Should you let your cat or dog lick your face?

In answering the question, I believe that there is a difference between cats and dogs. This article is about the transmission of the superbug E. coli from companion animals to human caregivers via the ‘oral-fecal route’. This is a zoonotic disease. In respect of dogs, that route would be the dog licking their backsides, picking up some E. coli bacteria on the tongue and then depositing that E. coli bacteria onto the face of their owner, perhaps near the mouth. It sounds gruesome but that’s the route. And we see lots of dogs licking their owners’ face. It seems to be a very common activity for companion dogs.

Dog licking face
Dog licking face. Photo credit as per the image.
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Cats versus dogs

My initial research indicates that E. coli is a normal bacteria found in the gastrointestinal tract of most dogs. Most dogs are unaffected by this bacteria and do not show any signs of illness. Conversely, my research indicates that if a cat has an E. coli infection there are symptoms of illness such as a urinary tract infection or vomiting, diarrhoea and lack of appetite. Although I expect some cats to be asymptomatic when infected.

Study

Both dogs and cats can transmit the E. coli bacteria to their human companion. The Mail Online reports on a study carried out by the Royal Veterinary College and the University of Lisbon in which they tested, for superbugs, the faeces of human and animal inhabitants of 41 Portuguese and 45 British homes.

They found that 15 humans tested positive for strains of the drug resistant E. coli. They also found that 14 dogs and one cat tested for the bug. On this research there seems to be a preponderance of E. coli infections in dogs with a single infection in a cat.

In four homes they found that the owners and their pets had the same bacteria with matching antibiotic resistance genes. This indicated that there is transmission both ways i.e. from pets to humans and humans to pets.

Other ways to acquire E. coli

Although the transmission of E. coli from a dog or a cat to a person happens and there is a risk, there are other routes for a human to acquire this superbug. For example, a person can come into contact with and swallow E. coli by eating contaminated food, drinking contaminated water and touching their mouth with their hands which have been contaminated with the bacteria. Hands can acquire the bacteria in ways other than handling dog or cat faeces. For example, meat can become contaminated with E. coli during the slaughtering process.

Unpasteurised raw milk can be contaminated with E. coli as can unpasteurised apple cider and soft cheeses made from raw milk. Fruits and vegetables can likewise be contaminated.

To return to pets, a dog licking a person’s face is as mentioned a route of transmission but also eating from their owner’s plate would be another route.

Human to human

“E. coli 0157: H7 can be transmitted by person-to-person through fecal shedding and accounts for an estimated 11% of infections” – Study: Escherichia Coli (E Coli 0157 H7)

It is important to note the human-to-human route too. This puts the pet to human route of infection into perspective.

High numbers of deaths

Research carried out earlier from the University of Washington and University of Oxford concluded that antibiotic-resistant infections killed 1.2 million people in 2019 and contributed to the deaths of 5 million more. Africa is the centre of this problem. South Asia also has more of a problem.

Hygiene

Experts recommend that at least dog and cat owners take note of this potential problem. They recommend good hygiene practices on the part of cat and dog owners. It looks to me as if dogs are more of a problem than cats. Both because dogs carry E. coli without symptoms and because they like to lick the faces of people.

It is relatively easy to prevent an E. coli infection. Washing with soap and water removes most or all of the bacteria from hands and your face. There is an argument that people should wash their hands before and after preparing food. People should also be aware of cross contamination of food. And I don’t see a big issue with washing the face if a dog licks it. These are pretty basic preventative measures. Some people have called for cat owners to wash themselves after handling their cat. This seems impractical to me. People won’t take up the advice.

Domestic cat has Q Fever and its zoonotic

Cats don’t often lick human faces

Cats don’t often lick their owner’s face. Cats in general don’t like to put their face close to the face of their owner in my experience. They prefer to lick their owner’s hand. Of course, the owner could then put their hand into their mouth but this would be an added step. I feel, based on this information, that dogs are the bigger transmitter of E. coli to people than cats.

Upside far outweighs downside

And of course, set against this potential downside, the argument is that the upsides of keeping a companion animal are much greater. They have been listed many times on the Internet. The greatest of which is mood enhancement due to companionship. The truth is that people don’t really think about this potential danger because in practice it seems to be quite rare and of course I am referring to the West, where I live.

What is a superbug?

A superbug is a strain of bacteria, virus, parasite or fungus which is resistant to most of the antibiotics and other medications available to humankind at present. It is argued that these bugs have developed a resistance to antibiotics because of an over-prescription of antibiotics by doctors.

How does a bacterial infection hurt us?

There are two ways: toxicity-the bacteria produce toxins which damage body tissues and invasiveness-the bacteria multiply and overwhelm the body’s natural defence mechanisms. The bacteria then spread to other parts of the body.

How does a bacterial infection cause pain?

Researchers found that bacteria can directly stimulate sensory neurons to produce pain. Pain correlates with the amount of bacteria present.

Conclusion

I’ve got to try and answer the question in the title. I would think that people should not let their dog lick their face, particular around the mouth. I don’t see a problem with cats because it’s so rare that they lick their owner’s face anyway. Also, a cat with a superbug infection is likely to be ill. On these occasions a cat is unlikely to be in the mood to lick their owner affectionately and in any case the owner would be aware of the presence of the superbug.

Note: This is an embedded video from another website. Sometimes they are deleted at source or the video is turned into a link which stops it working here. I have no control over this.

Bovine TB in Cats – a Zoonotic Disease

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