Dogs licking babies: Is it safe?

Recently, during a Wellness Exam appointment a new mother mentioned she heard on NPR that it was OK for dogs to “kiss” babies; what did I think? Oh, boy — how wrong is that I thought, and on oh so many levels. “NO, I replied, it is not a good idea to have dogs licking babies and here are” …..

Four Reasons You Should Consider Before Letting Your Dog Lick Your Baby

For most pet owners, your dog is part of the family; you may even think of him/her as one of the “kids”. Naturally, when you bring home baby, you want your dog to greet those chubby cheeks and tiny toes and learn to love this new arrival, just like the rest of the family. While human kisses and snuggles are appropriate, it may not be wise to let “Fido” indulge in such activity.
Here are my four reasons that you should consider, before letting your dog lick your baby.

1. Dog Germs – Hygiene

Studies are disproving the myth that dog’s mouths are cleaner than human mouths. Not only do animal mouths harbor a multitude of bacterial strains, but dogs are less hygienic than people. I like to say, “you never know where a dog’s tongue has been.” They frequently, eat garbage and feces, they lick their backsides and genitals and they do not as a whole, brush and/or floss as regularly as people do. When a dog licks a baby’s mouth, nose or eyes, there is the potential for harmful organisms to enter the baby’s system. This can also occur when the dog licks the baby’s feet or hands too, when the baby then goes onto suck on them.

Infants and young children have less developed immune systems and poorer hygiene than older children and adults, so “germs” that might barely affect a healthy adult can be serious to babies. Some might argue that a child’s immune system can benefit from early exposure to “germs”. This is true, to a certain extent, but nonchalantly exposing babies to the “germs” in a dogs mouth takes the idea to an unhealthy extreme, in my opinion. Just take one day and pay close attention to the various things your dog eats, licks or chews on or what it picks up in its mouth on walks or while in the yard and I guarantee you will never want your dog’s tongue near your baby again!

2. Bacterial Threat
Both dogs and humans carry bacteria in their mouths that cause gum disease. While some of the bacteria that live in the acidic environment in human mouths will not survive the alkaline mouths of dogs, the opposite is not entirely true. Some oral dog bacteria will survive in the human mouth. A Japanese study, in 2011, revealed that numerous periodontal bacteria that occur rarely in humans are frequently found in the mouth of dogs. When they were found in humans, there was always close contact with infected animals. Such bacteria can lead to aggressive gum disease which can lead to tooth loss as well as to heart disease and kidney problems. You don’t want your baby exposed to gum-attacking bacteria before their first teeth have even “popped out”. Baby and dog

Additionally, dogs can harbor several serious Intestinal bacteria that can cause severe, even life-threatening illness in human; babies and infants are especially vulnerable as are the elderly or any other immunocompromised family member(s). These bacteria include Escherichia coli, Salmonella and Campylobacter. E. coli, is a bacterium that causes diarrhea and stomach pain in people and is the leading cause of Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, a rare disorder causing kidney failure. Similarly, many Salmonella species and Campylobacter jejuni cause infection and illness in people. Like E. coli, the infection they cause abdominal pain and diarrhea; diarrhea, which can be severe, can result in dehydration and even to a blood borne-infection; both can rapidly be deadly. The greatest risk for dogs acquiring these infections is the feeding of raw diets to pets. One way to prevent the spread of these infections, as well as a number of others, is not to feed these types of diets to dogs.

Need to hear more? Dogs can be carriers for the bacterial diseases Staphylococcus or group A Streptococcus. Group A Strep can “take up residence” in the throats of dogs and be transferred to humans by – you guessed it – licking. Strep throat infections are common in young children, and they are painful. When a dog licks a child with the Strep bacteria, it can pick up the “bug” and spread it to other children or adults, or even back to that same child. Similarly, humans can transfer other strains of Strep to dogs, such as Streptococcus pneumoniae, a leading cause of bacterial pneumonia. This re-infection cycle can be vicious especially in babies and young children with under-developed immune systems.

Lastly, other animals can transfer their diseases to your dog without ever coming into contact with your dog. Such is the cases with the disease Leptospirosis. Wild animals such as raccoons, skunks, deer, to name a few, which feed and urinate in areas your dog frequents, could transmit the Leptospira bacteria to your dog. Your dog can then become infected, if not vaccinated, and transmit the bacteria to humans in the house. Infected dogs and people can suffer liver and/or kidney failure as a result.

There is no such thing as being overly cautious. Your dog may be carrying any or all of the above-named bacteria without showing any symptoms whatsoever. Don’t just assume that a dog is healthy, just because they are not visibly sick. To help prevent disease transmission, we recommend you do not feed raw diets to dogs and that you vaccinate your dogs annually for Leptospirosis. You should also keep your dog away from anyone who is ill in the house and again, do not allow them to lick the baby – why take the chance and possibly pay a very heavy price for a few “doggy smooches?”

3. Worms – Parasites
As stated previously, dogs lick their own and other dog’s backsides, stick their noses in fecal material and occasionally eat feces. This puts them at risk for contracting worms and other intestinal parasites that can be transmitted to humans. Those of greatest concern are Roundworms and Cryptosporidium.

Roundworms are caused by a parasite called Toxocara. In most cases, Toxocara infections are not serious, and many people, especially adults infected by a small number of larvae (immature worms), may not notice any symptoms. The most severe cases are rare but are more likely to occur in babies or young children. The larval form of the worm can migrate to different tissues in the body causing serious problems. The Toxocara larvae seem to have an affinity for the eye thus resulting often resulting in partial-to-complete vision loss in the child. Alternatively, the larvae are known to enter the liver and/or brain/central nervous system; symptoms in these cases include fever, fatigue, coughing, wheezing, or abdominal pain.

Cryptosporidium is a microscopic parasite that causes the diarrheal disease Cryptosporidiosis. Both the parasite and the disease are commonly known as “Crypto.” Who has forgotten the outbreak of Crypto in Milwaukee in the late 1980’s? Crypto causes watery diarrhea and can affect all people. Yet again, we see that some groups are more likely to develop serious illness. For the young and other immune-compromised individuals, it can be life-threatening.

We recommend regular de-worming of dogs, i.e. prophylactic deworming of puppies, monthly year-around heartworm prevention, daily removal of fecal material from yards, practicing good hygiene and once again, not allowing dogs to lick babies to minimize potential risk.

4. Mouth Contact, Mothering Instincts and Behavioral Issues

While many dogs lick a human’s face as a submissive gesture of appeasement, others do it to get a reaction from their humans. This look-at-me behavior is a sign of dominance; touching a human with their mouths is also a controlling behavior in some dogs. No animal should be allowed to exhibit signs of dominance over a child, especially a baby.

Owners often feel that their canine friend/child is “mothering” a human baby when it is licking the baby’s face. This maternal behavior may be endearing, but consider what could happen if the mothering is taken further; dogs don’t treat puppies as we treat human babies. They carry them by their heads or necks, they nip them when they misbehave and have no qualms about stepping on them, growling at them and even snapping or pawing them to make them behave in a pack-friendly manner. As such, a dog should never be allowed to treat a human baby as a puppy, including licking its face or bottom, for fear that the mothering could lead to dangerous behaviors. Your dog may mean well, but that doesn’t matter when it comes to your baby’s safety. Your dog should not come to see your baby as their puppy. You need to make it clear that your baby is yours, to care for and to discipline. The best way to do this is to stop such mothering behaviors before they even have a chance to start. Keep your baby away from your dog’s face from day one.

For your dog to lick a baby, they must be in close contact with one another. While many of us pet owners trust tour dogs implicitly, care should be taken when a new baby or a small child is introduced on the scene. Previously undetected instincts and behaviors may arise. Dogs read body language differently than humans do and they may react uncharacteristically to a baby’s movements or noises. Behavioral changes in the dog, such as protectiveness and/or aggression can be seen, especially in an older or territorial animal. The sounds, smells, and movements of babies can also excite some dogs. An excitable dog may move suddenly from enthusiastic licking to playful biting, this is especially true with younger dogs. This could result in serious injury to the baby or child. Dogs are not immune to jealousy and may resent that you are suddenly spending so much of your time and attention on this “new, noisy and smelly creature.” Keep a close eye out for any of the troubling signs noted above and be ready to intervene and discipline your dog should it show any ill–will towards your baby. Lastly, make sure that you regularly spend time and lavish a bit of attention on your canine friend/child, even if your baby has you all tuckered out.

Now What? How Can I Stop My Dog From Licking?

Prevent your dog from rehearsing the unwanted behavior. The more your dog gets to lick, the stronger the licking habit becomes. This means you may have to change the physical set-up in the house until you help equip your dog with new habits. Use of a baby gate on the baby’s room, placing your dog on a leash and out of range during the baby-floor time, etc. is a good start. Other ways to manage around the problem include tiring out your dog with physical or mental stimulation or using chew bones or food puzzle toys to keep your dog busy with something else to do.

It is best to start-by, training your dog not to lick you. You also need to understand, that this behavior is typically attention seeking. So if you give your dog any attention because of licking, whether it’s positive or negative, you are unintentionally rewarding the behavior.

The best way to eliminate licking is to eliminate the attention you give your dog when it licks. Other than removing the attention, a change in body language will help make the point.

How to — When your dog starts to lick you, say a short and sharp “Nope!” and then withdraw your attention while moving away. It may help to put a little bitter substance i.e., bitter apple spray, lemon juice or other mild irritants to make the licking less desirable. Make sure your eyes and face are dramatical, averted from your dog. When you get up and move away, your dog may follow you and try licking again. If this occurs repeat, the process. Because your dog has been rewarded in the past, for this behavior, you may have to evade attempts at licking and repeat the process many times before your dog gets the point.

What if My Dog Just Doesn’t Get It?
If your dog doesn’t seem to understand what you are doing, it may help to say “Nope!” the second your dog begins to lick and then “dramatically storm off”; immediately, leave the room and shut the door behind you. Leave the dog alone for approximately 20 sec and repeat the process as needed if it tries to lick you again.

The key to training is consistency – and in the case of licking it is especially true.

Create Positive Attention with Another Task
While showing your dog that being licked is not what you want, it will help to teach your dog another behavior, that will allow it to get the attention that doesn’t end in you being slobbered on. For example teach your dog to shake, sit up, lie down or roll over to get your attention. In this way, your dog can still get your attention without licking you.

To complete the training, you need to outmatch your dog’s persistence when it comes to licking. To be successful, you must be consistent, in not allowing your dog to lick you. Become creative and try different things.