Why do dogs lick their wounds?

Why do dogs lick their wounds infographic

Dogs can lick their wounds for several reasons, but is it good to let them keep doing it, should you stop them or can it help with their healing? There are lots of half-truths that surround the myth that a dog’s saliva can heal injuries, making it difficult to know whether wound licking is a problem or not. To help you find the answers, we’ve written this article to get to the bottom of why dogs lick their injuries, whether their saliva has antiseptic properties and if licking wounds can be harmful.

Why do dogs lick their wounds?

Dogs lick their wounds because it’s an instinct that can help to soothe their pain, clean their wounds and can even kill certain bacteria. Even though it’s a deep-seated behaviour, letting your dog lick their injuries can make their wounds worse and may cause an infection. 

  • It’s an instinct - Dogs aren’t the only animals that lick their wounds; It’s also a common behaviour in horses, cats, rodents and primates. For many animals, wound licking is a basic instinct that’s been shaped by natural selection to improve their chances of survival after being injured
  • It soothes the pain - Dogs often lick at parts of their body that are painful, just like you may rub at your head when you bang it or clutch an area that’s been cut. Wounds often feel strange; they may feel painful, swollen or itchy. Licking, rubbing or holding an injured area sends signals along the same nerves that are also trying to tell the brain about the injury. By competing with these injury signals, the signals for these more pleasant sensations can help to block out some of the pain
  • Their saliva has antiseptic properties - Studies have shown that enzymes and chemicals in a dog’s saliva can be effective at killing some types of bacteria, but not all
  • It cleans the wound - A dog’s tongue is great for keeping wounds clean. Licking an injured area can clear away any debris, such as dirt, hair and bits of dead skin

Despite the benefits of licking their wounds, it’s not nearly as effective as current methods for treating injuries. If dogs are left to clean wounds themselves, they could irritate their injuries, slow down the healing process and introduce harmful bacteria.

Is a dog’s saliva antiseptic?

It may sound like a myth, but a dog’s saliva actually does have some antiseptic properties. Research has found that it can kill at least two different strains of bacteria (Escherichia coli, commonly known as E. coli, and Streptococcus canis). Although having bacteria-busting spit is an incredible feat, it doesn’t mean that a dog’s saliva can kill off all types of germs. For example, it’s been found to be ineffective at killing Staphylococcus, which causes staph infections.

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Is a dog’s mouth cleaner than a human’s?

Both a human’s mouth and a dog’s mouth contain billions of bacteria from hundreds of different species. Some of these bacteria may be harmful, while others are not. It’s difficult to say which mouth is cleaner, but neither of them are particularly ‘clean’. As well as thinking about the natural bacteria that live in their mouths, it’s also important to think about the bacteria that are also introduced from eating. Dogs regularly lick their bottoms and genitals and they often enjoy dining on dung, so you may want to think twice before letting them lick any cuts or grazes.

Should I let my dog lick their wound?

Letting your dog lick their wounds could introduce an infection, irritate the injury, delay healing and also provides a warm, wet environment that’s perfect for bacteria to breed.

Before they were domesticated, the best way our pet’s ancestors dealt with injuries was to lick at their wounds. Although licking may help to clean cuts and has some antibacterial properties, it’s not as effective as current veterinary-recommended wound management.

Licking wounds after surgery

After an operation, some dogs may become obsessed with the area that’s been treated. This area might be painful or it may itch, particularly as it begins to heal. It’s vital that you don’t let your dog lick their wounds, as it could cause further damage, cause an infection or they may even pull out sutures or reopen incisions. This is the reason that most dogs are given a plastic collar to wear after surgery. Depending on the type of surgery your dog has had, reopening a wound could be life-threatening. Even if the surgical incision was not in a vital area, trying to clean up a reopened wound and stitch it back together can be difficult.

Signs your dog’s been licking a wound

Most owners will catch their dog licking at a wound, but other less subtle tell-tale signs might include:

  • Wet or matted hair around the injury
  • Brown staining on the fur, which is particularly noticeable in light-haired dogs (the staining is actually old saliva)
  • The skin looks red
  • The wound isn’t healing
  • Hair loss

How to stop dogs from licking wounds?

To stop your dog from licking their wounds, you could use an Elizabethan collar, bandages, dog clothing, anti-licking sprays or distraction techniques. Some of these may not be right for the type of injury your dog has, so if your dog is repeatedly licking at a wound, always speak to your vet for advice.

Treat the wound

If your dog is repeatedly licking at a wound, it could be a sign that something isn’t right. If it’s a new wound, make sure that you’ve cleaned it and that it’s not looking red or infected. If you think the injury is moderate or severe, your dog won’t leave it alone, it’s looking inflamed or infected or if you’re concerned about it, contact your vet for advice. If you think that your dog is in pain, ask your vet if they can prescribe any pain medications.

Collars and cones

Vets often recommend dogs wear a collar or cone after surgery. These are often called Elizabethan collars, E-collars, buster collars or are sometimes lovingly referred to as the ‘cone of shame’. These collars act as a barrier to prevent dogs from getting at their injuries or removing their bandages. There are several types of collars, some are hard, others are soft, some are see-through, or you can even buy collars that are padded or inflatable. Your vet will be able to recommend which ones are most appropriate for your dog’s injury.

It can take some dogs a while to get used to their new collar and you may find that they keep bumping into things, including your shin, thigh or groin (depending on the size of your dog!). It’s important that their collar is a suitable length (usually a few inches beyond the tip of the nose). If your dog’s collar is not long enough they may be able to get at their wound. Your vet will be able to tell you when you can take the collar off and how long it needs to be worn.


Bandages can be used to try to prevent dogs from getting at certain types of wounds, but they come with a few cautions. Speak to your vet for advice if you think your dog may need a bandage. Bandages should never be too tight, as they can restrict blood circulation, but must be tight enough not to slip off. Bandages should be changed every few days to make sure that they’re keeping the wound underneath clean. It’s important that bandages don’t get wet, so they may need to be covered or kept waterproof when outside. Always contact your vet if you notice any sign of infection (redness, pain or the wound smells).


Boots can be used if your dog’s injured their paw. These foot coverings can be used alone or can be used over the top of dressings or bandages. If you do use boots to protect your dog’s paws then always make sure they’re tight enough to not come off easily, but not so tight as to be uncomfortable or restrict blood flow.

Dog clothing

Depending on where your dog’s wound is, you could try putting your dog in a body suit or, if the injury is on a limb, you could put on a protective sock to prevent them from getting to their wound.

Anti-licking treatments

If your dog is repeatedly licking at a wound, you can buy special sprays or strips that you put close to the injury, which smell or taste unpleasant. These are designed to discourage your dog from licking but they may not work for all dogs (some dogs don’t seem to be put off by them). Remember that applying anything directly to a wound may cause irritation or pain.

Distracting your dog

Some dogs may become obsessed with a wound and spend lots of time trying to get at it or lick it. This could be because it’s uncomfortable/painful or it could be because they’re bored and have little else to think about. Try distracting them by teaching them a new trick, taking them out for a walk (depending on where their injury is), giving them their food in a puzzle feeder, playing games with them, giving them a toy or try scattering their usual dry food around the room instead of placing it in a bowl.

How to keep a dog from licking a wound on their paw

If your dog has a small wound on their paw, you could try bandaging it or try using a dog bootie or you could even place a clean sock on their foot and then wrap it in surgical tape. Remember that any wounds must be kept clean and dry. Anything that covers a wound must be changed regularly to prevent infection.

How can you tell if your dog’s wound is infected?

It’s easy for a wound to become infected, so make sure you contact your vet if you notice any of the following signs:

  • Redness or irritation
  • The wound or the area around it seems swollen
  • If the wound has any pus or an unusually coloured discharge
  • If the wound seems to be causing increasing pain
  • If the wound is taking a long time to heal
  • If they or their wound feels hot

When to call the vet if your dog has a wound

If your dog has injured themselves, you should contact your vet if:

  • The wound is bleeding heavily
  • The bleeding is not stopping
  • They’re in severe pain
  • There’s something inside the wound (e.g. glass)
  • The wound is large
  • The wound is around their eye or on their head
  • They were bitten by an animal
  • The wound was caused by trauma (e.g. a car accident)
  • You’re concerned about your pet’s injuries

Why do dogs lick human wounds?

Dogs are loving and compassionate creatures. If they lick your wounds, they’re showing that they care about you and are trying to look after you by cleaning your wound, easing your pain and helping you heal. Licking is a natural and instinctive behaviour for dogs. Mothers lick their puppies, dogs lick themselves when they’re hurt and they also lick to show affection to the ones they love (that’s you!).

Do dog licks heal human wounds?

A dog’s saliva can kill at least two types of bacteria and their tongues are great at helping to clean away any dirt or debris. However, a dog’s mouth is also packed full of hundreds of different types of bacteria, some good, some not so friendly. Letting your dog lick your wounds may not always be harmful, but it doesn’t mean you should encourage your dog to do it. The bacteria in a dog’s mouth could give you an infection and there have been some rare cases where the infection has been life-threatening.

Can you get an infection from a dog licking a wound?

Yes, letting your dog lick your wounds could cause an infection. It’s impossible to say how common these infections are, but they do occur. Although there are enzymes and chemicals in a dog’s saliva that help to fight some types of bacteria, they’re not a universal antiseptic. A dog’s mouth is naturally full of billions of bacteria, but they may also have bacteria in their mouths from things that they’ve eaten. Knowing the sorts of things that your dog eats or licks may make you think twice about letting them near your wounds.

What to do if a dog licks your wounds

If your dog licks your wounds, make sure to wash it thoroughly with warm soapy water or follow any advice your doctor may have given you on how to keep your wound clean. Your dog may be keen to look after you, so if they keep trying to lick an injury, make sure to keep it covered, either with clothing, a bandage or a plaster. Know the signs of infection and speak to a doctor if your wound becomes red, swollen, more painful or begins to smell.

Find out more about why your dog might lick you.

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