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Woman dies from dog lick: Infection from pet's affectionate lick kills dog lover

Woman dies from dog lick: Infection from pet's affectionate lick kills dog lover
Woman dies from dog lick: Infection from pet's affectionate lick kills dog lover
Dog Tongue / Wikimedia Commons

A 53-year-old grandmother from the UK died after her body was unable to fight off an infection that entered her hand through a small cut. The animal-loving woman went into septic shock in April after she was infected by the saliva of her pet terrier – whose affectionate licking of her hand transferred an infection that, although rare, proved fatal.

Sheena Kavanagh, from Hilderstone in the English county of Staffordshire, fell sick and was unable to battle through the infection transmitted to her by one of her three dogs. In 1988, Kavanagh had her spleen removed after being physically assaulted. The spleen, which functions primarily as a blood filter, also synthesizes antibodies that help prevent infection.

Doctors in the UK were initially baffled when Kavanagh was brought into the hospital in late April. The woman appeared to have bacterial meningitis, but a regimen of antibiotics did not improve her condition, and she died within days.

UK’s The Telegraph reported that “her death was so unexpected doctors were at first unable to pinpoint what had caused it. Clinicians are considering publishing a report on the case because it was so rare.”

Kavanagh, who owned two Yorkshire terriers, a long-haired Jack Russell and six horses, took penicillin twice daily to stave off any potential infection after her splenectomy 25 years ago.

Dr. Hiam Ali said the bacterium was found in a blood sample taken after Kavanagh arrived at hospital.

“She had antibiotics [in the hospital] which worked on the bacteria but unfortunately the damage was already done,” Dr. Hiam said. “Her blood was full of bacteria and organisms. Capnocytophaga canimorsus, an organism present in dog saliva, normally doesn’t cause damage. But in people without a spleen it can cause death due to septic shock. But it is extremely rare.”

According to The Telegraph, Andrew Haigh, the coroner for South Staffordshire, recorded Kavanagh’s cause of death as “splenectomy and dog saliva in the bloodstream.”

The woman’s death raises the question – How safe are the friendly kisses that dogs give us? Should we allow our pets to constantly lick us on the hand or face? Should we kiss our digs?

According to Animal Planet, dogs lick for a variety of reasons. A mother stimulates her pups to start breathing by licking them. Dogs also lick because they like the saltiness secreted by our sweat pores. Licking also becomes a gesture of submission, and of course – a sign of affection.

Kissing your dog or letting your best friend lick you in the face and lips might seem like a germfest, but Clark Fobian, DVM and president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, says that common sense needs to come to the fore.

“You have to think of where their nose has been,” Fobian told WebMD. “Has it been inside a dead opossum on the side of the road, or the posterior of another dog, or in the litter box?”

That said, Fobian stressed that the bacteria carried by dogs typically do not pose big health risks for most people.

“Human and dog mouths have a large number and a wide variety of bacteria,” Fobian says. “Fortunately, most of it doesn’t make us sick, but some can. Parasites like hookworm, roundworm, and giardia can be passed from dog to human through licking. Salmonella, too, can be passed from your dog to you, or vice versa.”