Do You -and Should You- Kiss Your Dog?
Germs: The Good, Bad and the Ugly
You've probably heard the myth that dogs' mouths are cleaner than humans'. Dogs tend to lick their wounds, and their wounds rarely get infected. So dog saliva must be like antiseptic, right?
Wrong. Dog spit isn't chemically cleansing. It turns out that it's the dog's rough tongue that helps to physically remove contaminants from an open wound. As for the relative cleanliness of canine kissers, Dr. Craig points out that "people tend to brush their teeth regularly and rinse with mouthwash. Dogs tend to lick themselves and eat things off the ground." You do the math.
But if that's the case, why too is it that, as Dr. Craig puts it, "thousands, if not millions, of owners engage in dog-licking every day, and you don't hear about problems related to it"?
"Humans and dogs have different bacteria in their mouths," explains Nelle Wyatt, a Licensed Veterinary Medical Technician at the University of Tennessee Veterinary Medical Center. "Not all of the bacteria are capable of causing disease in the other species." Take, for example, the common cold. "Most upper respiratory infections are caused by viruses instead of bacteria," says Dr. Craig, "and viruses most of the time tend to be species specific. Cats have theirs, dogs have theirs, and generally, those are not shared."
Even if your puckering pooch does pass along a bit of nasty stuff, the bond behind those very kisses may deliver an immune-system boost that'll help you combat infection. "We see more and more things about the human-animal companion bond," Dr. Craig says, including "studies measuring how levels of cortisol [often called "the stress hormone"] are lessened by a bond with a pet or physical affection with a pet. That's going to reduce blood pressure, and those are the kinds of factors that could have a positive effect on an immune system."
How to Kiss Without Catching Something
Should doggie smooches come your way, whether by choice or accident, there is an easy method of infection prevention that anyone can do: Wash. Not your slobbered-upon face (though that couldn't hurt) but your hands. Research done by Dr. Kate Stenske, a clinical assistant professor at the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine, and reported by E! Science News, suggests that failure to wash your hands puts you at greater risk for contracting something than sleeping in the same bed as your dog.
And, yes, we know it's gross to think about, but consider such common-sense protections as keeping your dog on a deworming program and monitoring his fecal exposure. A dog who's left to play in a fenced yard, for example, may be more likely to eat its own leavings when you're not around than a dog who's taken on leashed walks and observed for such behavior. And remember that young children, the elderly and pregnant women are often immunosuppressed, so their exposure should be restricted or closely monitored.
Whatever side you fall on in the kissing debate, consider what Dr. Stenske said to E! Science News: More research is needed to better understand how germs are shared between pets and humans, but, "in the meantime, we should continue to own and love our pets because they provide a source of companionship. We also need to make sure we are washing our hands often."