How Many Licks

The Science and History of the Healing Power of Dog Licks

When it started, I thought my ten-year-old dog, Danny, had a sore hip. He was trying desperately not to limp on our walks and even in the house. He’s old but he’s active, and he’d been running more with me in the fall of 2018. I thought he’d pushed himself too hard and injured his old hip, probably because that is exactly what I do.

It turns out that, while my dog and I are close, we are not exactly the same. He, for example, has fully embraced the barefoot running craze, while I wear shoes. He also likes to run along the fence and bark at the neighbor dogs. Not only do I not enjoy this activity, it drives me crazy when they do it right outside my writing studio window.

After a couple of days of treating the hip injury it turned out he did not have, my husband discovered that Danny had scraped his rear driver’s side paw raw. The largest pad at the base of his foot was red and weeping, as well as a couple of toe pads (or “beans,” as the internet calls them). I spent two days apologizing to the dog for not seeing the problem for what it was, despite the fact that he hid the injury from me. He is very good at enduring injuries and not limping lest he be left behind for morning runs. He also tucks injuries under his body when he sleeps so I won’t see them. And this whole scraped-paw mess probably resulted from running along the fence in the rocks and sticks and blackberry vines while barking annoyingly at the neighbor dogs, which he’s not really allowed to do. What I’m saying is, this is really on him.

I did feel terrible for him though, so I called the vet. They’ve known Danny his entire life, from the day I adopted him when he was one-ish years old. They love him, and he loves them. They have jars of peanut butter treats, and he will do anything for those crunchy nuggets. But the kind vet tech who answered the phone told me exactly what I expected to hear: there’s nothing to do for a scraped paw because dogs are on their paws all the time. Nothing to stitch, but I could bandage it if I wanted. (We have tons of first aid supplies for the dog. He has become very accustomed to having a foot or leg wrapped.) The best thing to do, she said, was to rinse it with hydrogen peroxide twice a day and let him lick it.

I’d heard this from the vet before when Danny had injured himself. As long as a wound is shallow and not serious, dogs are pretty good at keeping things clean. I’d also read this same advice a few days before in a text from the thirteenth century.

GERALD OF WALES

“A dog’s tongue has healing powers,” Gerald of Wales wrote in The Journey through Wales from 1214. “If a dog is hurt, it can heal itself by licking the places. … If a dog has a bad place on its neck, or its head, or some other part of its body which it cannot reach with its tongue, it transfers the healing properties of its tongue to the wound with one of its hind feet and so heals itself.”

Okay, so Gerald was a priest, not a doctor. I don’t know about that transference of healing powers to a canine’s extremities. But Gerald was certainly not the first to propose that dogs’ mouths had healing properties.

A review published in 1912 of a book called The History of Medicine by a Professor Neuberger noted that there was a Mesopotamian medicine known as dog’s tongue. There was also a goddess of health and healing, Gula, who was often shown with a dog.

Ancient Egyptians were among the early believers in the healing powers of dog tongues, and then the Greeks picked this belief up from the Egyptians. The Greek temples of Asclepius had dogs that were trained to lick people’s wounds, and they were believed to have a “presentiment of epidemics,” according to Patricia Dale-Green in “The Healing Lick and the Rabid Bite.” Dale-Green wrote that in Punjab, dog’s tongues were supposed to contain ambrosia. And there were Assyrian deities called aralêz, which she translates as “licking continually,” that were born from a dog and healed soldiers’ wounds.

If all of these ancient civilizations believed in the healing power of dog tongues, I figured it must appear in the Christian Bible as well. I was not disappointed. Here’s Luke 16:20-21:

And there was a certain beggar name Lazarus [not that Lazarus], which was laid at the gate, full of sores, and desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table; moreover, the dogs came and licked his sores.

But alas, the beggar dies in the end. So did the rich man with the crumbs, for what it’s worth. The Bible is fun.

FRENCH KISSES

Not long after my old friend Gerald of Wales recommended dog licks for healing, Saint Roch, who was born in Montpellier in the early fourteenth century, left to live a religious life in Rome. He treated plague suffers along the way and finally got sick himself once he’d reached Rome. Even though he’d helped so many, he was banished from the city. While he was wasting away in the forest, a dog found him and licked his plague sores, and they healed. The dog also somehow brought Roch bread without eating it himself, which is what Danny would do. More believably, the dog’s master followed his dog and found him ministering to Roch’s sores. Roch eventually was named the patron saint of dogs, but I feel like that dog deserves some kind of recognition for being willing to lick plague sores. My stomach turns a little every time I type that.

Saint Roch being French makes perfect sense, as that country has a reputation for its love of dogs. They’re everywhere, even in restaurants and stores, eating off plates and pooping on linoleum. They are a delight. While on vacation in Marseille (and Montpellier, home of Saint Roch, coincidentally) in the early 2000s, we were hanging out by the old port after the fishing boats had come back in that morning. An old, crusty man in a wool cap, an ancient jacket, and worn leather shoes was talking to another man with an equally weathered face under a sheen of gray stubble. Two very tough men of the sea, smoking cigarettes and grumbling together. The first man held the leash of a tiny, adorable white puppy with black spots. I like to think of the man and dog fishing together all morning and taking an après dejeuner nap.

If you’re feeding your dog at the table, you probably assume your dog’s mouth is pretty clean, if not downright medicinal. There are a few ways of putting this in French: langue de chien, langue de medecin is one; la langue d’un chien vaut la main d’un medecin is another. Either way, dog’s tongues are healers in France.

MODERN MEDICINE WEIGHS IN

We’ve learned that “old wives’ tales” and traditional medicinal practices have some validity, but not every single bit of folk wisdom holds up. For example, the early Roman natural philosopher Pliny apparently thought that dog vomit cured dropsy. I’m not entirely sure how that cure was to be administered. Topically? Internally? Ew in either case.

Folk Beliefs of Southern Illinois, published in 1950, has a list of things people in the region believed.It has “103. Let a dog lick a wound to heal it,” but also “119. To cure shingles, rub on the blood of a black cat.” The author did note that people would share all the beliefs they knew of but that they did not always believe these things themselves. So do not smear cat blood on your shingles, please. Maybe try the vaccination instead.

Modern science has indeed found that dog licking is good for dogs and for humans. Dog’s tongues will clean out the dirt in a shallow cut or scrape. So will a human tongue, if you’d like to lick your own wounds, be they physical or metaphorical. Saliva has been found to contain histatins, which ward off infection, and epithelial cells, which grow and close the wound. Both of these speed healing.

Keep in mind that dogs and humans both also have a cocktail of bad bacteria in their mouths that can cause infections. This can be especially dangerous to either species if the wound is deep and those bacteria are introduced deep into the muscle.

LET WOUNDED DOGS LICK

So as much as I could, I let Danny lick his own paw and keep it clean. When it was causing him so much pain he couldn’t walk on it, I used antibacterial ointment that had a little pain-killing action along with a nonstick gauze pad, some stretchy wrap, and a waterproof bootie over it. Putting the bootie on before walks meant I got to say, “It’s bootie time!” in the morning.

The scrape did take a long time to heal, as the vet said. But I could also see the new skin growing over the raw, red scrape. I was watching those epithelial cells doing their job. Gerald of Wales and my vet gave basically the same advice across eight hundred years, and my dog is back to morning runs.

Danny’s Bootie

READ MORE

“Dogs in the Ancient World” in the Ancient History Encyclopedia: https://www.ancient.eu/article/184/dogs-in-the-ancient-world/

Stanley Coren’s “Can Dogs Help Humans Heal?” column in Psychology Today from June 7, 2011: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/canine-corner/201106/can-dogs-help-humans-heal

Patricia Dale-Green’s “The Healing Lick and the Rabid Bite: A Study in the Symbolism of the Dog,” published in the January 1964 issue of British Homeopathic Journal: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0007078564800788

“The History of Medicine,” a note on the publication of the book, was published in The British Medical Journal on August 24, 1912: https://www.jstor.org/stable/25298328

Lelah Allison’s “Folk Beliefs Collected in Southeastern Illinois,” from The Journal of American Folklore, 1950: www.jstor.org/stable/536530

Published by Kristen

Freelance editor, author, and publisher