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Dog Bites - A Serious Problem

By Dr Bob Encinosa

In veterinary medicine, we often talk about “zoonotic” diseases, which are diseases that can be transmitted from animals to people or from people to animals. Of course, diseases like rabies, ringworm and scabies come to mind. But, the most common animal related illness in people in recent years has been and continues to be…….. dog bites.

According to the Center for Disease Control, 4.7 million people are bitten by dogs annually in the United States. Of those, nearly 800,000 required medical attention. Infection is the number one reason for hospitalization, followed by open wounds on the extremities and wounds on the head and neck. Other injuries ranged from fractures to blood poisoning.

The highest rate of dog bite related emergency department visits were for children under the age of 10 years.

As animals become an ever larger part of the lives of Americans, injuries such as these continue to become more common. Since most of these injuries are not life threatening , we tend to overlook their importance. But, a simple nip to the face of a little girl from a large dog can change her life forever.

In my opinion, the vast majority of these injuries can be avoided since they often involve the family pet. The very same parental guidance and supervision that can teach a three year old to sit quietly in a restaurant, can teach the same child how to not harass the family pet and therefore avoid one of the leading reasons children get bitten so often. Also, picking a pet for its disposition and demeanor , rather than its appearance or breed, is extremely important.

Third, don’t ignore the early signs of a problem. Rarely does a dog inflict a serious injury without having shown some signs of inappropriate aggression before. All too often, people downplay their dog’s “cute snarl” when they try to sit next to them on the couch or get too close to their food bowl. This type of behavior is not cute or acceptable in a household with small children.

Proper precautions should be taken when encountering the dogs of others as well. Children especially, need to be taught what they should and shouldn’t do when approached by a neighborhood dog. Even adults should be particularly alert for risky situations such as two or three dogs running loose at the same time. Individual dogs who might have escaped from a yard are much less likely to be aggressive or dangerous than multiple dogs together, who will tend to get a “gang “ mentality. In a group like this, even dogs that are generally not aggressive can lapse into their hunt-kill mode once a victim makes noise or tries to flee. It is this scenario where many of the fatal dog attacks occur.

Walking a small dog in areas where free running dogs are common can be particularly dangerous since the little noise makers can be particularly attractive game to larger dogs.

As much as we love pets, don’t ever forget that they are animals, more often led by instincts than conscience.