Should You Wash Your Hands After Petting A Dog

yellow lab lying on a raised dog bed

From a health and safety perspective it makes perfect sense to wash your hands after handling a pet. But our dogs usually live amongst us as family members and we have to be realistic about what that means. 

It’s an interesting fact that normal life and perfect hygiene are rarely entirely compatible. I have three dogs, and if I washed my hands every time I touched one of them, I’d spend my entire life at the kitchen sink. Not to mention have very sore hands. 

Yet the advice to wash your hands after petting a dog is good practice, and there are times when I think it’s particularly important for you to do this. 

Dog hygiene tips

If you live with dogs on a daily basis, then you are probably immune to many of the microbes your dog carries in the dust and debris that collects in their fur. So you don’t need to be forever sponging and shampooing your four legged friend. 

Dogs can also carry microbes in their bodily fluids, which sounds scary, but probably isn’t a cause for concern if you are sensible. And being sensible means being aware of risk and how it could affect you. 

You see, the thing about microbes is, that it’s not just whether or not you’ve come into contact with them, but its also about just how many of them you’ve been exposed to. And about how vulnerable you are to infection. 

That’s why its important to recognize those occasions when you are likely to have an extra large dose of bacteria or other harmful mini-beasts, on your hands. And to take extra precautions if your immunity is compromised in any way. 

What can you catch from touching a dog?

The transmission of disease from animal to human is known as zoonosis.  A visit to a medical dictionary will reveal many zoonotic diseases caused by viruses, protozoa, and bacteria, that can potentially pass from dogs to humans. Not to mention internal parasites such as roundworms.

If you worried about them all, you would never keep a dog. The fact is that most dogs live out their lives without giving their human housemates anything nasty to remember them by! 

And most of the nastier things that dogs can potentially pass on are carried in bodily fluids, like poop, pee, and saliva, not in their fur. So stroking a friendly dog is a relatively low risk activity for a healthy person.

For those people that are more vulnerable to infection, the very young or elderly, and the immuno suppressed, it’s important to talk to your medical advisors about the risks from your dog. 

Of course it makes sense for everyone to avoid a high risk of infection where possible. And we’ll look at reducing risk in a moment. It’s worth first considering how effective simple hand washing is. And whether ordinary soap is sufficient to avoid infection. 

Is hand washing sufficient?

We have all become more aware of hand washing in the last few years. 

The use of alcohol rubs or gels to kill germs on our skin has become more widespread, but it is probably not a necessary precaution in a healthy person that has simply been petting a healthy dog. 

Thorough hand washing, (long enough to sing happy birthday twice is a popular rule of thumb)  is usually sufficient.  But what about those times when you or a family member is at greater risk. 

When is hand washing after petting a dog most  important?

  • Before eating
  • After cleaning up bodily fluids
  • After handling young puppies
  • After handling raw fed dogs that have eaten recently
  • After handling a strange dog

Before eating

It’s a good idea to wash your hands before eating or preparing food at any time. But this is especially important if you have been petting your dog. 

It also makes sense to take extra care after any contact with pets where you are likely to be exposed to a larger number of microbes. Even if you are not intending to eat. 

After cleaning pee and poop

Hand washing is especially important after contact with bodily fluids such as urine and feces. Even if you were wearing protective gloves for the job. 

I’m talking about clearing up after puppy accidents here, or nursing an incontinent or sick dog. 

After handling puppies

It is common for young puppies to carry roundworms that are capable of infecting people. In rare cases roundworms can cause blindness in humans, so its important to take this particular risk seriously 

To reduce the risk, always wash your hands and make sure children wash their hands, after playing with young puppies. 

Don’t forget to  worm your puppy as instructed by your vet, an don’t let puppies lick your food before you eat it (that include your icecream). 

Never let small children play where puppies poop. And never let puppies poop in children’s play areas. Those worm eggs can survive for long periods in the ground.

After handling raw fed dogs that have just eaten

My dogs are all fed on raw meat. If yours are too, bear in mind that dogs are messy eaters and traces of raw meat could potentially contaminate their fur.  

For this reason, I don’t feed my dogs raw chicken if my grandchildren are around, and we don’t pet or handle the dogs just after they have eaten, without washing our hands afterwards.

After petting a strange dog

If you have opportunity to wash your hands after handling a dog that you don’t live with, it’s probably sensible to do so. 

You are less likely to be resistant to any bugs or beasties lurking in them, and you may be unaware of whether or not they are up to date with worm treatments. 

Finding a balance

These simple precautions are not the safest possible way to avoid risk of infection from dogs, but my personal view is that we need to balance some risk against the enormous benefit of having a dog in your life and being able to relax around them. 

Of course we could all shut ourselves away in a hygienic bubble to avoid any kind of infection or contamination, but what kind of life would that be? 

So unless you are immunocompromised,  I suggest you enjoy your dog, relax in their company, take a few simple precautions outlined above, and try not to worry about washing your hands every single time you pet them.  

The Labrador Handbook by Pippa Mattinson(paid link)

But what do you think? Am I being too casual? Or over cautious? Let me know in the comments below!

References and further reading:

I Ghasemzadeh and SH Namazi: Review of bacterial and viral zoonotic infections transmitted by dogs. J Med Life. 2015 

Bufford et al. Effects of dog ownership in early childhood on immune development and atopic diseases. Clinical and experimental allergy 2008

The Labrador Site Founder

Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.

She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program 

Pippa's online training courses were launched in 2019 and you can find the latest course dates on the Dogsnet website