Should we let pets clean their own wounds?
Dogs and cats lick their wounds. Why? Because they have no disinfectant handy with which to clean their own cuts and scrapes.
Last reviewed on January 22, 2016
Indeed, they seem to manage quite well when it comes to simple cleaning. But beyond getting the big bits of dirt and basic grunge off, their tongues are infinitely better off where they belong... in their mouths.
So much for my clients who swear their pets do not need E-collars. Animals' mouths are cleaner than ours, they say, citing the pithy adage that suggests we’d all rather eat a plate of spaghetti off a dog’s tongue than off our Crate & Barrel finest. Pets mouths are made for licking wounds, they say, so to heck with you neurotic vets and your expensive post-surgical accoutrements.
Such was the case with one recent client after her dog's routine neuter, at which time she swore up and down that he'd never need the "lampshade" (i.e., an Elizabethan collar). When he was brought back with a complete dehiscence (unraveling) of his stitches, his owner was angry that we had not been more demanding about having her keep him inside. "How could you let me do that to him?" she actually asked.
When he came in that morning for the "gash in his belly," I would have had sufficient cause to reprimand her. Instead, she berated me for my staff's lack of insistence on the outdoor thing and — get this — my poor stitching. Her dog's tongue surely had nothing to do with it. "Because everyone knows pet tongues are clean!" she said. "And everyone knows that licking a wound is good for it."
This is what I get to hear: "Didn’t you know Caesar employed a small army of trained, wound-licking dogs to handle his soldiers’ injuries?"
Sure, getting blood, guts, dirt, and bacteria off of a gaping wound is a good thing, whether it’s a tongue or a gauze sponge. The latter is better, but why quibble over details?
But let's get real, that was 2,050 years ago!
It’s true that some amount of normal licking can be therapeutic. In fact, there’s some evidence that cross-species licking is related to lower levels of infection than same-species licking, presumably due to the lower levels of species-specific bacteria. But excessive licking and biting at a wound is NOT a good thing. And surgical incisions are not the appropriate indication for such ministrations, anyway — not when there are other, better options available.
So the next time you’re at the vet’s office rejecting the advances of the E-collar, at least have the courtesy to leave your pet indoors, watch him carefully, and don’t blame your vet for the all-too-common outcome if you don't.
Failing that, don’t plumb the depths of ancient medical history and feed it to me as if it were… well… spaghetti on a dog’s tongue. I do not like it, Sam I Am!
Dr. Patty Khuly