Listen as Dr. Mindy Cohan talks with Kathy about the preventing dog bites and more - plus how to have a safe Fourth of July with your dog!
Dog Bite Prevention
Every year more than 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs in the U.S. and at least 800,000 people receive medical attention. Most of the victims are children who will sustain both long term physical and psychological effects. Because of the prevalence and grave consequences of dog bites, “National Dog Bite Prevention Week” was established and takes place the third full week of May each year.
While the majority of dog bites occur to a person’s face, most cat bites are localized to a person’s hands. Because there are so many joints within the hands, this location is not only extremely sensitive to pain, but also at high risk for infection. Cats have particularly sharp teeth and their mouths harbor many serious bacteria. Approximately one third of people bitten by a cat on the hand will require hospitalization and many need surgeries to address the wound and infection. Any person who is bitten by a cat or dog should seek medical attention immediately.
Studies have shown that the behaviors most commonly preceding a bite include bending over a dog and a person putting their face close to a dog’s face. Surprisingly, the study did not find actions typically thought to provoke a dog bite such as stepping on a tail/paw, pulling fur, scolding, or trimming nails to be high risk behaviors.
The majority of dogs cited for bite incidents include primarily unneutered adult males and dogs of a moderate to large size. Most bite episodes take place in the dog’s home or yard while the dog is off-leash. It is important to note that parents and dog owners are usually present when a child is bit. It is also important to be aware that small dogs can inflict serious wounds and that any dog, no matter how loving, sweet, or tolerant can bite. Any breed is capable of biting, and children are primarily bitten by dogs that they know.
While some dogs can bite due to underlying aggressive tendencies, most dogs bite because they are scared and feel insecure. This is not the dog’s fault, but often due to improper socialization. Between the ages of 3-14 weeks, the majority of a puppy’s personality is established. This is considered the prime socialization age and it is critical that a puppy be exposed to other animals, people of different genders, ethnicities, ages, and sizes and be introduced to objects such as umbrellas, bags, and canes. Puppy classes are a great way to optimize socialization and minimize future fears. It is detrimental for an owner to scold or hit a dog that exhibits fear aggression as this will only make the dog more scared.
Other factors that can provoke a dog to bite are resource guarding, pain, or other underlying medical problems. For example, dogs can feel threatened and defensive if they are approached while eating a meal, chewing on a favorite toy or bone, or resting comfortably in their bed or on furniture. Some dogs will not tolerate being pushed or moved off a sofa or bed. Dogs that are blind or deaf are more easily startled and can bite when caught off guard. Older dogs with arthritis may snap when a sore area is touched. Ear infections or other painful skin conditions can make dogs more irritable and likely to bite. If your dog has never snapped and has a personality change, take it to a veterinarian to be evaluated.
Since dogs cannot speak, it is important to be familiar with the many body language signals they can exhibit to indicate fear or stress. Signs that a dog is nervous and needs to be approached with caution include:
- Lip licking
- Tucked tail
- Ears pinned back
- Showing the whites of the eyes
- Intensely staring or avoiding eye contact
- Lips pulled back
- Lifting a paw/shifting weight away
For families that have a furry child that precedes a human child, steps can be taken to reduce the dog’s anxiety when a new baby comes home and to ensure a safe environment for the newborn infant. First, the dog should master basic obedience skills such as “sit,” “down,” “stay,” and “come.” The commands of “leave it” and “drop it” will be important to prevent the dog from picking up baby toys, pacifiers, etc. The dog should be trained to feel calm and comfortable in a crate. The command “go away” is important as many dogs being approached by a crawling infant or walking toddler do not instinctively move away on their own. Commanding the dog to “go away” helps to keep both dog and child out of harm’s way. Families should set boundaries with furniture or the baby’s room well ahead of the baby’s arrival.
Many baby related items and sounds can be scary and stressful to dogs. It is important to desensitize the family pet by leaving items such as strollers, car seats, swings, and toys out for the dog to smell and explore. When the dog approaches and investigates these things, praise it and give the dog a treat. The sound of a baby crying or baby toys can be distressing to a dog not familiar with these new noises. Playing a recording of a baby crying while feeding treats or engaging you dog in a game of fetch can help ease the fear associated with novel sounds.
For households with children that plan to add a new dog, parents must take measures to teach the kids to be kind and respectful of dogs. The videos from Jimmy’s Dog House provide great lessons for kids to watch with parents. Go to www.avma.org/dogbite under the heading “May Brings National Dog Bite Prevention Week!” click on “watch the videos.” I suggest watching all of the video clips which will take less than ten minutes.
Parents must remain vigilant in supervising infants, toddlers and young children with dogs at all times. Educating children is also critical and lessons must be taught starting at a young age so good habits are established early.
Tips for parents can be found at https://www.avma.org/public/Pages/Teaching-children-about-dog-bite-prevention.aspx
From personal experience, there is nothing more wonderful or special than the love and companionship of a dog. As a veterinarian, I have encountered many dogs that are not aggressive, but become terrified upon entering a veterinary office. The veterinary team has to be extra careful handling these patients that are prone to biting out of fear. Understanding and respecting a fearful animal is critical for ensuring the safety of people and pets. Adequate training and socialization of dogs, vigilance of parents and dog owners, and well educated children will help to reduce the number of dog bite incidents and minimize the devastating repercussions for both humans and canines.