The ‘lick of death’: 1 (rare) reason you might not want to let your dog lick your face

To lick or not to lick? That is the (tricky) question dog owners must decide.
To lick or not to lick? That is the (tricky) question dog owners must decide. Screengrab/Discovery News

In a rare case of puppy love gone wrong, an elderly British woman almost died because her dog licked her on the face.

The close call is detailed in a report called “The Lick of Death” published Thursday in the online medical journal BMJ Case Reports.

A relative of the woman, who lived alone, grew concerned when the woman started slurring while speaking on the phone, then became unresponsive, according to The Daily Mail.

Paramedics found her slumped semi-conscious in a chair. In the hospital she seemed to be getting better. But four days later she became confused, had a headache, diarrhea and high fever, and her kidneys started shutting down.

Blood tests revealed she had sepsis, or blood poisoning, which was causing her organs to fail. More tests determined the cause: Capnocytophaga canimorsus bacteria, commonly found in the mouths of dogs and cats.

That mystified doctors.

Doctors sometimes see that kind of infection in people who’ve been bitten by dogs, but the woman didn’t have any bites or scratch marks or broken skin.

What she did have: An affectionate Italian greyhound.

“This is an interesting case because neither scratch nor bite was established, although close petting including licks was reported,” doctors from the Department of Medicine for the Elderly at the University College London Hospitals wrote in the case report.

The authors wanted to warn people that a dog’s licks – not just bites – can transmit harmful bacteria.

“This is an organism carried in the mouths of dog and it causes a very bad sepsis infection,” Bruce Farber, chief of infectious diseases at North Shore University Hospital and Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, N.Y., told CBS News.

“But it’s usually in people who are immuno-compromised and usually follows a dog bite. But this is unusual because it was a lick.

“I’ve probably seen two cases in 30 years of doing infectious disease.”

Whether dog owners should let their pets lick their faces is an old debate.

Some people believe the myth that a dog’s mouth is cleaner than a human’s, even though both mouths contain bacteria.

Studies have revealed harmful pathogens in dogs’ mouths.

A 2015 study in the science journal Plos One found that oral-to-oral transfers of bacteria from dogs to owners can cause gingivitis and periodontal disease, according to Discovery News.

If you have a cut in your mouth, or your gums are bleeding from gingivitis, bacteria from a dog’s tongue can enter the open wound and spread infection to other parts of the body.

But what happened to the dog owner in England is rare, doctors emphasized.

“The last thing you want to do is alarm people that they’ll be infected if they get licked or kissed by a dog,” Farber told CBS.

He did add, however, that dogs shouldn’t be licking newborn babies because their immune systems aren’t strong enough yet to fight that kind of infection. “At about after two to three months, then everything's fine,” he said.

The elderly woman in England recovered fully after a month in the hospital, two weeks of which she spent in intensive care.