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Dog Bites: Protecting Your Child

Anna Mendenhall, MD, FAAP


With school almost over for the year, children will be spending more time in parks, at friends’ houses and other places where they may encounter dogs, making this an especially important time to think about safety.  Many people consider their dogs as best friends, but hospital records suggest that some pooches feel otherwise.


How big of a problem are dog bites?

Each year, approximately 4.5 million people in the United States are bitten by dogs, with some bites needing emergency treatment.  Approximately 12 people die per year from a dog bite attack in the US.  Over a 16-year period, the number of hospital admissions caused by dog bites nearly doubled, increasing from 5,100 in 1993 to 9,500 in 2008, according to a recent report by the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

In 2008, dog bites sent an average of 866 people every day.  Nearly 40 percent of them children and teens sent to emergency rooms throughout the country for treatment.  The report noted that twenty-six patients a day required hospitalization.  Only a small percentage of the spike is attributed to population growth of both dogs and people during the same period.  The data didn’t give any clues as to why biting injuries are on the rise.


What kind of dog will bite?

Frequently the attacker is a family or neighborhood pet.  Any dog can bite, even the cuddliest, fuzziest and sweetest pup can bite if provoked.  Most people are bitten by their own dog or one they know.  Some owners actually promote aggression in their dogs or allow aggression to go unchecked.  Although media reports and rumors often give the impression that certain breeds of dog are more likely to bite, there is little scientific evidence to support those claims.


What makes a dog bite?

Understanding canine body language and behavior is an important part of the puzzle for keeping kids safe.  Most children have been bitten by dogs that had no history of biting.  Most important, familiar children were bitten most often in the contexts of nice interactions, such as kissing and hugging with their own dogs or dogs that they knew.  While humans commonly show affection by hugging and kissing, many dogs instinctively view this face-to-face interaction as threatening and lash out with their teeth.  Dogs bit when:

  1. Scared
  2. Hurt
  3. Touched while resting
  4. When in possession of things considered valuable, such as food, toys even a favorite person.


What can happen after a dog bite?

If bitten:

  1. Rrequest proof of rabies vaccination from the dog owner, get the owner’s name and contact information, and contact the dog’s veterinarian to check vaccination records.
  2. Then immediately consult with your doctor.
  3. Clean bite wounds with soap and water as soon as possible.
  4. If the victim is bleeding from a bite wound, apply pressure with a clean bandage or towel to stop the bleeding before washing, and immediately take the person to a doctor or emergency room.  Most likely a skin or tissue infections can occur, that is why it is so important to seek medical care and cleanse the wound well.
  5. If it’s been more than 5 years, a tetanus booster needs to be given.  More than half require procedures such as wound debridement (removal of dead tissue), sutures or skin grafts.

Often times after medical care is given, a dog bite patient will also need psychiatric counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.


Important dog bite prevention tips include:

  • Pick a dog that is good match for your home.  Consult your veterinarian for details.
  • Socialize your pet!  Gradually expose your puppy to a variety of people and other animals so it feels at ease in these situations; continue this exposure as your dog gets older.
  • Train your dog!  Commands can build a bond of obedience and trust between the dog and owner.
  • Avoid aggressive games with your dog!
  • Vaccinate your dog against rabies and other diseases.
  • Neuter or spay your dog.  These dogs are less likely to bite.
  • Never leave a baby or small child alone with a dog.
  • Teach your child to ask a dog owner for permission before petting any dog.
  • When meeting a new dog, let the dog sniff you or your child before touching it, and pet it gently, avoiding the face and tail.
  • Never bother a dog if it is sleeping, eating or caring for puppies.
  • Do not run past a dog.
  • If a dog threatens you, remain calm, avoid eye contact, stand still or back away slowly until the dog leaves.
  • If you are knocked down, curl into a ball and protect your face with your arms and fists.


One easy-to-remember tip is to W.A.I.T.:

  • Wait to see if the dog is accompanied by an owner.
  • Ask that owner for permission to pet the dog. If the answer is ‘yes’,
  • Invite the dog first to sniff you, then,
  • Touch the dog gently to pet it.