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Dogs instinctively lick wounds. Something hurts, so they lick it. That’s all they can do. The idea that dogs need to lick wounds in order for them to heal is so pervasive that many people, including ancient societies, believed that dog saliva can also heal human wounds. This belief has some basis in fact, but over time has achieved mythic proportions.

To Lick or Not to Lick Wounds

Will saliva heal wounds? As unlikely as it sounds, scientific evidence suggests that dog saliva, and even human saliva, has some antibacterial and antimicrobial properties. Dog saliva is even slightly bactericidal against Escherichia coli (E. coli), and against Streptococcus canis, which can be passed from companion animals to humans. In addition, a dog’s tongue is good at loosening any dirt from a wound. However, the keyword in this research is “slightly.” Modern medicine has far surpassed saliva in terms of effectiveness at wound healing, with veterinary antiseptic products providing a better alternative.

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Licking Harms More Than It Helps

Licking might offer some protection against certain bacteria, but there are serious drawbacks to letting your dog lick wounds. Excessive licking can lead to irritation, paving the way for hot spots, infections, and potential self-mutilation.

Licking and chewing can also slow healing by reopening wounds. Surgery sites are especially dangerous for dogs to lick. Licking can break down sutures and reopen the site, necessitating a trip back to the veterinarian. Closure of reopened surgical wounds is often more intricate than initial clean wound closures. That is why surgeons send their canine patients home with a dog cone to wear while sutures are in place or until the wound is completely healed (typically 10-14 days).

Instead of letting your dog lick wounds, stock your canine first-aid kit with wound care products. A veterinarian should check any deep penetrating wound ASAP. Smaller lacerations and abrasions should be washed gently, thoroughly rinsed, then patted dry. Ask your veterinarian to recommend over-the-counter antiseptic sprays or washes to help treat small scrapes and cuts at home, or to use for follow-up care for larger wounds.

Active dogs that compete or engage in sports may be more prone to injuries than their more sedentary relatives. Antibacterial products and appropriate bandages are especially important for these dogs, so make sure you pack your first-aid kit while you’re on the road.

French Bulldog giving a kiss to another French Bulldog on the couch.
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When Dogs Won’t Stop Licking

In some cases, dogs just won’t stop licking if something is really bothering them. There are several things you can try to stop the behavior. In addition, consider asking your veterinarian for recommendations of antiseptic sprays.

  • For dogs licking paws, try placing a specially designed paw bandage, or even one of your socks wrapped with adhesive surgical tape, over the irritated paw.
  • Putting a T-shirt on your dog to cover a wound provides loose protection that also lets air reach the spot.
  • You can purchase a recovery suit to protect your dog. Some even fold up or snap out of the way so your dog can wear them when they need to eliminate.
  • Veterinarians suggest that the only guaranteed way to protect a wound from licking, especially at night or when you’re not watching the dog, is to use a properly fitted dog cone or recovery collar.

“It’s important to remember that wounds require oxygen to heal, as well as a constant blood flow to the site. So bandages, recovery suits, or any other types of wraps used to cover them should not be very tight,” advises Dr. Jerry Klein, AKC chief veterinary officer.

Leave Wound Licking in the Past

Dog saliva might have some healing properties, and before the advent of modern medicine, licking wounds was your dog’s best defense against infection. In today’s world, however, we have better options. Avoid putting your dog at risk by keeping a first-aid kit with a wound care product on hand. When possible, discourage your dog from licking. For more information about wound care and wound care products, consult with your veterinarian.

Related article: How to Choose an Emergency Vet for Your Dog
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