Dogs lick us. They get excited when we come home or when we meet a new pup for the first time and they proceed to dish out our universally understood gesture of doggy kisses. Now, everybody has their personal preferences about this common interaction with canines but we all more or less accept that it’s a sign of affection, therefore not a terrible thing outside of one’s personal hygiene choices.
The recent experience of a dog owner in Ohio should give us all new perspective on those dog kisses from now on.
In early May of this year, Marie Trainer returned home from a vacation to Punta Cana and called out of work with backache and nausea, which soon took a turn to a roller coaster of temperature changes that eventually sent her to the hospital. After a little more than a week in the hospital, Trainer woke up in bed one day with no hands and legs. Doctors had discovered she had a severe infection and was so close to death that amputation became their best treatment.
One wouldn’t be crazy to assume Trainer had contracted the infection during her tropical vacation in the Dominican Republic. In fact, that’s exactly what doctors had first assumed as well. But after inspections of nearly a week, they realized she had contracted a rare infection from a bacteria called capnocytophaga canimorsus — something they determined must have been given when her German shepherd puppy at home licked an open cut.
"It was difficult to identify, We're kind of the detectives. We went through all these diagnoses until we could narrow things down," said Dr. Margaret Kobe, the medical director of infectious disease at Aultman Hospital in Canton, Ohio, who described Trainer as being delirious when she entered intensive care, soon became unconscious, and then her skin started to turn purplish-red before progressing into gangrene. Trainer eventually suffered from a blood clot and the infection spread all the way to her nose, ears, legs, and face.
According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the bacteria spreads from dogs or cats and onto humans through bites, scratches, and other close contact. While most people don’t get sick from Capnocytophaga contact with cats or dogs, those with an already-weakened immune system are at a greater risk of infection causing illness. Symptoms will start to show within three to five days, according to the CDC, and about three out of 10 people who develop a severe infection from it will die. A 2015 report found fewer than 500 laboratory-confirmed cases that had been reported since 1961, though the bacterium was not officially named as a new species until 1989.
Now, what’s a bit more surprising about this dog kiss-spreading disease is that while a near-worst case scenario like Trainer’s may be cause for concern, according to the CDC, Capnocytophaga has been detected in up to 74% of dogs. See, Capnocytophaga are simply germs that live in dogs’ or cats’ mouths (apparently white often, considering the CDC’s 74 percent estimate) and it doesn’t make them sick. So really, this is a bacteria that’s not harmful to our pets, meanwhile, it’s potentially life-threatening to humans.
“Capnocytophaga is spread through saliva,” says the American Kenne Club. “Most cases occur after a bite wound, but the bacteria can be transmitted through exposure to saliva itself, for example from a dog lick. It’s essential to practice good hygiene when it comes to dog licks, especially with children. The bacteria pose serious health risks for those infected. Heart attacks, gangrene-induced amputations, and kidney failure have been reported, and 3-in-10 people who are infected die from the bacteria.”
So does this mean we need to stop letting dogs lick our faces, as they’re always so excited to do? Absolutely not. According to Pritish Tosh, M.D. an infectious disease specialist at the Mayo Clinic, in most cases, absolutely not; dog kisses are probably fine. “Experts compare the odds of contracting these bacteria from your pet to getting struck by lightning,” writes the American Kennel Club. “Extremely rare, but potentially deadly when it occurs.”
What we really need to be aware of is keeping our dogs away from our open wounds. Our dogs’ mouth can be full of plenty of bacteria at any given time, just like our own. Considering all the things they eat, lick, and dive headfirst into, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. And of course, dogs don’t have hands and fingers to feel and explore objects like we do, leaving their tongue, mouth, nose (their snout) to take on many of those search and explore tasks. If your pup does get a little carried away and licks any of your open wounds, it’s advised you simply wash and clean the area as you would anything else. As mentioned, the people who are most likely to be infected are those with already weakened immune systems, like cancer patients, for example.
If you were to get infected, the CDC lists a range of signs and symptoms of a Capnocytophaga infection.
Look out for these in case a dog or a cat licks an open wound:
- Blisters around the bite wound within hours of the bite
- Redness, swelling, draining pus, or pain at the bite wound
- Diarrhea and/or stomach pain
- Headache and/or confusion
- Muscle or joint pain
Nonetheless, organizations like the CDC and the AKC advise that we don’t need to spend too much time or energy worrying about Capnocytophaga, despite its dire mortality potential to humans. It’s extremely rare and it isn’t as new as all the recent headlines would lead you to believe.
“The best thing you can do to avoid infections of any type, including capnocytophaga, is to always contact your doctor if you’ve been bitten by a cat or dog,” advises the AKC. “This is especially important for people with compromised immune systems, but even healthy people can experience dangerous infections.”