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We’ve all heard the expression “licking one’s wounds” (meaning to recover after defeat or embarrassment). It’s believed that this saying originated hundreds of years ago from people observing animals licking their injuries after a predator’s attack. Have you ever wondered why dogs and other animals lick wounds in the first place? And is it beneficial or harmful to their healing?
Wound licking is an instinctive behavior for dogs and many other animals, like cats, primates, horses and rodents. Their mouths are the only remedy dogs have to try to clean their wounds. It’s not like they can break out the antiseptic from the medicine cabinet!
Another reason dogs may lick their wounds is because dog saliva contains slight antibacterial and antimicrobial properties. Studies have found that dog saliva is bactericidal (meaning it kills bacteria) against Escherichia coli and Streptococcus canis (but it’s not sufficient enough to actually heal wounds).
So technically yes, dog saliva contains some healing properties but not to the extent that many people believe. Learn more about dog saliva in our article about whether dogs’ mouths are cleaner than humans’.
Experts agree that it’s not a good idea to let dogs lick wounds and even smaller cuts and abrasions. While licking may clean away dirt and debris, the friction of licking can be quite harmful to the healing process. Excessive licking irritates the wound and can lead to infections, hot spots and potential self-mutilation through chewing.
Licking and chewing can also reopen wounds that are starting to heal. This is a major concern with surgery sites, as licking can break down sutures and reopen the site. That’s why dogs are usually sent home post-surgery with an Elizabethan collar (E-collar) to keep their mouths away from sutures.
What About Dogs Licking Human Wounds?
It’s also not a good idea to let your dog lick your wounds. The licking process disrupts a human’s natural tissue healing process, just as it does for them. Another reason is because of the difference in the types of bacteria that live in human tissue vs a dog’s mouth.
In fact, a 2012 study found that dogs licking human wounds puts you at risk for developing zoonotic diseases (infectious diseases caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi that spread between animals and humans).
You should always take your dog to your veterinarian as soon as possible for any deep wound. For smaller cuts and abrasions, wash the area gently with soapy water, thoroughly rinse it and pat it dry.
With your vet’s okay, you can use a non-toxic antibacterial ointment to promote healing. Vetericyn Plus is an excellent vet-recommended antibacterial gel that’s safe if licked or ingested. It’s also useful for relieving hot spots and irritated, itchy skin due to allergies. Learn more about skin allergies and other skin problems with dogs.
There are several methods you can try to protect your dog’s wounds from licking.
As we mentioned earlier, many vets recommend using an E-collar (often referred to as a cone) to help restrict your dog’s access to her wounds. The Comfy Cone by All Four Paws is a comfortable, foam-backed alternative to hard, plastic cones. It comes in 9 sizes and has velcro closures for a perfect fit. It’s also water-resistant and easy to clean.
If your dog’s wound is on her torso, i.e., a spaying or neutering incision, abdominal surgery, etc., a great alternative to the Elizabethan collar is a doggy onesie, like this FOREYY Professional Recovery Suit. Not only do recovery shirts protect wounds from licking and chewing, but they also help keep them free from dirt and debris and from getting wet. Bonus: you can also use these to ease your dog’s anxiety.
Liquid Bandage Spray
You can also try using a liquid bandage spray for minor cuts. Nutri-Vet Liquid Bandage Spray has a bitter taste that discourages licking and chewing. It’s veterinarian-formulated to help protect and soothe cuts and adds a layer of protection to keep debris out. You can also find anti-lick strips (like bandaids) online, but most pet owners say they don’t work.
PawFlex Medimitt Paw Bandages can help prevent dogs and cats from licking minor cuts and scrapes on their paws. These multi-packs of disposable bandages are self-adhesive, breathable and have convenient velcro closures. They’re also washable if you want to reuse them and come in a wide variety of sizes.
TIP: When taking your dog outside, it’s a good idea to protect your dog’s cuts from dirt, debris, water and other substances. These ECO-FUSED self-adhering bandages adapt to your dog’s body shape, won’t stick to her fur and are breathable. If the wound is on her paw, you can use dog booties when outside for added protection.
Hot spots are areas of a dog’s skin that have become itchy, painful skin lesions that result from constant licking, biting and scratching. Chronic inflammation causes these spots to become warm, hence the name “hot spots.”
If your dog has hot spots, check out this veterinarian’s advice on how to treat them safely at home. Of course, we encourage you to consult with your vet on specific treatment for your pup. Learn more about hot spots on dogs.Trivia