Can Rabies be transmitted through a Dog’s Lick?

Rabies is a terrifying disease that poses a potential threat to humans, causing severe symptoms and even death. It is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be transmitted from animals to humans, and dogs are among the common carriers of rabies.

What are the Risks of Getting Rabies from a Dog’s Lick?

In order to shed light on the risks associated with a dog licking you, be it your mouth, lips, or hand, I decided to delve into my research. I spent an entire afternoon sifting through notes from government agencies, medical websites, and the World Health Organization to gather all the necessary information about rabies and dog licking.

Getting Rabies from a Dog’s Lick

Before we dive into the details, let me give you a quick answer to the question: Can you get rabies from a dog licking you? The answer is yes, it is possible to contract rabies if a dog licks your mouth, lips, or an open wound where the virus can enter your body through their saliva. However, there is no need to panic right away.

If you reside in English-speaking countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, or the United States, the likelihood of contracting rabies from a dog’s lick is extremely low. In fact, rabies has been virtually eliminated in these countries, with only a few reported cases of animal-to-human transmission each year.

Nevertheless, it is important to exercise caution in countries where rabies is still prevalent and avoid allowing dogs to lick you, especially around your mouth and open wounds. We will discuss these high-risk countries in more detail later on. But first, let us hear what the World Health Organization (WHO) has to say about contracting rabies from a dog’s lick:

“The rabies virus is mainly transmitted from the saliva of a rabid animal when it bites or scratches a person. Licks to wounds, grazes, broken skin, or to the lining of the mouth and nose can also transmit the virus.” (source)

Can a Dog’s Lick Cause Rabies?

While it is possible to contract rabies from a dog’s lick, several factors must align for transmission to occur. Let’s take a closer look at some important points I came across during my research:

  1. Rabies is not spread through unbroken skin: You cannot get rabies from a dog licking your hand, arm, or face unless their saliva enters an open wound or mixes with your own saliva.
  2. Rabies spreads through saliva: The primary mode of transmission for rabies is through a bite, where saliva containing the virus passes from the animal to the human. Consequently, you could potentially contract rabies if a dog licks your mouth or an open wound.
  3. Rabies is short-lived outside the body: Rabies virus can only survive outside the body for a short period, typically a couple of seconds. This means that if a rabid dog licks your hand, the virus will cease to be contagious once the saliva dries up.
  4. Rabies is rare in English-speaking countries: The occurrence of rabies in countries like the UK, Australia, the United States, and Canada is extremely rare. The disease has been effectively eradicated in these regions, with minimal reported cases.

Having covered these important points, let’s delve deeper into specific scenarios where dog licking could potentially result in rabies transmission, as well as explore the countries where caution is paramount.

Can You Get Rabies from a Dog Licking Your Mouth?

It is indeed possible to contract rabies if a dog licks your mouth, nose, or even your lips. The World Health Organization explains that rabies can be transmitted through dogs licking the mucous membrane lining your mouth, which naturally includes your lips.

Can you get rabies from dog licking your mouth
You can get rabies from a dog licking your mouth, but the dog will need to be rabid in the first place. (Image source)

Can You Get Rabies if a Dog Licks an Open Wound?

Yes, you can get rabies if a dog licks your open wound, but this assumes that the dog is indeed infected with rabies. The World Health Organization provides the following advice on their website:

“People exposed to rabies should receive prompt post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) to prevent clinical rabies. PEP consists of wound washing, a series of rabies vaccinations, and in some cases, rabies immunoglobulin.”

They further emphasize the importance of washing wounds and scratches immediately with soap or detergent, thoroughly flushing them with water for approximately 15 minutes. If soap is unavailable, flush with water alone. Swift wound washing is the most effective first-aid measure against rabies.

Can You Get Rabies from a Dog Licking Your Hand, Feet, or Legs?

The chances of contracting rabies from a dog licking your hands, feet, or legs are highly unlikely, unless you have open wounds or cuts in these areas. The World Health Organization explicitly advises against allowing dogs to lick areas with broken skin, as this provides an entry point for their saliva into your body.

Bites and Scratches are More Dangerous

Dogs account for 99% of all reported rabies cases worldwide, but relatively few cases are attributed to dog licks. The majority of dog-to-human rabies transmissions result from bites or scratches.

Even if you are bitten by a rabid dog while abroad, the risk of infection is low, with a 2008 study suggesting a 15% chance of contraction. The study also emphasizes the importance of immediately and thoroughly washing any wounds, scratches, or mucous membranes with soap and water. If available, a povidone-iodine compound should also be used. Seeking medical treatment without delay to receive post-exposure vaccination is crucial.

As I mentioned earlier, the risk of getting rabies from a dog lick is very low in Western and English-speaking countries. Let me share some interesting data I found regarding various countries.

Rabies Statistics in the USA and Canada

Although rabies is not completely unheard of in North America, cases of transmission from dogs to humans remain scarce. Between 2009 and 2018, only 25 cases of human rabies were reported, and of those, 7 were acquired while traveling abroad.

Therefore, it is highly unlikely that you would get rabies from a dog lick in the United States or Canada. However, it is still advisable to avoid allowing dogs to lick your mouth, lips, or wounds as other diseases and illnesses can be transmitted this way.

Rabies Statistics in the UK

According to the UK government’s public health website, the risk of contracting rabies in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland is minimal. Rabies does not circulate among wild or domestic animals in the UK, although certain species of bats can carry a rabies-like virus. Since 1902, no cases of human rabies have been reported in the UK, except for a single case in 2002 where an individual sustained multiple bat bites. Between 2000 and 2017, five cases of human rabies associated with animal exposures abroad were reported.

Based on this information, I am confident in assuring you that you will not contract rabies from a dog lick in the UK as of July 2020, when I conducted this research.

Rabies Statistics in Australia

Australia presents a similar scenario to the UK, indicating that the risk of contracting rabies from a dog lick is relatively low. The Australian government’s health portal states that the rabies virus does not exist among land-dwelling animals in Australia, although Australian Bat Lyssavirus (ABLV) occurs in bats and can be transmitted to humans and other animals. Since its identification in 1996, only three cases of human infection with ABLV have been recorded.

As in the UK and the USA, it is advisable to avoid your dog licking your face and mouth in Australia, as it could lead to other illnesses despite the low possibility of rabies infection.

Which Countries Pose a Higher Risk?

The risk changes when you travel abroad, as rabies is present in other countries where the chances of contracting the disease from a dog licking your mouth, wound, or hand are higher. Once again, I refer to the World Health Organization, which published the following statement on their website:

“Rabies is estimated to cause 59,000 human deaths annually in over 150 countries, with 95% of cases occurring in Africa and Asia. Due to underreporting and uncertain estimates, this number is likely a gross underestimate. The burden of the disease falls disproportionately upon rural poor populations, with around half of the cases affecting children under 15 years of age.”

For an up-to-date list of countries deemed high risk for rabies by the UK government, please refer to the Gov.uk website.

Reducing the Risk of Rabies

While it is highly unlikely for you to contract rabies from your dog licking you in the Western World, the same cannot be said when traveling abroad. If you are planning to travel, here are some measures you can take to reduce the risk of contracting the rabies virus:

  1. Cover any open wounds with plasters and bandages.
  2. Avoid approaching stray dogs in foreign countries.
  3. Refrain from allowing dogs to lick you, especially in proximity to your mouth, lips, or any open wound.
  4. Do not carry food near areas where stray dogs congregate.
  5. Receive a rabies vaccination before traveling.

Disclaimer: I am neither a veterinarian nor a disease specialist. The information provided in this article is based on my research as of July 2020 and should not be considered definitive. For professional opinions and expert advice, always consult relevant authorities and specialists.

Conclusion

I hope this article has put your mind at ease regarding the risk of contracting rabies from your dog’s lick. Unless you have a dog with rabies, which is uncommon in the UK, the United States, Canada, and Australia, the chances of getting rabies in these countries are incredibly low.

However, if you plan to travel to countries where rabies still poses a threat, please take extra precautions. If you have children, make sure they inform you if they have been licked or patted by a dog so that you can take appropriate measures.

You might also like…

I regularly write about topics like this, and here are some recent articles that cover rabies and related diseases.

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