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Forty-four percent of Americans own a dog — a built-in companion for maintaining an active lifestyle. By nature, dogs are runners and chasers, and their need for activity gets their humans off the couch and out for walks, promoting good health and fitness. But while dogs are great for keeping their owners active, dog ownership doesn’t come without risks.

You’ve probably heard the myth that a dog’s mouth is cleaner than a human’s. But the key word here is myth. A dog’s lick can carry combination of infection, inflammation and bacteria that can land you in the hospital — or worse.

Research shows that a dog’s saliva may contain a harmful bacterium called capnocytophaga. In fact, it can be found in 74% of healthy dogs (and 57% of healthy cats). And just because your four-legged friend tests negative once, that doesn’t mean they won’t carry it later. While the bacteria don’t pose a risk to your pets, they can cause severe complications for humans.

The dirty truth

A dog doesn’t have to bite or scratch you to pass on potentially dangerous bacteria. A well-meaning lick to show their affection can lead to organ failure, gangrene, sepsis and even a heart attack. According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), three out of 10 people affected will succumb to the infection. And for those with a weakened immune system, the risk is even greater.

Watch for these symptoms

Signs of the infection are not always easy to spot. A sudden onset of flu-like symptoms — fever, vomiting and muscle and joint pain — can be the first sign of a problem. Unusual bruising could be a sign of sepsis, warranting immediate medical attention. It’s important to keep in mind that some infections are highly aggressive, which the CDC warns can lead to death within 24-72 hours after symptoms first appear.

Playing it safe with your health

Millions of pet owners get licked by their dogs every day. More often than not, there are no ill effects. It usually takes more than a lick to pass on the infection, and the CDC notes that it rarely causes illness. But be vigilant if you sustain a deep wound or bite from your pet.

Don’t shy away from giving your furry family members some love. But do follow these good hygiene tips:

  • Avoid touching your face — eyes, nose and mouth — when petting or playing with your dog.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water after touching a dog, its food or toys.
  • Clean up dog droppings daily. Dogs that play in a fenced yard are more likely to eat their own droppings and track germ-filled waste matter through your house.

You love your dog, but be sure to maintain some safe boundaries for the sake of your health.