Back when I was in seventh grade or thereabouts, I was riding my bike one summer day when a large black dog came running after me. His owner was nowhere in sight. He growled and snapped at my heels as I pedaled like crazy, terrified I would be knocked off my bike and mauled.
Fortunately I managed to outdistance him (or else he lost interest in the chase, I’m not sure which). But the story doesn’t end as well for the thousands of Americans each year who sustain serious dog bite injuries.
Every year during the third week in May, the American Veterinary Medical Association and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention co-sponsor National Dog Bite Prevention Week to call attention to this public health problem.
The numbers are a little frightening: An estimated four million to five million Americans were bitten by a dog last year. Nearly one million of these bite injuries were severe enough to require some form of medical attention. Every so often, news reports surface of horrific injuries – some of them fatal - involving a victim attacked by one or more dogs. What’s especially concerning is that more than half of dog bite injuries involve children, although recently this has been decreasing.
There seems to be a profile for households where dog bite injuries are more likely: namely, the presence of a dog in the household. The risk apparently goes up with the number of dogs; adults with two or more dogs in the home are up to five times more likely to be bitten than individuals who don’t have a dog.
Among occupations, letter carriers face some of the highest risk. The U.S. Postal Service reported last week that there were dog attacks on 5,669 postal employees in 2010. The worst city in the U.S.: Houston, where 62 incidents took place last year. Minneapolis was seventh on the list, tied with Portland, Ore., at 35 dog attacks on letter carriers in each city.
An analysis by the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality contains some more details: Rural areas have higher rates of dog bite injuries requiring emergency-room treatment or a hospital stay. Elderly people make up a small proportion of those bitten by a dog each year but are among the most likely to be hospitalized. The average cost associated with inpatient hospital treatment for a dog bite is $18,200.
Does this mean all dogs are dangerous and we shouldn’t share our lives and homes with them? Any dog, given the right circumstances, will bite, notes Dr. Janet Tobiassen Crosby, a veterinarian. But the dog isn’t invariably to blame; aggressive canine behavior sometimes can escalate when humans fail to correctly interpret the clues. She writes:
Proper training and socialization of puppies and dogs is crucial to avoid dog bites, as is training the humans how to recognize dog body language and approach dogs in a non-threatening manner.
In other words, dog bite injuries don’t have to be inevitable. Here’s some basic advice to lower your risk:
- Before bringing a dog into your home, do your research to choose a breed that’s best suited to your lifestyle. Spend time getting to know the dog before adopting or buying. Reputable shelters and breeders should disclose whether the animal has any known history of aggression.
- Spaying and neutering can greatly reduce the tendency toward aggression, as can appropriate socialization and training.
- Never leave infants or young children alone with a dog.
- Don’t approach an unfamiliar dog. Don’t pet a dog without first allowing it to see and sniff you.
Although rabies is often the first concern that springs to mind when someone is bitten by a dog, the bigger issue is the skin and deep-tissue damage that serious bite injuries often entail. In serious cases, reconstructive surgery might be necessary. Infection is another significant risk.
Dogs do many wonderful things for the human species but they’re still dogs and they think, behave and react like dogs. It’s up to the people in their lives to understand this and to handle the relationship accordingly.
I can’t end this blog without adding a few words about cats. We don’t hear very much about cat bites, probably because they’re much less common than dog bites. A Medscape article puts cat bites at 5 to 15 percent of the yearly total of animal bite wounds seen at emergency rooms in the U.S. Dog bites, on the other hand, make up 80-90 percent of the annual total.
Cats don’t possess the size or strength to inflict the crushing-type injuries typical of dog attacks. Their sharp pointed teeth are capable of serious puncture wounds, however, that drive bacteria deep into the tissue. These wounds might look small on the surface but can lead to serious infection without appropriate evaluation and treatment. Overall, cat bites are more likely than dog bites to become infected, and infection also tends to develop more rapidly than with dog bites – good reasons for why cat bites ought to be taken seriously.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons