Should you let a dog lick your wounds?
How to stop dogs from licking their wounds
The discovery years ago that dog saliva had limited antibacterial properties has transformed into a myth that licking is “good” for wounds. Since then, vets have battled to convince owners that licking is likely to harm wounds rather than help. Caroline Reay , chief vet at the Blue Cross Merton animal hospital, reveals some of the methods that can be used to limit a pet’s access to their wounds…
Why do dogs lick their wounds?
For dogs, licking wounds is like you rubbing your head if you hit it. The nerves used to transmit the rubbing sensation block the feeling of pain or soreness. And canine saliva does have some mild antibacterial effect.
For wild or feral dogs licking is probably beneficial in cleaning a wound. But wild animals are busy staying safe and finding food whereas a well fed, pampered pet can devote a lot of time to licking a wound, making it more extensive and sore in the process.
So limiting access to wounds, particularly surgical ones with stitches, is important.
Methods to stop dogs licking their wounds
Bandages should always be covered to stop them getting wet when you are out, but waterproof covers must be removed once you are home so wounds can breathe.
Traditionally wounds have been protected using a cone shaped “Elizabethan collar”. But these can be scary for pets, particularly at first, and a large dog crashing around in an Elizabethan collar can cause damage in the home as well as bruising the owner’s shins.
They are commonly used to prevent wound damage or bandage removal and the newer see-through versions are best.
The collar has to be long enough so that its edge is just over the tip of the nose when it’s in place on the neck. Soft versions work well for some animals and they can be turned around to be used wide end first to cover a wound on the body.
Another alternative is an inflatable collar like a lifebelt which you can find and buy online. This has to be a close fit to the animal’s neck – check the measuring instructions carefully – to limit the ability to turn and lick. Some makes are easily punctured. Long-nosed, thin-necked dogs such as greyhounds, Dobermans and dachshunds remain a challenge.
Non-inflatable forms of the collar – a bit like a neck brace – can also be used but they are not always effective in stopping animals from reaching all parts of their body. They can be combined with other protection measures.
Bandages or boots
Where appropriate, bandages or boots can be fitted, including fashioning a “body tube” from leggings or a T-shirt, depending on the size of dog.
You can buy several different types of boot. Some have laces, others are stretchy balloon types that fit over the paw.
Gaffa (or gaffer) tape can also be used to cover bandages and it’s easier to unpeel cleanly than duct tape, but never stick it directly on fur or skin. You can use surgical tape – available from most chemists – to stick directly to hair or skin as this can usually be easily removed after soaking with surgical spirit.
Follow your vet’s advice and ensure bandages are changed regularly, usually every two to three days if there are open wounds. Contact your vet immediately if there is swelling or soreness, if the bandage smells, or if your pet is using their leg less over time.
You can also try anti-lick strips and sprays though most can’t be applied directly to wounds and some owners find them less successful at preventing licking. Their odour can be generally unpleasant for the sensitive noses of animals.
Other tactics include finding occupation for idle tongues and paws. Instead of feeding a bowl of food, which takes less than a minute to eat, try hiding or scattering biscuits for your dog to find.
Use a Buster Cube or plastic bottle with holes cut in it for them to knock around so that the biscuits fall out slowly but choose one that’s strong enough so your dog can’t destroy the bottle and swallow pieces. Kongs stuffed with peanut butter, cheese paste or tinned dog food, chilled in the fridge so it solidifies, also help to occupy a pet’s time.
“Ice cubes” of gravy or meat broth can be chased around and have to be consumed slowly, though be warned that they can be messy.
Teaching tricks is helpful (try clicker training) and mental occupation is as tiring as physical, though of course it doesn’t burn off calories, so reduce your pet’s food accordingly as less active pets will gain weight.
However you go about wound protection, always supervise to see if it is truly effective. Be most careful about protection if you will be away from your pet or asleep. If your pet is very persistent in attending to wounds, speak to your vet as this can be a sign of pain.
Why Do Dogs Lick Their Wounds?
Dr. Jamie Whittenburg is a medical writer and veterinarian for The Spruce Pets. With over 16 years of experience working with both large and small animals, Dr. Whittenburg now writes on pet health topics to bring helpful knowledge to pet parents all over the world.
Published on 12/02/22
Alycia Washington is a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) with nearly a decade of experience as a small animal emergency veterinarian. She currently works as a relief veterinarian for various emergency and specialty hospitals. Dr. Washington recognizes the importance of education and also works as a freelance veterinary writer.
When a dog has an injury, or really anything that is bothersome to them, they tend to react by licking the area. There are likely a few varied reasons as to why dogs exhibit this behavior. Trying to relive pain, cleaning the area, soothing themselves, and hyper fixation are all possible explanations for dog wound licking.
Why Do Dogs Lick Their Wounds?
One reason dogs lick their wounds is that the wound is painful or irritating to them. Licking the area is an attempt to relieve the pain in the area. A dog licking their wound is akin to a human rubbing an area on their body that hurts. Some wounds and surgical incisions can also start to itch as they heal. Dogs will lick during the healing process to alleviate itching.
Additionally, wounds are often dirty or contaminated with debris. Because dogs cannot wash the wound, they utilize what they have available for cleaning, which is their tongue.
When a part of the body hurts, dogs may use rhythmic licking of the area to comfort and soothe themselves. This behavior may have a calming effect on the injured animal.
Like humans, dogs can find themselves easily hyper fixated on things. This is especially true of wounds or other irritating things on their bodies. The need to lick can be so strong for a dog that it can be extremely difficult to stop the behavior.
What Types of Wounds Do Dogs Lick?
A dog is likely to lick any wound on their body, whether large or small. Even minor irritations, like rubs from harnesses or other equipment, can cause a dog to lick. Nails cut too short, flea and ant bites, scratches, and other skin or nail issues may result in licking.
Additionally, dogs may lick areas of their body that hurt, even if the skin is intact. Painful joints, fractures, injured muscles, impacted anal glands, and painful bladders may all be a target for a dog to lick. Allergies, both food and environmental, may also cause a dog to lick, especially their paws.
Signs of Licking Wounds in Dogs
Of course, you may directly observe your dog licking their wound or another painful part of their body. However, some dogs tend to only lick when they are left alone and are unobserved.
To identify the signs that mean that your dog has been licking a specific area, look first for moistness around the wound or irritated area. Saliva making the hair wet is a sure sign that your dog has been licking.
Another indication that your dog has been licking their wound is redness, hair loss, and irritation. Dogs’ tongues are rough and will pull the surrounding hairs out. The friction resulting from the licking will lead to redness and irritation of the area.
However, if it has been a little while since your dog has licked the area, you may not observe the fur being wet. Another indication of licking in dogs is a brown staining of the fur where they have licked. This staining is due to a chemical reaction between the hair and the saliva. The feet and anal area are often affected by this staining.
Should You Allow Your Dog to Lick Their Wound?
There is a myth that dogs’ mouths are “cleaner” than a human’s mouth. It is also stated that a dog’s licking of their wound is always beneficial and speeds healing. Though neither of these is true, the latter may be true in some cases.
Contrary to popular belief, like humans, dogs’ mouths are full of bacteria. Though there are some properties of dog saliva that have been shown in studies to kill bacteria, the dog’s saliva is only effective against very specific types of bacteria. Due to the fact that the dog will likely introduce many more bacteria into the wound than its saliva will be able to kill, it is rarely a good idea to allow them to lick.
Licking also results in additional damage to the wounded area and will increase irritation and inflammation. It may also open wounds that were previously closed and delay healing, especially if there are sutures in the wound.
There are a few situations where the dog should be allowed to lick their wound, but owners should always follow the advice of their veterinarian and only allow licking if directed to do so.
How to Stop a Dog From Licking Their Wound
The first thing to do if you notice that your dog is licking their wound is to treat the wound. Treatment will depend on the nature, cause, and severity of the wound. Cleansing and suturing the wound may be necessary. Your veterinarian may also prescribe antibiotics and pain-relieving medications.
Once the wound is appropriately treated, there are a number of strategies that owners can employ to discourage the dog from licking a wound.
Elizabethan Collar (soft or rigid)
These collars are affectionately known as “cones” and act as a barrier to prevent dogs from being able to reach and lick their wounds. It is essential to ensure that the Elizabethan collar is the proper size. It also must be secured around the dog’s neck snugly enough to prevent the dog from removing it but loosely enough to be comfortable. To guard against the licking of extremities, the collar should extend 2 inches beyond the dog’s nose.
Inflatable Dog Collar
Another device that may be useful in preventing licking by your dog is a soft, inflatable collar. These collars encircle only the dog’s neck and are inflated with air to prevent the dog from being able to reach the area that they are trying to lick. These collars also must be fitted correctly to ensure they stay on without irritating the dog’s neck. These collars are best for use with wounds on the trunk as the dog may be able to still reach their limbs with their mouths.
Homemade Pool Noodle Collar
For medium to large dogs, it is possible to make a collar that will dissuade the dog from licking body wounds. An appropriately sized pool noodle is cut into sections and slipped over the dog’s existing collar to encircle the neck. This is a cost-effective method of making a more comfortable barrier collar.
Putting a shirt or sweater on your dog may be effective in keeping them away from a wound on their body. This can be especially useful for protecting abdominal incisions after surgery. Clothes specifically intended for dogs work well, but human baby onesies work for small dogs, and child-sized T-shirts and sweatshirts work well for large dogs.
Things To Avoid
While it is important to deter your dog from licking their wound, there are some strategies that can do more harm than good. Things to avoid when trying to keep your dog from licking include:
Bandages are difficult to successfully place on dogs due to the shape of their bodies and legs. To keep the bandage from slipping off, it often must be snug. However, any bandage that is too tight can have severe consequences, including sloughing of the skin and loss of circulation, leading to limb death and loss. Only licensed veterinarians or veterinary technicians should ever place bandages on dogs.
“No-Chew” Sprays and Ointments
Though some of these products that are designed to keep a dog from licking their wound may be effective, they can also irritate the area as well as cause infection. You should not apply anything to a wound without the permission of the dog’s veterinarian to avoid making their injury worse.
It is natural for a dog to want to lick a wound. Though licking may aid in controlling some specific bacterial infections, there are too many negative consequences to allow it. Licking wounds often leads to irritation, reopening of healing wounds, infection, and delayed healing.