The image of an animal licking its wounds is often associated with anyone’s attempt to feel better after a metaphorical injury. But when dogs and cats are truly injured, allowing them to lick their wounds can do more harm than good.
Like most animal activities, wound licking has its roots in behavior that would be beneficial under different circumstances. When a wild animal licks its wounds, it is making the best of a bad situation. With no access to veterinary care, the individual uses its tongue to remove dirt and debris from the area. Saliva can also have a negative effect on the growth of bacteria so licking may help prevent some infections. For these reasons, there is no cause for concern if a pet licks a wound a couple of times soon after the injury occurs, but if licking continues, complications often follow. Tissue damage, inflammation, infection, and dehiscence (splitting open) of a surgically repaired wound are all possible.
These problems can come about either through the mechanical activity of the tongue and teeth, the maceration of tissues (weakening by being perpetually wet), or by the introduction of bacteria.
Minor scrapes and scratches can often be effectively treated at home:
- If necessary, carefully clip hair from the area and rinse the wound with warm water.
- Apply a gentle antiseptic solution followed by a broad spectrum antimicrobial ointment like Zymox.
- Prevent the pet from grooming the ointment off its skin for at least ten minutes. Take a dog for a walk, sit with a cat in your lap, or use an Elizabethan collar or light, loose bandage.
- Check the wound at least twice daily, and repeat the above treatments until the skin is healed.
More serious injuries, or those that fail to improve with at home treatment, should be evaluated by a veterinarian. Puncture wounds, even those that appear relatively small from the outside, can be especially dangerous as they often lead to infection of deeper tissues. Veterinary care may include anesthesia, debridement (the surgical removal of foreign material and dead tissue from a wound), thoroughly flushing and cleaning the wound, applying topical antiseptics and/or antibiotics, suturing, bandaging, oral or injectable antibiotics, and pain relief.
Wound licking does not have magical healing properties; dogs and cats lick their injuries because they are uncomfortable. Licking is not a substitute for appropriate wound care.