I assume, dear reader, that you have just read my title and are already firmly on one side or the other about this debate. Dog kisses – sloppy, slobbery, hot-breathed displays of affection – tend to generate two very polar opinions. I cannot count the number of times I have thoroughly grossed out another human being by my willingness to accept a sloppy, slobbery dog licking my entire face. Truthfully, I often forget that most people, even dog people, find it weird. Their faces of disgust must mirror mine when, in turn, I watch them recoil in horror at a happy, friendly, entirely kissable dog headed their way. How someone can possibly say no to such a greeting beyond me. For plenty of people, dogs’ mouths are disgusting and germ-filled; their kisses are a menace, not a compliment. However, when the reality of the threat to health and safety that is posed by a dog licking your face is compared to the reality of its benefits, the debate is a simple one. Follow me.
The idea of getting some horrid disease from some mangy critter is understandably scary. I, too, do not want rabies, scabies, or Giardia. I don’t want dirt, dead matter, or whatever else a dog may get into to get into me. And I am not denying the fact that diseases can and do spread from dogs to humans. Of those possible zoonotic diseases, however, I understand that the vast majority are not at all transmitted through dog saliva. While broken-skin dog bites are a slightly different story, the evidence clearly shows that the myth of dangerous dog kisses is widely exaggerated. For example, roundworm and hookworm are two parasitic infections that can potentially be transferred from dogs to humans. Transfer occurs, however, not by a little slobber getting on your face, but by ingesting contaminated water or dirt. Simply working in your garden poses a greater threat for these infections than your dog’s mouth. Certain fungal infections, like ringworm, can also be picked up from a dog, but it’s the skin and fur of a contaminated dog, not just the saliva, that you should be avoiding. Dodging the tongue but still petting the head of an infected dog is senseless. Finally, while there are indeed some bacteria, like Salmonella, that can be spread by dog saliva, it’s rather unlikely. A recent study by the Veterinary Laboratory Investigation and Response Network at the FDA found Salmonella bacteria present in less than 3% of tested dogs and cats. (The available preliminary research did not separate the data for cats and dogs.) Additionally, the CDC estimates that 94% of all Salmonella infections are transmitted by food. Though it’s more likely to make you sick than slobber is, you’re not going to start avoiding food now are you?
As a means to stay healthy and disease-free, denying dog kisses is a rather meaningless gesture. Touching door knobs and shaking hands puts you at an even greater risk for getting sick but you don’t live in a Purell bubble. The normal hygiene practices you use to stay healthy are enough to prevent zoonotic diseases as well. Of course, people in high risk groups for catching infections should discuss with their doctors their own risks of having and handling animals, just as they discuss their risks of having and handling anything else. But for the general population, dog mouths are unjustly labeled as disgusting. The yuck factor, I realize, does not come solely from the threat of germs. The flapping, flopping tongues of fully vaccinated, and disease-free dogs still send people running. I’ll agree, having dog slobber all over your face is not ideal, but some things are worth tolerating. In this dog lover’s opinion, snotty, drooly babies are just as gross, but for both, the lasting benefits far outweigh the few moments of unpleasantness.
With germs off the table, the balance of pros and cons begins to shift greatly. On the opposite side of the debate exists the very real concept of dog kisses as communication. Animal species of all sorts who live in social groups rely on communication to survive and to maintain their social structures. While humans and dogs can’t always fully express their thoughts to one another, 15,000 years of cohabitation have gotten us pretty close. Dogs are experts, by no coincidence, at reading our body language and interpreting our speech. They are such experts, in fact, that when human researchers hide an object and then point or even just look in the correct direction, adult dogs and human babies are equally able to observe and use that information from the researcher to find the hidden object. By comparison, wolves and our closest relatives, chimpanzees, have a terrible time using these communication signals from humans. Wolves and chimpanzees simply haven’t had millennia of practice. Dogs understand us because they were selectively bred to do so. Humans, on the other hand, as the evolutionary molder and not the molded, were not selectively bred to communicate with dogs. 15,000 years certainly has taught us a lot: we know when a dog cries and does a dance by they door that they likely need to pee and we can generally figure out when they are hungry or want to play. But we don’t know what each and every ear twitch or tail flick really means. We can attempt to use body language, our posture and eye contact, to communicate in dog terms, but we are far from fluent. Humans struggle to both interpret and employ dog communication signals. As hard as I have tried, my ears cannot convey my receptivity to play and my lack of tail means I cannot show a dog that I am feeling nervous. I can bark and growl back at a noisy dog but I struggle to always differentiate between the sounds for “I’m scared” or “I’m hungry.” My human nose is not adapted to discern whose urine is on a fire hydrant and I am apparently not allowed to mark territory with my own. There will always be some insurmountable interspecies differences between humans and dogs. Though at first glance it may seem like we have a wide lane of communication with our dogs, it is often a one way street.
Communication between humans and dogs is stifled by mismatched abilities and appendages. We are already at a disadvantage. The commonalities in communication that we do share then are vital and we should capitalize on them to the fullest extent. Dog kisses are a great place to start. Within their own species, dogs lick one another to communicate a few thoughts. They will lick the mouths and the air nearby more dominant dogs as an appeasement signal, to convey friendliness. Dogs will also use their tongues to groom one another, as an affectionate gesture, to strengthen emotional connections. Some dogs will even spend time “kissing” after a particularly rough play-fight, to reestablish their true, loving feelings. We humans share this practice of kissing as communication. We kiss each other as a greeting and to show friendliness. We kiss our children and our parents to reaffirm our bonds. We offer up kisses and are hurt when our affection is rejected. While we may not kiss strangers to show them that we mean no harm, humans use kissing similar ways as dogs do. When a dog gallops over, tongue at the ready, what message do they intend and what message do we send back? There is communication happening whether you mean to or not.
As the driving force behind their existence, I suppose it is reasonable for us to demand that dogs speak in human terms. We expect dogs to willingly accept our unnatural eye contact and constant head pats and we put the brakes on when they try to express their affection back on their own terms. But by not accepting dog kisses, by not doing all we can to foster two-way communication, we miss out on a lot of great things. In the same way that you wouldn’t refuse a kiss from an icky, sticky baby, you shouldn’t let the arbitrary and unfounded fear of germs override the importance of dog kisses. Better lives with our dogs start with better relationships. Better relationships are built by better communication. As grossed out as you may be, the next time a dog wants to share in a happy, loving moment with you, try to accept. Try to overcome the “yuck” factor and try to strive for better communication. Let your dog love you the best way he knows how. You can wipe the slobber off later.