As a devoted pet parent, you've likely encountered your furry companion's penchant for face licking, which can evoke both endearment and curiosity. But what motivates dogs to engage in this behavior, and should you consider addressing it?
Why do Dogs Lick Your Face?
The seemingly universal dog behavior of face-licking originates in the evolutionary heritage of our canine companions. This peculiar practice can be traced back to the wolf puppy behavior of licking the mouths of adult wolves, a technique employed to stimulate regurgitation of partially digested food. This transition from mother's milk to semi-digested sustenance marks a crucial step in a pup's growth toward consuming solid food.
Licking, whether directed at another dog's face or a human's, serves various social purposes within the canine world. One common interpretation is that it functions as an appeasement gesture, signifying a dog's deference in social interactions. Additionally, it can serve as a means to request sustenance, gather more social cues, express affection, or vie for attention.
Grooming also plays a role in this multifaceted behavior. Dogs might lick their canine housemates' faces, as well as yours or other body parts, as part of their grooming ritual. When they can't reach your face, they may opt for the closest available body part, your hand, arm, or leg. Sometimes, this affectionate licking can be perceived as a sign of their fondness.
Surprisingly, dogs may even extend their face-licking tendencies to strangers. This behavior is often an attempt to establish rapport with unfamiliar individuals, potentially to ward off any perceived threats. When dogs engage in face licking with children, it might be an expression of affection, an act of appeasement, or simply a means of tidying up any lingering food residue from their faces.
Is Dog Face Licking a Health Risk?
In general, for healthy individuals, dog saliva poses no substantial health risk when it comes into contact with intact skin. However, it's essential to exercise caution when your dog attempts to lick an open wound on your skin. Allowing their saliva to interact with such wounds can have adverse consequences. It may perpetuate a moist environment that could hinder the wound's healing process, potentially facilitating the growth of harmful bacteria and leading to a potential skin infection.
Over the past year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have recorded 12 reported cases in which individuals fell ill due to a bacterium found in dog saliva. The culprit behind these cases was identified as Capnocytophaga canimorsus, a bacterium that is normally harmless to both dogs and cats. However, for individuals with compromised immune systems, there exists a risk of infection if this bacterium enters the skin through an open wound, such as one caused by a bite or a cut.
It's worth noting that for such an infection to occur, the dog must have a high concentration of the specific bacterium, and their saliva must directly contact the open wound. As a preventive measure, it is advisable to thoroughly wash your hands after interacting with any dog.
Is It Safe to Let Your Dog Lick You?
In most cases involving healthy individuals, allowing a dog to engage in face or body licking should present minimal health concerns. However, it's essential to exercise some degree of caution. Avoid letting dogs lick your mouth or come into contact with any open skin wounds if you have any concerns.
To balance affection and hygiene, some people offer their dogs the underside of their chin to lick. Following this interaction, they promptly wash their face or apply an antibacterial sanitizing spray or gel to the licked area. Alternatively, individuals may permit their dogs to lick their hands, washing them or using antibacterial spray or gel to ensure cleanliness.
What to Do If You're Not Fond of Your Dog's Face-Licking Habit
If you are less than enthusiastic about your dog's penchant for face licking, you must recognize that you may inadvertently reinforce this behavior. Each time your dog licks your face and receives attention, they are more likely to repeat the action. Moreover, if your pup licks you while you're eating, and you respond by giving them a portion of your food, you inadvertently encourage the behavior to persist.
If you'd prefer your dog not to lick your face, consider redirecting their affection and attention toward more acceptable alternatives that align with your preferences. By avoiding any encouragement of the licking behavior, you can gently guide your pet towards expressing their affection in ways that align with your comfort.