If you’ve ever had a wounded pooch, you know how faithfully (and sometimes obsessively) dogs can lick their wounds.
While wound licking is often completely condemned by vets, and at the same time almost ritualized by many natural healers, there is no simple answer to the question “Is wound licking in dogs good or bad?”
Why Dogs Lick Their Wounds
It is not only do dogs have a natural instinct to immediately lick any wound inflicted on them. Humans, too, have a reflex to lick or suck on any cuts they suffer (think about the first thing you do when you get a paper cut).
Many mammal species – cats, rodents, horses, primates – are known to exhibit wound-licking behavior. The reason is probably that, in pre-medicine times, wound licking was the best option to clean a wound and promote its healing.
Facts About Dog Saliva
Dog saliva contains a myriad of different enzymes and molecules that affect the wound environment. The most important in the first phase of wound healing is tissue factor, as it induces blood clotting (therefore, it stops the bleeding of the wound). Next, nerve growth factor comes into play, helping to contract the wound edges.
Saliva also contains a plethora of antimicrobial agents – these are enzymes, proteins or cells that help kill bacteria in the wound. Examples are: Lactoferrin, cationic proteins, leucocytes (white blood cells), and antibodies. Upon contact with the skin, nitrite in the saliva forms nitric oxide, which is also a powerful killer of bacteria.
Other growth factors (for example epidermal growth factor and hyaluronan) promote healing of the wound and formation of scar tissue.
However, your dog’s saliva contains not only good things, but also a large number of bacteria, some of which can cause skin infections or even septicemia (blood infections).
There are also diseases that profit from wound-licking behavior: the rabies virus, for example, sometimes relies on animals licking each other’s wounds in order to be transmitted via their saliva.
Benefits Of Dogs Licking Their Wounds
Thanks to all the antimicrobial and healing properties we’ve looked at, your dog’s saliva can actually benefit wound healing to a certain degree. Studies in rats and mice showed that wound contraction and healing happen more quickly in rats with normal salivary glands, compared to rats that can no longer produce saliva.
Possible Problems With Dogs Licking Wounds
The study mentioned above has a big flaw, though: It fails to compare to wound healing in rats who were not allowed to lick their wounds at all.
While it is true that saliva can promote wound healing, the bacteria that it contains can also cause serious wound infections, which in rare cases could even result in death. Moreover, the mechanical abrasion from your dog’s rough tongue can cause a lot of damage to the wound edges, actually slowing down the healing process.
Often, the wounds in question are even surgical incisions, which are perfectly clean and normally heal very quickly, thanks to the stitches. If a surgical incision is repeatedly licked, however, it can open up again and cause nasty infections which require a second surgery.
Think of it this way: In medieval times, a log tied around your leg was a perfectly acceptable cure for a broken bone. Nowadays, with all the possibilities that modern medicine has to offer, you’d probably opt for a surgical stabilization of the bone instead, given the choice.
The same applies to wound licking – before the rise of modern medicine, it was the best tool nature could provide to help your dog heal its wounds. These days, cleaning the wound with an antiseptic solution and then leaving it alone to heal is the far superior course of action.
How To Stop A Dog Licking Its Wound (With & Without Use Of A Collar)
Now that we’ve established why it’s better to keep your dog’s tongue away from the wound, let’s have a look at how to go about it.
Any dog owner can tell you that it isn’t always the easiest job to keep a determined dog from accessing his wound, but there are a couple of tricks you can employ:
- The most famous option is obviously the Elisabethan Collar (E-collar). A good fit is crucial – the collar needs to extend 2-3 inches past the tip of your dog’s nose. Your vet can help you pick the right size. Keep the collar on at all times! If often takes only seconds without the collar to destroy days of wound-healing progress. A little tip: to make feeding with the collar easier, you can place your dog’s bowl on a brick or a box to raise it a bit off the ground.
- If your dog gets easily spooked with an E-collar, or is destroying your furniture and your shins with it, you could try a soft, inflatable collar. This is worn snugly around the neck and should prevent the dog from turning its head around to lick. Careful: If your dog is very bendy, this measure might not be enough on its own.
- For wounds on your dog’s legs, a simple bandage can be enough to keep the tongue away. Your vet can show you which materials to use and how tightly to wrap. For paw wounds, boots can help. Always ask your vet before bandaging as some wounds have a greater risk of infection when bandaged.
- A bodysuit or a t-shirt can be quite effective in stopping your dog from licking wounds on it torso and abdomen.
- Keep your dog mentally occupied if he or she is otherwise healthy and up for it – play games, hide food, practice tricks; anything to distract from the desire to lick the wound.
- If all else fails, your vet can prescribe a bitter-tasting salve or spray that can be applied directly to the wound or around it. This is extremely effective in most dogs.
Always talk to your vet if you are having trouble keeping your dog’s tongue away from the wound, or if there are delays in wound healing. We wish your pooch a speedy recovery!
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Nina has a degree from the Veterinary School in Zurich, with a special focus on microbiological research. Nina has a passion for sports, nutrition and the outdoors and she loves all pets, but rats have a special place in her heart. When she’s not working or reading and writing about all things related to pet health, she loves to travel and surf.
As a small animal veterinarian, Nina is your go-to expert on pet health and nutrition.