How to stop dogs from licking their wounds

The discovery years ago that dog saliva had limited antibacterial properties has transformed into a myth that licking is “good” for wounds. Since then, vets have battled to convince owners that licking is likely to harm wounds rather than help. Caroline Reay, chief vet at the Blue Cross Merton animal hospital, reveals some of the methods that can be used to limit a pet’s access to their wounds… 

Why do dogs lick their wounds? 

For dogs, licking wounds is like you rubbing your head if you hit it. The nerves used to transmit the rubbing sensation block the feeling of pain or soreness. And canine saliva does have some mild antibacterial effect. 

For wild or feral dogs licking is probably beneficial in cleaning a wound. But wild animals are busy staying safe and finding food whereas a well fed, pampered pet can devote a lot of time to licking a wound, making it more extensive and sore in the process.  

So limiting access to wounds, particularly surgical ones with stitches, is important. 

Methods to stop dogs licking their wounds

Elizabethan collar

Dog Benji at Merton animal hospital

Bandages should always be covered to stop them getting wet when you are out, but waterproof covers must be removed once you are home so wounds can breathe. 

Traditionally wounds have been protected using  a cone shaped “Elizabethan collar”. But these can be scary for pets, particularly at first, and a large dog crashing around in an Elizabethan collar can cause damage in the home as well as bruising the owner’s shins.  

They are commonly used to prevent wound damage or bandage removal and the newer see-through versions are best. 

The collar has to be long enough so that its edge is just over the tip of the nose when it’s in place on the neck. Soft versions work well for some animals and they can be turned around to be used wide end first to cover a wound on the body. 

Inflatable collar

Another alternative is an inflatable collar like a lifebelt which you can find and buy online. This has to be a close fit to the animal’s neck – check the measuring instructions carefully – to limit the ability to turn and lick. Some makes are easily punctured. Long-nosed, thin-necked dogs such as greyhounds, Dobermans and dachshunds remain a challenge. 

Non-inflatable forms of the collar – a bit like a neck brace – can also be used but they are not always effective in stopping animals from reaching all parts of their body. They can be combined with other protection measures.

Bandages or boots

Where appropriate, bandages or boots can be fitted, including fashioning a “body tube” from leggings or a T-shirt, depending on the size of dog. 

You can buy several different types of boot. Some have laces, others are stretchy balloon types that fit over the paw.

Gaffa (or gaffer) tape can also be used to cover bandages and it’s easier to unpeel cleanly than duct tape, but never stick it directly on fur or skin. You can use surgical tape – available from most chemists – to stick directly to hair or skin as this can usually be easily removed after soaking with surgical spirit. 

Follow your vet’s advice and ensure bandages are changed regularly, usually every two to three days if there are open wounds. Contact your vet immediately if there is swelling or soreness, if the bandage smells, or if your pet is using their leg less over time.  

You can also try anti-lick strips and sprays though most can’t be applied directly to wounds and some owners find them less successful at preventing licking. Their odour can be generally unpleasant for the sensitive noses of animals.

Distraction techniques

Other tactics include finding occupation for idle tongues and paws. Instead of feeding a bowl of food, which takes less than a minute to eat, try hiding or scattering biscuits for your dog to find. 

Use a Buster Cube or plastic bottle with holes cut in it for them to knock around so that the biscuits fall out slowly but choose one that’s strong enough so your dog can’t destroy the bottle and swallow pieces. Kongs stuffed with peanut butter, cheese paste or tinned dog food, chilled in the fridge so it solidifies, also help to occupy a pet’s time. 

“Ice cubes” of gravy or meat broth can be chased around and have to be consumed slowly, though be warned that they can be messy. 

Teaching tricks is helpful (try clicker training) and mental occupation is as tiring as physical, though of course it doesn’t burn off calories, so reduce your pet’s food accordingly as less active pets will gain weight. 

However you go about wound protection, always supervise to see if it is truly effective. Be most careful about protection if you will be away from your pet or asleep. If your pet is very persistent in attending to wounds, speak to your vet as this can be a sign of pain. 

— Page last updated 24/05/2023