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Wound licking is a practice that is engaged in by most mammals, including primates, which involves the repeated licking of an injury or wound. This can can have both positive and negative consequences. Many pet owners are familiar with wound licking since it can become a serious problem for an injured pet. Usually it must be controlled to minimize damage due to excessive licking by cats, dogs and other animals.
On the positive side, saliva has been found to contain certain components that actively fight infection. Nitrites that break down into nitric oxide are a big part of the antibacterial effect, and there are other bacteria fighters in saliva as well. Although humans do not typically engage in wound licking, some people feel that these properties help to demonstrate the value of the process. In the future the antibacterial benefits of saliva may prove to be beneficial in preventing the development of infection, especially in difficult cases.
On the other hand, there are also many reasons that wound licking is not beneficial to humans or animals. Dogs, cats and other animals may engage in licking their wounds not only as a way to clean them, but also to soothe an injured area. Despite the fact that saliva contains antibacterial elements, it is also home to many different kinds of bacteria. Many experts feel that the harmful effects of the bacteria tend to outweigh any possible benefits, making wound licking an undesirable practice.
When a pet is injured it will normally engage in wound licking immediately. For an animal in the wild, this is usually the only way it has to deal with an injury. Domesticated animals, however, benefit from their association with humans and are treated for injuries that might be fatal if not for human intervention. Since an animal may lick a wound excessively due to anxiety or in an effort to relieve its pain, not only are the bacteria in saliva of concern, but damage caused by too much wound licking becomes a concern as well.
There are several different ways to prevent an animal from engaging in wound licking. The method chosen depends on the preference of the owner, the location of the injury and how the animal responds to treatment. The least restrictive way to prevent licking and chewing is to coat an injury with a bitter-flavored cream or spray. If this doesn’t stop the problem, it may be possible to cover the wound with bandages to prevent access. As a last resort, if nothing else keeps an animal from bothering an injury it can wear a muzzle or a special collar, called an Elizabethan collar, that creates a barrier and prevents the animal from reaching the injured area.