Kissing Cat

There’s a controversy in veterinary medicine that divides the profession, and it’s over something that many pet owners never give a second thought: kissing your pets. As you might imagine, I have some thoughts on this topic. Because, yes, I kiss my pets, and yes, I know I probably shouldn’t.

To Kiss or Not to Kiss

Not long ago, Dr. Christina Winn came out in favor of pet kissing in a Veterinary Economics cover piece. Dr. Winn was looking at ways to develop better communications with pet owners so pets will be more likely to get the care they need. The antikissing contingent blew her a raspberry soon after, with a letter signed by a handful of veterinarians, including my good friend Dr. Tony Johnson, a clinical assistant professor of critical care at the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine. Their point: It is indeed possible to catch something from such close contact with a pet.

I’ve taken this issue on, in very public ways, and I have to admit that I can see both sides. I still remember doing a segment on Good Morning America about zoonotic diseases, or those that are transmissible from animals to humans. Looking right into the camera and pointing to my mouth for emphasis, I said, “It’s really not a good idea to let your pets kiss or lick you on the mouth.”

Upward of 4 million people heard my recommendation, and probably 3.9 million pet owners, including me, ignored my good advice. In fact, the evening after that show, I pulled into the garage at our Almost Heaven Ranch and opened the door of the pickup to Quixote, our 16-pound canine cocktail.

“Ah, you want to give daddy some sugars?” I said. And he did.

I Can’t Help Myself

Despite recent studies about the transmission of bacteria between pets and people causing dental disease, I continue to let my pets give me kisses. And I do so knowing where those mouths have been. And while I know that my pets are in the very best of health — with regular brushings and dental cleanings under anesthesia when necessary — I don’t draw the line there. I kiss my patients when I’m practicing too. Within reason, of course: Sick, scared or aggressive pets get a pass.

Kissing pets is popular, sensible or not. While disease transmission does happen now and then, it’s usually more of an annoyance (such as ringworm) than a threat. A few months ago my wife and I tapped into the furnomenon by running a kissing booth at a local dog fair to raise money for our local animal shelter. Teresa and our two 16-pound doorbells, Quixote and Quora, worked the booth for two hours, raising more than $50 in that time. That was a slurp every 2 ½ minutes. Teresa even got a kiss from a Jack Russell terrier who rode by on his own horse. (No, I’m not making that up.)

Kiss Away… With Caution

But back to the risks. Shortly after the study about the transfer of oral bacteria from pets to people came out, I talked with Dr. Richard E. Besser, a pediatrician and the former acting head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the current ABC News chief health and medical editor.

“What do you think about this, Dr. Becker?” he asked me, to which I replied, “When’s the last time you ever heard or read of a veterinarian dying of a zoonotic disease or having no teeth from dental disease?” 

“Exactly,” replied Dr. Besser. “I’m still kissing my dogs!”

And so am I.

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