How Clean Are Your Pets? Why Dog and Cat Saliva is Problematic

A lot of pet owners enjoy receiving licks or “kisses” from their canine or feline companions. Pets often lick humans to demonstrate acceptance or affection for their caretakers, so it’s usually a good sign.

But we all know that dogs and cats aren’t exactly the cleanest animals—especially those that spend a lot of time outside. Dogs are willing to eat almost anything they find outdoors, and cats will carry around prey inside their mouths. It’s very common for harmful organisms to wind up inside of their saliva, posing a threat to both themselves and any humans they interact with.

Even though the saliva of our favorite companions has been known to carry a few properties that help them stay clean and manage wounds, the good usually outweighs the bad when it gets on human skin. So just how clean are your pets?

Is Dog and Cat Saliva Really Antibacterial?

One common rumor states that the saliva of dogs and cats isn’t as dirty as we might think. This is true…to an extent.

Cat saliva contains several proteins and enzymes that function as natural antibacterial agents, including lactoferrin and nitrate. These compounds are found in the saliva of many animals and provide bacterial and fungal protection. This is partly why cats spend close to half of their waking hours grooming themselves: they’re simply applying a coating of saliva to eliminate harmful bacteria and keep their fur smooth (as gross as that might sound).

Similar to cat saliva, dog saliva also contains a host of useful agents that help to protect them against infection. Special proteins called histatins are found in dog saliva and are useful for withstanding infection after suffering a cut or open wound. Hence, dogs will prefer to lick their wounds to facilitate cleaner (but not faster) healing and reduce the risk of infection.

To this end, dogs and cats do have saliva that has antibacterial abilities catered for their own wellbeing, particularly when dealing with injuries. Their saliva also acts as a source of pain relief for any sites on their bodies that are inflamed. But unfortunately, drawing the conclusion that dogs and cats have “clean” saliva would be far from the truth.

How Unclean is Dog and Cat Saliva?

Both dogs and cats carry harmful bacteria in their saliva that can be as dangerous to themselves as it is to humans.

Cats tend to have traces of Staphylococcus intermedius and Pasteurella multocida in their saliva, especially if they live in groups or roam outside. Both of these bacterial strains are harmful if allowed to enter the human body. Bugs, lizards, and especially rodents that cats carry in their mouths can also introduce many other pathogens into the equation.

Cat saliva has been connected to various human diseases such as cryptosporidiosis, salmonella disease, and giardiasis, all of which are responsible for severe stomach and diarrheal problems.

Dog saliva has been found to contain a completely different microbiome compared to human saliva, with only a 16.4% similarity. Among these different bacteria, there are plenty of strains that are able to be transmitted between other animals and humans. These are known as zoonotic infections.

Dogs will also commonly lick their behinds as well as the behinds of other dogs, sometimes gathering fecal matter into their mouths as a result. Although rare, Hookworms and Roundworms can be transmitted to humans through oral fecal infection if dog saliva gets too close to a person’s mouth.

How Can I Keep My Pet’s Mouth Clean?

Completely freeing your dog or cat’s mouth from all bacteria will be nearly impossible to do. Our pets are animals at the end of the day, and will do what’s instinctual for them.

Nevertheless, there are still some precautions you can take as a pet owner to help your pet’s saliva stay as clean as possible.

Your local pet store will likely provide several mouth cleaning and dental options for your pets to benefit from. These can be things like dental treats, special chew toys, and even toothbrushes and toothpaste designed for animals. Different food can also specialize in retaining a clean mouth for your pet.

Another preventative measure is to closely monitor your pets and their environment as much as possible. Keeping your dog or cat inside will generally improve their oral health by limiting the dangerous substances they can fit in their mouths. Ensure you keep your home’s floors clean and your counters free of anything that could cause a mess. Your cat’s litter box should also be scooped and changed frequently to allow them to do their business as cleanly as possible.

Despite your efforts, however, your pets will still find ways to foster harmful bacteria in their saliva—even if they produce it themselves! You can only diminish the risk so much.

Keeping Yourself Clean

Thankfully, rather than focusing on the cleanliness of your pet’s mouth, you can also prioritize your own exposure to their saliva.

Ensuring licks are only on your arms and legs will greatly minimize your chance of developing an infection. Try to keep your pets’ mouths away from your face. If your pet decides to lick your hands or fingers, be sure to wash up before touching your face, your food, or other people around you. Your eyes and mouth are two of the biggest entrances for bacteria to ride into your body—protect them!

Washing your hands with water and hand soap is the best, most efficient way to remove pet germs from your hands. But what about when a dog licks you at the family picnic where you don’t have the leisure of a bathroom?

When a sink and soap are nowhere to be found, hand sanitizer acts as an excellent substitute. Muse Health’s fragrance-free hand sanitizer contains enough ethyl alcohol to eliminate 99% of bacteria that end up on your hands…including the pathogens left behind by your favorite furball. Better still, our sanitizer contains natural oils that soothe your skin rather than dry it up, so you’re free to use it as often as you need to.

Just because your pets have habits and biology that predisposes them to a dirty mouth doesn’t mean you can’t keep loving them! Simply take the extra steps to protect yourself and others, and you can continue living in harmony with your dog or cat—even when they decide to love you back with a lick or two (or ten).