News & Advice

Is it safe to let your dog lick you?

Feb 19, 2020 | Dogs, Pet Health

Recently in the media, there have been a couple of cases of infections in people contracted from the family dog. This is a timely reminder that is good for our health to take care with personal hygiene when interacting and living with our pets.

There are several diseases which can be transmitted to humans from their pet dogs, cats, birds, and rodents. Many of these diseases can have serious consequences so, it is prudent to always practise good personal hygiene when handling your pets.

We can all agree that we love how affectionate and loving dogs can be. It’s almost like they can sense when we’re hurt or feeling down, so they try to comfort us with extra snuggles and kisses. However, while well-intentioned, those kisses — well, licks — may not always be good for your health!

Bacteria can enter your body and spread if a dog, cat or other animal bites or scratches you. Unfortunately, that was the case for an Ohio woman who contracted a rare infection after her dog licked a scratch on her skin. In this case, the bacteria from the dog’s mouth spread to the rest of her body through the open wound. Ultimately, she ended up having both her legs and hands amputated.

An even worse case was reported recently in Germany where a 63-year-old man contracted the same disease from a dog lick without any obvious open wounds. He arrived at the hospital with a fever and subsequently developed blisters over his entire body and gangrene in his fingers and toes. Sadly, this led to his death due to a secondary fungal pneumonia. He had been infected with the same bacteria as the woman in Ohio: Capnocytophaga.

So what does this mean for puppy kisses? Are they off-limits, or was this a fluke? Should you worry if your dog licks your face or a scratch on your arm? Here’s what you need to know.

When to worry about a dog kiss

When you think about everything a dog licks or puts in their mouth — from cleaning themselves, to eating rubbish from the street or farm, to drinking toilet water, etc. — you probably aren’t going to want their tongue on your face. So, we should always follow normal hygiene practises including hand and face washing. Consider cleaning other parts of your body, like your legs, if they have come into contact with your dog’s saliva.

Like humans, dogs’ mouths are full of normal bacteria all the time. In fact, it is estimated that over 70 percent of dogs have Capnocytophaga (the bacteria that infected the Ohio woman and the German man) in their mouths at any given time. This organism is part of their natural oral microbiome. Fortunately, infections of this kind aren’t a problem for most people, and humans getting sick from a dog lick is very rare despite the organism existing commonly in the mouths of dogs.

The group most at-risk of falling ill from this bacteria are people with weakened immune systems. For example, weakened immune systems are common in young children, the elderly, pregnant people, cancer patients, those who drink alcohol excessively, people who have had their spleen removed, and others who are taking immunosuppressive medications, like some steroids. However, as with the patient in Germany, this is not always the case and healthy people can become ill.

Signs you’ve been infected

The signs of an infection from Capnocytophaga typically arise three to five days after a human was licked or sustained a dog bite. However, symptoms can arise at any time from one to 14 days after exposure. For all you cat people: you’re not in the clear! Humans can also contract a Capnocytophaga infection if a cat licks an open wound, or bites them.
There are a range of signs and symptoms of a Capnocytophaga infection, including:

  • Blisters around the bite wound within hours of the bite
  • Redness, swelling, draining pus, or pain at the bite wound
  • Fever
  • Diarrhoea and/or stomach pain
  • Vomiting
  • Headache and/or confusion
  • Muscle or joint pain

If you notice any of these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately! Capnocytophaga infection can cause serious complications, like heart attack, kidney failure, and gangrene resulting in amputation of limbs (as with the woman in Ohio) or even death. Again, getting infected this way is extremely rare. However, when it happens, three in 10 people die as a result. In most cases, people who contract an infection caused by Capnocytophaga are treated with a course of antibiotics and recover – but you need to catch it as early as possible.

How to prevent infection

We’re taught at an early age that getting bitten by a dog could be bad news, but dog licks didn’t come with the same warning. So, consider this your warning: don’t let dogs or cats lick any open wounds! This includes healing scratches, punctures or anywhere where the skin has been broken.

Even if you have a strong immune system, if a pet licks an open wound, wash it with soap and water right away, just to be safe. Then, keep an eye out for any symptoms of infection. If anything looks or feels out of the ordinary, contact your doctor immediately.

In addition, ensure your pet dog or cat has regular check-ups so your veterinarian can examine their mouths for good oral health. When necessary, teeth cleaning and dental prophylaxis procedures will be performed to remove plaques of bacteria and decrease the bacterial contamination of the teeth and gums.

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