We all love our pets. In fact, it could be argued we love them too much, especially when allowing our beloved cat or dog to “kiss” us on the mouth. While this may seem like a natural sign of affection, some might argue that infection may be a better term to use.
Do you find these types of moments endearing, or are you someone who shudders at the idea of your pet getting that close to your mouth with a tongue that eats, licks and touches some truly disgusting things? Either way, it’s best to know whether you should actually be concerned for your health the next time a pet wants to show just how much they really love you.
So what does the science have to say about coming into such close contact with our pets? Are we jeopardizing our health by allowing our pets to get up close and personal, or does a friendly lick present just as big a germ factor as eating something that has fallen on the floor (three second rule obviously applies)? Let’s take a look.
What Are You Eating?
Based simply on a level of overall cleanliness, “kissing” your pet’s mouth is not high on the hygienic meter. After all, how many times have we asked our pets “what are you eating?”, out of a combination of curiosity and horror?
If honest with ourselves, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that a pet’s mouth features a lot of germs. Our pet’s mouths are disgusting. The willingness of pets to put sticky, crawly, creepy and dirty things in their mouths put even toddlers to shame.
Dogs and cats use their mouths for everything. Whether inspecting a dead cockroach in the corner, licking up spilled mop water or using their tongues as toilet paper, our pets have no issues with sticking their nose where we as humans hope they wouldn’t belong.
As a result of these types of habits, the mouths of our pets are coated in all sorts of unsavory specimens of bacteria and germs that might send you scrambling for the mouthwash if you actually thought about them crawling around your teeth and tongue.
But can these types of germs actually harm our health?
A Strain on Our Smiles
Researchers do have some level of concern regarding the impact on humans that kisses from their pets could have on their oral health. However, just how big an impact this could have isn’t entirely clear. What health experts do know is that the oral microbiomes of humans look somewhat similar to that of cats and dogs, but also incredibly different.
Research has shown that humans, cats and dogs all share some of the same types of bacteria that contribute to the development of gum disease. However, no scientific evidence exists that show contact with pets can transmit the bacteria in a way that could increase an individual’s risk for developing gum disease or tooth decay. In fact, it seems like humans may actually have some innate defenses against this very thing happening.
According to one small study published in the journal PLOS One, DNA sequencing on the oral microbiome of four dogs and their owners found that the oral bacteria from canines may not be able to survive in the lower pH, more acidic mouths of humans. Cats also appear to share a microbiome more similar to dogs than humans.
The study also suggested that brushing would most likely remove any bacteria transferred from the mouth of a pet to an owner. However, let’s assume that some bacteria a pet transferred to you was able to linger for longer in your mouth. Could it make you sick?
A Sickening Conclusion
Zoonotic diseases may actually present a risk to our health. These types of illnesses can be transmitted through parasites, bacteria, viruses and fungi between humans and animals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One of the most common ways an animal can transfer these types of diseases is through their bodily fluids.
The most widely known example of this type of infection is avian flu. However, it’s far more likely for zoonotic diseases to be transmitted to humans by animals they don’t keep as pet. That’s simply because a pet that lives in your home is far less likely to receive exposure to the type of bacteria that can cause illness.
However, there are a number of illnesses you can contract from coming into direct contact with your pet’s mouth. While these can vary, the most likely type would be an unpleasant bout of a gastrointestinal illness.
So while you’re not likely to actually get sick from receiving a few loving licks from your favorite pet, there is a non-zero chance of that happening. Maybe next time you can show your pet just how much you love them by giving a good belly rub instead.