If you’ve seen an influx of furry four-legged friends around your neighborhood (or on your Instagram feed), it’s no coincidence. The COVID-19 pandemic led to a boom of pet adoptions, a trend commonly known as “the pandemic puppy.” Pet rescues and adoption agencies experienced exponential demand in the months following the onset of the pandemic, so much so that the waiting lists to not only adopt but foster became overwhelmingly long.
This new fad for bringing home a new addition to the family makes sense: in a time full of uncertainty and anxiety, pet companionship has shown to be great for our physical and mental health.
As anyone who’s been around a young, overly excited canine companion would know, these friends absolutely adore eating, running (zoomies, anyone?), and covering their beloved humans in big, wet displays of affection. Why do our puppy pals love to lick our faces so much anyway? The answer lies somewhere between evolutionary habits and social conditioning.
When wolf cubs transitioned from their mother’s breast milk to something more solid, they tend to lick the mouths of their adult counterparts for some uh, fresh leftovers. Yum! Knowing this, it’s no wonder our dogs use their super olfactory senses to hop onto our laps for a lick after we’ve devoured a slice of pizza or returned from the gym. As Community Medicine Veterinarian Tierra Price, DVM, MPH points out, “Whether you just finished a steak or if you just came in from a workout, the taste of your face may be the appeal for some dogs.”
Dogs learn affection like we do
Another reason your pup wants to lick you? To give you a big show of their affection, of course! Young dogs learn this early from their mothers as a grooming technique when they’re licked clean as newborns. These puppies then adopt this behavior as a display of their love and lick their owners in return.
While many pet owners relish the abundance of slobbery kisses from their fur babies, I’m not so sure the skin on our faces feels the same. Dogs constantly eat whatever they find on the floor or outdoors, they lick their genitals, and then come over for a big ol’ smooch. Are their kisses (and the drool that inevitably comes with) harmful to our skin or harmless? We asked the experts.
New York-based dermatologist Dr. Julie Russak, MD, FAAD of Russak Dermatology Clinic informs, “There is nothing specific in dog saliva that is damaging to the skin, unless you have allergies to dog saliva or dandruff, which is relatively common. It’s never a good idea to put anything dirty on your face, which would apply to dirty dogs too. If the dog is groomed and bathed regularly then it is completely okay.”
Dr. Hadley King, MD of HCK Dermatology adds, that while dog saliva contains bacteria, it also has “antibacterial properties and would be an unlikely cause for infection.” While many dermatologists and other skin experts in the field would agree with Russak and King on the overall harmless nature of this behavior, the consensus isn’t unanimous.
Dr. Joshua Zeichner, MD of Zeichner Dermatology hints that if you’ve been meticulously adhering to your skin routine, letting your dog have a lick is not recommended. “If you’re taking good care of your skin with the right moisturizers and cleansers, I do not recommend allowing your dog’s saliva to come in direct contact with your face,” he says. “Dog saliva likely will do little harm to intact human skin, but could lead to irritation or even infections if there are any breaks in your skin barrier. You are most at risk if the saliva comes in contact with your mucous membranes, such as your mouth.”
You also don’t want your dog ingesting whatever ingredients might be in the skin care products you’re wearing on your face.
Beyond breakouts and infections however, some doctors warn against more perilous outcomes. Harkening back to a New York Times article from 2016 on the same topic, Dr. Neilanjan Nandi of Drexel University College of Medicine warns that most animals’ mouths are home to “an enormous oral microbiome of bacteria, viruses, and yeast.” While the act of licking themselves can result in psychological or physical well-being (think stress relief or cleansing themselves), prior research on the topic states that some bacteria specific to dogs is “zoonotic,” meaning it can spread disease from dogs to the humans they love so much. Yikes!
Professor of virology at Queen Mary University of London and expert microbiologist John Oxford agrees, saying he wouldn’t let a dog lick his face merely on the basis that dogs spend most of their time engaging in unsanitary behavior as part of their natural inclination to sniff around and cover themselves in excrement or other “nasty corners.”
It’s safe to say that there’s no clear-cut answer on whether or not we should be letting our dogs lick our faces, even from the people who are experts on the topic. It’s rare that illness will occur from the bacteria or germs dogs carry, but it’s not impossible. To be on the safe side — even if you do groom your dog consistently — continue to wash your face and hands regularly, especially after coming in contact with your pups mouth.
While a lick every now and again may not cause major acne, there’s a small chance it can transmit harmful microorganisms to you if you allow the doggy saliva to enter your mouth or an open wound. If that doesn’t scare you off, feel free to let your pup show you how appreciative they are to be in your care with a big, wet, sloppy kiss.
(Maybe throw them a fresh breath dental doggy treat first.) Pucker up!
Ondine Jean-Baptiste is a freelance writer and communications specialist based in Brooklyn. When she’s not oversharing on the internet via Twitter or Instagram, you can find her binge-watching “Master Chef,” making a mood board, or telling anyone who will listen she’s a native New Yorker.