It is pretty common for animals to lick their wounds. Many dogs do it because their saliva has medicinal benefits and can clean the wounds. Some do it simply because of the comfort it brings, like a young boy who gets hurt thinks the best cure just may be a kiss, after all. This behavior is especially common in dogs and is seemingly deeply built into their genome. A dog who has never witnessed this behavior from any dog ever will still lick their wounds when they get injured, but why? Does it carry some benefit to the healing process?
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The Root of the Behavior
There are a couple parts to this question. Why dogs lick their wounds is pretty simple; they do it because that is what they have learned to do. Either because they have had a wound before and licking it was soothing or because they learned it from another dog that they have known throughout their life. A dog does not understand bacteria and you can tell! Not a single lab coat in the whole group. Instead, they have some combination of basic instinct given to them through their genetic makeup and some demonstrative learning.
Just because your dog does not know that it helps them, does not mean it does them no good. Saliva helps break down bacteria and enzymes carried in that saliva can help with cell growth and replacement. In layman’s terms, it is incredibly beneficial to the healing process. Even though these benefits exist, it does not mean you should let your dog lick their wounds. In the wilderness these adaptations were necessary for a canine to survive from otherwise fatal injuries. In the technologically advanced environment they live in today, it can do more harm then good. Foreign viruses and bacteria in the dog’s mouth can be passed to the open wound and if this bacteria survived in the saliva environment of your dogs mouth, then you can be sure it will fester in the open wound. This can take a small injury and turn it into a bad infection. Not to mention simply causing irritation to the skin and providing a warm and moist environment for the bacteria to survive and multiply. If the wound already has an infection, then by your dog licking it they are inadvertently ingesting that bacteria and biological waste. This could make your dog more sick then the infection would alone. Today, we have safer ways to treat your dog’s injury and because of this, preventing your dog from licking wounds is probably going to be your best bet.
Encouraging the Behavior
Preventing your dog from licking his wounds is pretty easy. Using a bandage will obviously remove the ability for the dog to get to the wound. If your dog, however, scratches at bandages then this may not be your best choice. If they scratch at the bandages, then it is likely damaging or agitating the flesh underneath. Combine that with an open wound and your dog could cause a lot of damage. A head cone in this case will be your best bet. It will restrict their ability to lick the wound without providing any irritation to the wound from a bandage. The age and health of your dog are going to be important variables in regards to the healing process in general. A weaker or more feeble dog is going to have a much harder time fighting off infection, and thus is more important to make sure they are not licking their wounds. A small laceration on a young and healthy dog is probably not a big deal if they lick the wound, but an old dog and a larger wound and it can become a very big deal. Anti-lick strips and sprays are also readily available and are applied directly to the wound. These often contain poor tasting ingredients and usually work pretty well, but every dog is different and some will lick regardless.
Other Solutions and Considerations
If the wound festers, it is very important to contact your vet as soon as possible. If the wound smells badly, your dog is experiencing soreness, or they begin to avoid using the limb impacted, then an infection is likely the cause. An infection will not only slow the healing process, but it can lead to very serious medical complications. If an infected wound is not treated early, it can be life threatening for your friend. On any wound, antiseptic compounds can be applied directly to the wound and will reduce the risk of infection and can speed up the healing process. Your veterinarian can prescribe some antibiotics to fight infection and can be important, especially in weaker dogs.
Nine times out of ten, if your dog has a small wound and they lick it a bit, nothing will come of it. The exceptions can be extreme, so do what you can to prevent this behavior. On older and more frail dogs, it becomes vital that they do not lick their wounds as they no longer have the immune system to fight infection.