Many pets are considered full-fledged family members, so it only makes sense that they be treated as such with plenty of love. Many owners go as far as to kiss their pets every day. But is it actually safe to lay a smooch on Fido or Fluffy?
First, the good news: Odds are that smooching a pet is no big deal, at least from a contagious disease standpoint. "If you have a healthy mouth, you should be safe to kiss pets," emails Dr. Jeff Werber, veterinary consultant for Fi, maker of a smart collar for dogs. "Both humans and dogs have thousands of bacteria in their mouths, but our bodies can handle it — otherwise we would be walking around constantly making ourselves sick. The bacteria in dog mouths are typically not as pathogenic or disease-causing for us as that of, for example, a human bite."
But that doesn't mean there are no risks. "While many people think that the old saying that your pet's mouth is cleaner than a toilet seat is true, this can actually be untrue in many instances," says Oregon-based veterinarian Dr. Megan Conrad by email. In particular, she notes that many dogs have poor dental hygiene, which results in plaque buildup and gum disease and an overgrowth of mouth bacteria. "If you let a dog kiss your face when they have severe dental disease, they're sharing bacteria that they are harboring."
So, before you decide on kissing your pet, here are some questions to ask yourself:
Is My Immune System Down?
Certain highly contagious bacteria, like staphylococcus, E-coli and salmonella are potential risks, as is the contagious fungal infection, ringworm. "These are the most common diseases people can catch from their pets but are rare and short-lived, with symptoms that are mild to non-existent," explains veterinary nurse and cat blogger Lucie Wilkins via email. "[Ringworm] can very easily be spread from cat to human. Although relatively harmless it can be exceedingly difficult to treat." She also notes that bartonella, better known as cat scratch fever, can be passed on to humans, as can the parasite giardia. People with suppressed immune systems, who are recovering from an illness or who are pregnant are more likely to get an infection from a pet, she notes.
Crazily enough, it's also not impossible for humans to transmit illness to pets! In fact, a small 2021 study presented at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases found that COVID-19 can be passed on to pets from their humans, especially in the cases of cats who sleep on the bed. This is probably because cats are more likely than dogs to sleep near their owner's face.
What Are the Habits of My Pet?
No matter how precious your pooch, if it has certain bad habits it's wise to steer clear of sloppy, wet kisses. "I have a few poop eaters," says Shannon Lewis, of Canton, Georgia, about her dogs. "They get kisses on the tops of their heads and I don't let them lick my face. The others get all the smooches smack on their mouths and they can give me all the smooches back on mine too."
Lewis is smart to make that distinction. Veterinarian Conrad also cautions against giving kisses to pets who eat dead animals, feces or trash. Also steer clear if you allow the pet to indulge in raw meat. "They can easily contract salmonella poisoning from bacteria on the meat. This bacteria can be transferred to humans and make you very sick," she says.
Is My Pet Neither Dog Nor Cat?
Some pets should absolutely never be smooched, particularly reptiles. Indeed, all interactions should be followed up with thorough hand-washing. "If you own a reptile, you should never handle and touch your face/mouth, as they carry salmonella and other bacteria that can be harmful to you," Conrad says.
A ferret may like to kiss you as a sign of affection but it could also be a prelude to a bite, not to mention they do carry some germs. Finally, never kiss a pet bird on or inside the mouth. They cannot fight off human bacteria, plus chemicals from lipsticks or balm can be toxic. Instead, a light kiss on the top of the head or beak is plenty to show affection to your feathered friend.
Will My Pet Appreciate a Kiss?
Don't take physical safety for granted. "You need to know your pet. Don't kiss your pet when you first meet him or her, especially if you adopt an adult dog," says Kim Kay, director of operations for the Atlanta-based pet rescue Angels Among Us via email. "Some pets are uncomfortable with their space being invaded like that and it puts you at risk for a bite. Also, because children are eye level, hugging and kissing dogs whose temperaments aren't well known can be dangerous."
Kay also cautions would-be kissers to understand dog body language. "If the dog backs away, turns his head, yawns, etc., he may be uncomfortable with the kisses."
Cats, too may not welcome this personal touch. "Cats tend to prefer it if you let them come to you first, where they will rub their nose against yours," nurse Wilkins says. "Letting them do this is in most cases a more understood way to communicate love with your cat."