Wound licking in pets 101

Dogs and cats both lick their wounds. Why? Because they have no chlorhexidine handy with which to disinfect their own cuts and scrapes. Sad business for them-except that they seem to manage quite well when it comes to simple cleaning. Beyond getting the big bits of dirt and basic grunge off, though, their tongues are better off where they belong-in their mouths.

So much for my clients who swear their pets need no e-collars. Pets’ 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 scr-- you neurotic vets and your expensive post-surgical accoutrements.

Such was the case last week when one of my cryptorchid neuters came back with a complete dehiscence of his belly stitches (where I’d had to fish around for a stray testicle). His owner swore up and down he’d never need the collar. Indeed, I’d used subcutaneous sutures and figured he’d be watched at home in the event of any catastrophes. I didn’t count on her disobeying every order and letting the cat roam outdoors to his heart’s content immediately after surgery.

When he came in Saturday morning for the “gash in his belly” I had sufficient cause to reprimand her. Instead, she berated me for my poor stitching. Her cat’s tongue surely had nothing to do with it. Everyone knows pet tongues are clean!

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 a gaping wound is a good thing whether it’s a tongue or a gauze sponge. The latter’s better, but why quibble over details?

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 is verboten. And surgical incisions are not the appropriate indication for such ministrations, anyway-not when there are other options available.

So 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 me for the all-too-common outcome. Failing that, don’t plumb the depths of ancient medical history and feed it to me as if it were spaghetti on a dog’s tongue. I don’t like it, Sam I Am!

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