The Tongue Does Not Heal All Wounds

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Published: August 01, 2013

Last reviewed on January 22, 2016

Have you ever heard someone say that pets should be allowed to lick their wounds because saliva has healing properties? Veterinarians run into the notion all the time … typically after a dog or cat has been brought to the clinic with a wound that is getting worse rather than better after being licked.

Like many old wives tales, there is a modicum of truth behind the idea that licking can be beneficial. When an animal is wounded and does not have access to veterinary care, licking removes foreign material from the injured tissues. Also, there is some evidence that saliva does have antibacterial properties, so licking might help prevent or treat infections under these circumstances.

It makes sense for a wild animal to lick its wounds since no other options are available, but it does not follow that owners should therefore allow pets to do the same. This is particularly true in the case of surgical incisions.

Before, during, and after surgery, doctors go to great lengths to prevent wound contamination and infection including:

  • shaving the site to remove hair
  • scrubbing the area multiple times with two different types of antiseptics
  • covering the surrounding areas with sterile drapes
  • using sterile equipment
  • cleaning our hands and wearing sterile gloves and gowns
  • donning masks, booties and hair covers
  • keeping surgical suites impeccably clean
  • suturing the wound to keep it closed as it heals
  • prescribing antibiotics, pain relievers, and anti-lick devices as necessary

When a pet licks a surgical incision, he is introducing contamination, not removing it. In the case of non-surgical wounds, I don’t care if a pet licks a few times before treatment is initiated, but once the area has been thoroughly cleaned and medications started, the downsides of licking once again outweigh its benefits.

We now have lots of options available for keeping a pet’s mouth away from its wound or incision. Traditional Elizabethan collars work for some individuals, but others find them too annoying and clunky. See-through varieties are available, as are bulky collars that can prevent animals from turning their heads to reach many parts of their bodies. Body wraps and bandages (including some that emit a mild electric charge when licked) are widely available. Deterrent sprays can also help, but should never be applied directly to a wound. Spray the surrounding skin or use them lightly on an overlying bandage.

While we’re on the topic of bandages, a well-applied, appropriate covering that is checked regularly and replaced as needed can speed healing. But when used incorrectly, bandages do more harm than good. They can cut off circulation and lead to tissue death, become soiled and promote infection, and simply hide the fact that a pet’s wound needs attention. I generally do not recommend that owners apply bandages unless they have been taught the correct way to do so by a veterinarian who is familiar with the exact nature of an animal’s wound.

If one form of lick deterrence fails, try another. Keeping a pet’s sutures in place and preventing infection as a wound heals are well worth the effort.

Dr. Jennifer Coates


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