Cats have an instinctive urge to lick their wounds because it has a soothing effect. Yet, the main reason cats lick their wounds is because the saliva can speed up the healing process.
Cat saliva has some antiseptic, antibacterial, and healing properties. However, cats’ tongues may also be covered in harmful bacteria. If your cat licks her wound and then leaves it alone, the saliva will probably have a healing effect. But if she keeps licking the wound, this can cause an infection.
Although cat saliva has healing potential for cats, it cannot heal a human’s cuts and grazes. This is an old wives’ tale that is misleading and dangerous. To clear up this misconception, we’ll explain what can actually happen if a cat licks a human’s wound.
- 1 Are Cats’ Tongues Antibacterial?
- 2 Are Cats Tongues Clean?
- 3 What Happens if a Cat Licks your Cut?
- 4 Why Do Cats Lick Their Wounds?
- 5 How to Deal with Cat Wounds
- 6 Are Cats Tongues Cleaner than Dogs?
- 7 Are Cats Tongues Cleaner than Humans?
- 8 Do Cats Tongues Heal Wounds?
Are Cats’ Tongues Antibacterial?
On the one hand, cat saliva contains some harmful bacteria. However, it also has some antibacterial properties. To be more specific, cat saliva contains:
- Lactoferrin – This protein is often referred to as an ‘antioxidant.’ It has powerful antibacterial and antifungal properties and is found in the bodily secretions of many animals and humans (I.e. tears, saliva, milk).
- Defensins and Cystatins – These also have antibacterial properties. They are found in canine and feline saliva.
- Lysozyme and Peroxidase – These enzymes help to erode (break down) the cell wall of harmful bacteria. These enzymes aren’t unique to cat saliva.
- Nitrate compounds – When saliva comes into contact with skin, the nitrate compounds break down into nitric oxide. This stops some bacteria from growing.
Other Healing Properties in Cat Saliva
In addition to the above antibacterial properties, cat saliva has some other healing properties. These include:
- Opiorphin – This is a natural form of pain relief.
- Epidermal Growth Factors – Promotes healing.
- Thrombospondin – This can act as an antiviral.
The composition of cat saliva is rather complex. Given the antibacterial, antiviral, and healing properties of saliva, it’s no surprise that many animals feel compelled to lick their wounds. Having said that, saliva is not necessarily the perfect antidote for wound healing.
Are Cats Tongues Clean?
Although cat saliva has antibacterial and wound-healing properties, it is a bit of a stretch to say that “cats’ tongues are clean.”
As mentioned, cat saliva may contain harmful bacteria. If these harmful bacteria enter the wound, this could cause more damage than good. According to Cats Protection, abscesses (deep skin infections) are one of the most common diseases in cats. An abscess occurs when bacteria (perhaps from saliva) enter the wound and cause a painful infection.
If a cat briefly licks its wound, the anti-bacterial and healing properties in the saliva may be beneficial. Also, the barbs on the cat’s tongue will help to dislodge any dirt from the wound quickly. However, if the cat starts to overgroom the wound (which is quite common), this can lead to infection. It’s misleading to claim that cat saliva is clean and sterile.
Harmful Bacteria in Cat Saliva
According to research, cat saliva can contain the following harmful bacteria:
- Pasteurella multocida – According to NCBI, this species of bacteria is part of the “normal oral flora of cats.” So, even if your cat lives indoors and is very clean, her saliva will probably still contain Pasteurella multocida.
- Staphylococcus intermedius – It is normal to find this species of bacteria in cat saliva. However, it is one of the leading causes of Lick Granuloma in cats (more on this below).
- Bartonella henselae – This species of bacteria is usually caught from fleas and can pass between cats and humans.
Cats that live in groups and cats who spend time outdoors are more likely to have harmful bacteria on their tongues. Also, cats who hunt outdoors are more likely to have a cocktail of harmful bacteria in their mouths.
Although wound licking is a natural cat behavior, it should not usually be encouraged because the risk of infection is high.
What Happens if a Cat Licks your Cut?
Throughout history, it has been claimed that animal saliva (particularly dog saliva) can heal human wounds. For example, in Ancient Greece, dogs were taught to lick patients, in the hope that it would aid recovery. According to Science Direct, there is even a small amount of scientific research to suggest that animal saliva may heal human wounds.
However, there is also research to suggest that animal saliva can be extremely dangerous to humans. In fact, allowing your cat to lick an open wound could cause a life-threatening infection.
Worst Case Scenarios
If your cat has licked wounded or cracked skin anywhere on your body, you are at risk of a bacterial infection.
In severe cases, this bacterial infection could lead to cellulitis or sepsis. The prognosis is also poor as around 1 in 5 people who develop sepsis will die from it (in the US). In some other countries, the prognosis is a lot worse.
In terms of the bacteria found in cat saliva, Pasteurella multocida appears to be the most dangerous. The following high-profile cases were caused by Pasteurella multocida:
- While recovering from surgery, a woman developed an abscess on her stomach. This was because her cat licked the surgery incision.
- A baby boy contracted meningitis from Pasteurella bacteria. This happened because he came into contact with cat saliva. Presumably, his weak immune system made him particularly susceptible to the bacteria.
- According to Wiley, blood used in a blood transfusion was contaminated with Pasteurella bacteria from cat saliva. This happened because a feral cat licked the blood donor’s chapped fingers several hours before she gave blood. Ultimately, the person receiving the blood transfusion died from this.
Cat Scratch Disease
Also, Cornell Feline Health Center warns that Bartonella Henselea (cat scratch disease) can spread to humans through cat saliva. One way it spreads between cats and humans is when humans allow their cat to lick chapped or very fragile skin. Symptoms of cat scratch in humans include:
- A blister surrounding the wounded/chapped skin
- Fever and headache
- Sore muscles and fatigue
It is rare for infections to spread between cats and humans. However, it becomes more common in people with weakened immune systems. This includes babies and young children, the elderly, and people with ongoing chronic illnesses.
So, to prevent any chance of illness, do not let your pets near wounded skin. Always clean and cover wounds (including chapped skin) before handling your pets.
Why Do Cats Lick Their Wounds?
Many animals clean their wounds using their tongues. This is an instinctive pattern of behavior that can be difficult to prevent. Research suggests cats lick their wounds for the following reasons:
- To Keep Things Clean: The barbs on the cat’s tongue help to remove dust and dirt from the wound. To a certain extent, this is a good thing and can help to prevent infection.
- To Feel Safe: Washing the wound helps to remove the smell of predators (if a cat fight has caused the wound). This will help the cat to feel safe and secure.
- Self-soothing: Licking may promote relaxation.
- Pain relief: Some components of cat saliva can act as pain relief.
- Recovery: Saliva does have some antibacterial and healing properties. This probably explains why many animals have an in-built urge to lick their wounds.
Although there are some benefits to wound cleaning, compulsive wound cleaning can be very harmful. Unfortunately, excessive wound cleaning is quite common in cats.
Why Won’t My Cat Stop Licking her Wound?
Unfortunately, excessive wound cleaning is not that unusual in cats. This is not surprising when you look at human behavior. For example, children often pick at their scabs even when this causes them to bleed. Also, compulsive habits like skin picking and nail-biting are relatively common in adults.
So, if your cat is compulsively licking her wounds, it could be because she is still feeling stressed. If a cat fight caused the wound, it’s no surprise that she’s feeling on edge.
If you want her to leave the wound alone, reducing stress is essential. However, sometimes, you will need to take more direct action to prevent your cat from licking her wounds.
Should I Let My Cats Lick Her Wounds?
In the wild, a cat would lick its wounds because this is an automatic behavior. As mentioned, this can have a positive effect on wound healing, especially if the wound is cleaned and then left alone.
However, because cat saliva may also contain harmful bacteria, wound cleaning is risky. Also, the longer it goes on for, the more harmful it is likely to become. To be specific, excessive wound cleaning is likely to cause a Lick Granuloma. This essentially means that the skin will become infected and become very difficult to treat.
If your cat licked her wound and then left it alone, there is probably no cause for concern. But if the behavior becomes repetitive, you should try to stop it. In any case, if you notice your cat has an open wound, this should be inspected, cleaned, and covered. Further treatment may also be required.
How to Deal with Cat Wounds
If you notice your cat has a wound, inspect it immediately. Often, cat hair can obscure wounds and make them look smaller than they are. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind.
- If the wound is bleeding, apply pressure to it with an absorbent dressing. If you then need to transport your cat to a vet, you can tie a clean cloth around dressing to keep it in place.
- Do not apply any creams of disinfectants as these can do more harm than good. Do NOT use hydrogen peroxide, alcohol, or Witch Hazel on the wound.
- Unless the wound is minor, it’s best to take your cat to the vet. Your vet will clean and disinfect the wound. Depending on its location/severity, it may be necessary to cover the wound.
- Your cat may be prescribed some antibiotics.
- Your cat may need to wear an Elizabethan collar until the wound has healed. This will stop her from licking the wound.
Very minor wounds can sometimes be dealt with at home, but in any case, it is best to call your vet and ask for advice. They will let you know if your cat should be brought in for an examination.
Are Cats Tongues Cleaner than Dogs?
Legend has it that dog saliva is particularly special. For example, in France, the saying “Langue de chien, langue de médecin” means, “a dog’s tongue is a doctor’s tongue.” In fact, throughout history, it has been said that dog saliva has special healing properties.
But is dog saliva that different from cat saliva, or human saliva? It’s true to say that more research has been conducted on dog saliva than cat saliva. Perhaps that’s the reason why we tend to think of dog saliva as superior. For example, research has shown that when a mother licks her puppies’ wounds, her saliva fights against Escherichia coli and Streptococcus canis.
However, we also know that dog saliva is not 100% sterile. It, too, contains harmful bacteria. Dogs should be dissuaded from licking their wounds, and dogs should not lick human wounds. So, neither dog nor cat saliva can be considered “clean.”
Are Cats Tongues Cleaner than Humans?
Wound licking is an instinctive response in humans as well as many animals. Before the introduction of disinfectants, humans would have also licked their wounds.
Indeed, when you get a paper cut on one of your fingers, or you graze one of your knuckles, you’ll probably get the urge to suck on the wound.
This suggests that human saliva has some antiseptic and/or healing properties, too. Indeed, research suggests that human saliva contains lactoferrins, as well as other antibacterial peptides.
It is difficult to say whether cat saliva or human saliva is more sterile. What we know for sure is that both cat saliva and human saliva can contain harmful bacteria so neither is 100% effective for cleaning wounds.
Do Cats Tongues Heal Wounds?
To summarize, wound cleaning can be beneficial to cats, but a lick from a cat’s tongue will NOT heal a human’s wound. On the contrary, it will probably cause a severe infection.
Cat saliva can help a cat to recover because it has some antibacterial and healing properties. Also, the act of licking can be self-soothing and pain-relieving. It’s normal for cats to lick their wounds to remove dust and dirt, so this behavior isn’t usually a cause for concern.
However, cat saliva cannot fight all types of infections. Indeed, abscesses (deep skin infections) are pretty common in cats. This suggests that wound licking is not enough to keep infections at bay.
If your cat has cut or injured herself, see your vet immediately. It’s very difficult to clean a cat’s wound at home (especially a deep one), and you could end up making things worse. Added to which, wounded cats often require antibiotics, and a vet must prescribe these.
Nevertheless, it’s true to say that cat saliva is one of ‘nature’s medicines.’ Just don’t expect it to work miracles every time. In some cases, your wounded cat will need a stronger form of medication than saliva.