Dog Bites

CDC: 4.7 million dog bites each year in the U.S.; about 800,000 of those require medical attention

By Eva Briggs

Dog biteImagine that you’re taking a walk and pass someone holding onto a large dog that is lunging, barking and has its hackles up.

The owner calls out, “Don’t worry, he’s just enthusiastic.”

Should you believe them?

My answer: no!

Use your common sense and keep your distance to reduce that chance that you become a dog bite victim.

You can quibble over whether the dog is enthusiastic, aggressive or fearful. But in any case, believe the signals that it is highly aroused, because a highly aroused dog is a bite risk.

The CDC estimates that there are 4.7 million dog bites each year in the United States, and about 800,000 of those require medical attention. Dog bites account for about one-third of the dollars paid out by homeowners insurance. The average claim was a whopping $37,000 in 2017 —undoubtedly it’s even more now.

As with most injuries, prevention is better than treatment. That includes supervising young children around dogs and teaching children how to behave around dogs. Children suffer a significant proportion of dog bite injures. Their injuries are often severe because they’re low to the ground (easier for a dog to reach their faces) and small (easier to injure with a well-placed chomp.)

Always ask before approaching or petting a dog. If the owner says no, believe them, no matter how friendly the dog seems to you. And if the owner says yes, but the dog’s behavior says no, believe the dog and don’t touch. Warning signs dogs may give before biting include:

• Yawning, licking their lips and turning away to avoid eye contact — all signs of stress.

• Baring the teeth, growling and snapping.

• Tail wagging. This can be confusing. A happy dog wags their tail and wriggles the whole body. An uncomfortable dog may stand stiffly with a raised, slowly wagging tail.

• Rigid body.

• Fur standing up.

• Seeing the whites of their eyes.

Don’t run away, and don’t make loud squealing noises. That can trigger a dog’s prey drive, making it irresistible for the dog to chase and catch you.

There are certain situations that increase the risk that a dog will bite. Don’t disturb a dog that is sleeping, sick, injured, frightened or caring from puppies. A dog that is tied up, or in a car, may consider the area personal space to be defended.

Permit a dog to sniff you before touching or petting it. Let the dog approach you.

About half of dog bite injuries involve the family dog. Don’t assume a familiar dog won’t bite. Dog training and socialization, starting from puppyhood, is a good idea but beyond the scope of this article.

What should you do if approached by an unfamiliar dog that you don’t want to interact with? First stop, stay still and don’t panic. Avoid eye contact. In a firm deep voice tell the dog “no,” “stop” or “go home.” Stand with the side of your body toward the dog. Directly facing the dog or making eye contact can be perceived as a threat. Slowly raise your hands to your neck, with your elbows in. Wait for the dog to pass, or back slowly away.

If the dog does attack, place an object such as a purse, backpack, umbrella, or whatever you have between you and the dog. If you are knocked down, curl into a ball with your head tucked in. Cover your ears and neck with your hands.

If you are bitten, wash your wounds with soap and water, apply an antibiotic ointment, and cover with a bandage. Try to get contact information for the owner to determine whether the dog’s rabies vaccination is up to date. All animal bites should be reported to the health department.

I recommended seeking medical attention for all bites. And definitely watch for signs of infection such as worsening redness, pain, red streaks, fever or pus.

I love dogs, but stay safe out there.

Eva Briggs is a medical doctor who works at two urgent care centers in the Syracuse region.

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