Q: Why do dogs lick their owners’ faces, and when and why did we start referring to this action as “kissing?” Why do some dogs not lick faces? Also, do kisses present any health problems for us humans?
A: There are several reasons why dogs might lick us in the face. The most obvious reason for this behavior is that it’s a display of dog-like submission. Dogs lick each others’ faces, particularly around the mouth, by way of indicating that they’re of a lower social status. These social cues are important for dogs in a pack setting to help establish a solid social structure with a minimum of pack-destabilizing strife. Licks are also employed by mothers to help keep babies close and clean.
Sometimes our canine-human inter-species relationship mirrors this pack dynamic, so it makes sense that submissive gestures might translate. So, too, does the cuddly-close relationship between a mother and her babies potentially enlighten us on the origins of this dog-human interaction.
It’s also been proposed that in their long relationship with humans (at least 10,000 years), dogs have learned that licking equals affection, an act that buys them more of the same (and often happens in association with food).
All of which explains why we humans can be forgiven for interpreting licks as “kisses.” They do, after all, seem to happen more when our dogs are relaxed at home and in situations where they’re most likely to be displaying affection.
But not all dogs are prone to lickiness. Some dogs are less likely to lick humans in true kissy-face fashion. I’ve noticed that arctic breeds, in particular (like Huskies and Malamutes), are more likely to refrain from licking human faces. I’ve also found that this behavior can be learned or unlearned in many cases. After all, plenty of dogs have never been exposed to humans who cared for licks — and vice versa.
As to the health risk of doggy kisses, I would refer you to the CDC’s website (CDC.gov) and the article titled, “Zoonoses in the Bedroom.” It details the risks associated with pet kissing and bed-sharing, particularly in the case of humans who are very young, elderly, sick or immunosuppressed.
Despite its admonitions, however, even the CDC agrees that a) healthy pets are very unlikely to transmit diseases via kisses and that b) humans are more likely to give you kiss-borne diseases than pets.
Dr. Patty Khuly has a veterinary practice at Sunset Animal Clinic in South Miami. Her website is drpattykhuly.com. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.