in your body, surely?
Bacteria like Pasteurella and Staphylococcus can be introduced from dog’s mouths deep into human wounds, which can cause catastrophic infection and threats to life – there are multiple cases of people requiring amputations following infection after having deep wounds licked by dogs.
How Can You Stop Your Dog Licking Wounds?
It’s relatively easy to stop your dog licking human wounds – simply cover any injuries with a bandage or plaster and encourage them to stop licking with consistent training.
Some behavior experts suggest that you leave the room if your dog starts to lick you, which will cause them to associate licks with you leaving and should eventually encourage them to stop the behavior.
Of course, it’s a little harder to stop dogs licking their own wounds, particularly if you work or leave them alone during the day without supervision.
Very often after surgery or having stitches, vets will provide dogs with an Elizabethan Collar to stop them licking themselves and damaging the suture. It’s unlikely your dog will like the collar but it will ensure they can’t get to the wound.
The key to stopping your dog excessively licking their own wounds is to keep them mentally and physically stimulated so they’re distracted from their licking mission. That means plenty of walks, play and training.
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