Dog Bites

Posted by  on June 15, 2010

Has your dog ever bitten anyone?  It can end up being your worst nightmare.  What can you do?  What should you do?

Medical Considerations

First and foremost, make sure your dog is current on all required vaccinations in your state and county.  Obviously, this will include rabies, but some municipalities may require other shots as well.  Ask your vet what immunizations are needed and when.  If your vet doesn’t send reminder cards, be sure to mark the next scheduled shot dates on you calendar or in your PDA.

If you do have the unfortunate experience of your dog biting someone, you must take action to control bleeding, prevent infection, and treat any broken bones or torn soft tissue.  Even if the dog does not break the victim’s skin, there could be internal damage to muscles, tendons, and ligaments.  Most dogs exert tremendous pressure with their jaws and can easily snap a bone.

A dog who is vicious will grab his victim and hold on, shaking the victim to subdue him.  If you’ve ever seen a dog “attack” a toy and shake it in his mouth, you know what this looks like.  On the other hand, a dog who is only mildly irritated, or who has been trained to be gentle may nip when pushed beyond his limits.  These bites are much less serious, usually resulting in minor flesh wounds, but even these can be very painful.

Most of the time, broken bones will be immediately apparent, but some damage may be tough to see.  If the area around the bite becomes overly swollen or does not feel better within a week, medical attention should be sought to check for damage to the unseen structures under the skin.

Clean the area thoroughly

If the bite does break the skin, the area can become a prime breeding ground for infection.  The old wives’ tale about dogs having cleaner mouths than humans doesn’t mean that a dog’s mouth is free from bacteria.  Introducing any normal mouth bacteria into your bloodstream can cause a serious infection, and if the bite is deep, the infection may penetrate into the bone.

Immediately after confining the dog to prevent further incident, wash the area thoroughly with soap and warm water.  If possible, squeeze the area around the wound to “bleed out” any infectious agents.  Continue washing, squeezing and rinsing the wound for as long as possible.  Once you have some confidence that the area is clean, apply pressure to stop the bleeding, then apply antibiotic ointment and a clean bandage.

If an infection survives your cleansing efforts, it will become apparent within one to three days.  Redness around the wound may begin to travel up toward the heart, showing itself as red streaks under the skin, mapping out the venous system.  The affected area may become hot and swollen.  The victim may or may not have a fever.  If any of these symptoms are present, it should be considered a medical emergency.  The sooner antibiotic treatment is started, the better chance of keeping the infection confined to a small area. 

Preventing dog bites

The best way to prevent bites is to thoroughly train and socialize your dog as soon as you get him or her.  Take the dog with you whenever possible, to sporting events, to the park, or to visit your relatives.  Expose the dog to a wide variety of people and situations while he or she is young, to help him learn how to deal with confusion.

One of the biggest reasons why dogs bite is because they are afraid.  Thus, if you can expose your dog to many different situations while you are there to make the encounters non-threatening, you stand a good chance of teaching him not to become scared enough to bite when unfamiliar circumstances pop up.

Train your dog to the basic obedience commands when he or she is a pup, and keep refreshing the concepts frequently.  Your dog should be completely under your control at all times, particularly if you are in public or if children are around.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 2% of the people in the United States are bitten each year, half of them children.  Over 1,000 people are treated in emergency rooms each day as a result of dog bites.  Getting bitten by a dog is the fifth most frequent cause of emergency room visits among children.

Given these statistics, it is vital that you train your dog and keep him under your control at all times.  If your dog doesn’t behave well, leave him or her at home.  It’s not worth the risk of having someone be bitten just to allow your dog to get some fresh air.

Legal issues

If your dog bites someone, you need to be aware that you are liable for that person’s medical costs, and could in fact be taken to court to pay additional damages such as lost work time, pain and suffering, and emotional distress.  You should contact your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance carrier immediately upon learning that your dog has bitten someone so they are aware there may be a claim filed.  If your policy covers dog bites, it relieves you of the burden of hiring a lawyer to represent you.  The legal wrangling becomes a fight between the victim of the bite and the insurance company, at least up to the limit of your coverage.

If your dog has bitten before, your insurance carrier may demand that you get rid of the dog if you want to keep your policy with them.  In the alternative, they may accept your word that you will follow the vicious dog laws, even if your dog is not one of the breeds meant to be covered by your local regulations.  Vicious dog owners are generally required to have higher fences, bigger insurance policies, and may be required to keep a muzzle on the dog when he or she is off your property.

In most localities, hospitals and doctors’ offices are required to report all dog bites to the health department.  The health commissioner will then notify you that your dog is to be quarantined for a specific period of time, then examined by a vet who will certify that the dog appears to be free of rabies.  Quarantine may mean keeping your dog away from the general public (in the case of minor bites) or it may mean having the dog confined at the dog warden’s office (in the case of maulings or repeated attacks by the same dog).

Major steps to prevent and treat dog bites

  • Train and socialize your dog
  • Keep your dog under your control at all times
  • Keep vaccinations up to date

If the dog bites someone:

  1. Confine the dog to keep the victim safe from another attack.
  2. Cleanse the wound thoroughly.
  3. Apply pressure to stop bleeding.
  4. Seek medical attention for signs of infection or deep tissue damage.
  5. Contact your insurance carrier.
  6. Work with the health department and your vet to prevent the spread of rabies.