Every year or so, there’s a new wave of publicity/paranoia about the risks associated with dogs licking people. Often, it follows a study of bacteria that can be found in the mouths of dogs. It leads to a combination of balanced reports, sensational reports and defensive responses.
What is the concern?
Dog’s mouths are vats of billions of bacteria from thousands of different species. Some of those species can cause disease in people. Licking can be an effective way to transfer some of those.
What is the real risk?
That’s the tough question. Dogs like people all the time. Very few people get sick. Every dog has something in its mouth that could kill a person in the right situation. The same could be said every person’s mouth (as well as lots of door knobs and other sites). We get exposed to disease-causing bacteria very often..probably multiple times a day.
The overall risk is low, but there is some risk and it’s wise not to ignore it.
Risk reduction is the key.
Are some situations riskier than others?
- Yes. The implications of exposure to bacteria in dog saliva are higher in some groups. Those consist largely of:
- People that have compromised immune systems
- People that don’t have a spleen (that’s related to immunocompromise but is a noteworthy group because of the risk posed by the bacterium Capnocytophaga canimorsus)
- The very young (<5yrs of age) and elderly.
- Pregnant women
Some additional situation pose increased risk
- Licking broken skin
- Licking mucous membranes….mouth, nose, eyes
- Licking around invasive devices (e.g. people with an indwelling catheter)
- Licking around the ears (especially in young kids)
What about the dog?
People aren’t the only ones that get exposed to bacteria when a dog licks them. Dogs can pick up bacteria from the person. We’ve previously shown that being allowed to lick people is a risk factor for hospital visitation dogs acquiring MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus)
What’s the take home?
- For me, it comes down to a few basic messages
- High risk people should not be licked by dogs.
- Dogs that are sick, eat raw meat or have other risk factors for carrying resistant bacteria create some added risk.
The basic themes apply to more than licking, but to various potential diseases and disease exposures…..high risk people need to know they are high risk and they need to take some extra precautions; low risk people need to think about the cost/benefit. If you’re low risk and you like dog’s licking you, go for it. If you don’t like it, why add some degree of risk.
The risk posed to the average person is quite low. Personally, I don’t like my dog licking me. That being said, if he catches me by surprise and licks me, I don’t run screaming from the room and douse myself with alcohol.