A kiss is a kiss… or is it? Are “licks” from dogs and cats the same as kisses? And are there any health dangers to you from cat and dog kisses?
A Sign of Affection
For cats and dogs, licking can have many purposes and meanings. Researchers who study wolves, coyotes and other wild canine ancestors believe that pups lick the mother’s muzzle after a hunt to compel her to regurgitate a little prey. Some dogs will lick the face of another dog in the household on return, possibly to detect if they’ve sampled any treats or as a welcoming gesture.
Cats, who tend to be stingier with kisses than dogs, may lick you as a form of mutual grooming, perhaps to demonstrate their acceptance of you into their feline tribe.
Your dog or cat may also lick you because they like the taste of the salt or other signature flavors on your skin that make you, well, you. If they lick you on the mouth or lips and you praise them and deliver a kiss in return, you might encourage your pet to repeat the behavior.
Of course, when you’re bestowed a lick that is accompanied by a sweeping tail wag or a snuggle on the couch, it’s quite possible it’s out of pure affection.
Clean Mouth or Potty Mouth?
Have you ever heard that a dog’s mouth is cleaner than a human’s? If so, consider this: Many dogs think the litter box is open snack bar, and dogs and cats are especially fond of gnawing on decaying vermin. They clean their nether parts with their tongues. And chances are, they’re not getting their teeth cleaned nearly as often as you are. Suffice it to say that the “cleaner mouths” legend simply isn’t true.
In fact, pets can swap more than spit with you because their saliva can contain bacteria, yeast, viruses and parasites that can pose a risk to humans. Bacteria such as Salmonella spp., Clostridium spp., E. coli spp. and Campylobacter spp. can cause gastrointestinal symptoms in people. And Pasteurella spp., a type of bacteria commonly found in the mouths of healthy cats and some dogs, can lead to widespread infections in humans.
Pets can even transmit parasites such as roundworms, hookworms and Giardia spp. through a kiss, although it’s not very common.
While these organisms aren’t usually absorbed through the skin if a pet licks your arm or leg, some are more easily transmitted through open wounds in the skin or the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose or eyes. The overall risks of catching something serious from kissing your pet is relatively low, but it’s best for immune-compromised people to avoid smooching dogs and cats right on the lips.
Pow, Right in the Kisser
Care should also be taken when allowing young children to show affection toward pets. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children 5 to 9 years of age are at greatest risk for dog bite injuries. Some pets, like people, may not appreciate being hugged or may be fearful of sudden movements around their face or head, and they may resort to biting as a way to get people to back away from them.
Still, few pet owners will begrudge their pets some type of affection on Valentine’s Day. Chances are, your dog or cat may appreciate a new squeaky toy or catnip mouse even more that a smack on the lips.