The United States is a nation of pet lovers. According to the American Pet Products Association, Americans collectively own over 80 million dogs.
However, while many dogs are family-friendly, some can display aggressive behavior – and some may even bite. Dog bites are a serious health and safety issue in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs every year – and about one in every ten people bitten is a child.
We chatted with Dr. Stephen Colbert, a University of Missouri Health Care plastic surgeon and assistant professor of surgery in the University of Missouri School of Medicine’s Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. Dr. Colbert has treated many dog bite victims and has advice for how you can prevent dog bites in the first place.
Why are dog bites such a serious public health issue?
Dog bites tend to affect children more than adults, and they’re usually preventable.
Are there any common signs that show a dog may be aggressive?
I wouldn’t rely on any visible sign suggesting that a dog may be an aggressive dog, because any dog can theoretically become aggressive. Generally, they’re more likely to be aggressive when protecting their young, protecting their owner(s), or eating.
My advice is to never approach a dog, particularly one you don’t own, when they are eating or showing overt signs of aggression, such as barking, growling, snarling or pulling on an owner’s leash. Also, never try to break up a dog fight. We see lots of inadvertent injuries to people when they try to break up a fight.
The risk of being bitten by a dog appears to rise during the summer – why is this the case?
Some studies don’t show any true increase in dog bite injuries in the summer. However, empirically we do seem to see more injuries in the warmer weather months, likely because of increased social activity among owners and their dogs.
Through your work as a plastic surgeon, what is the worst dog bite case you’ve seen?
We have seen pretty massive injuries to the faces of some victims, which can be very disfiguring. A colleague of mine has cared for a young child with a severe injury to the face that essentially involved removal of all of the child’s skin from the nose to the chin — a very devastating and tragic injury which required multiple, complex surgical procedures to reconstruct.
Do you have first aid advice for a person who is treating a dog bite injury?
The first thing to do is remove yourself or the victim from the situation to a safe place. Gently cleanse then cover wounds with a clean cloth. If a wound is bleeding, cover it with a clean cloth and apply gentle pressure. For an injured hand or foot, you may elevate it above heart level to slow bleeding. Finally, seek immediate medical attention.
When should you seek medical treatment for a dog bite? And what information should you tell your doctor?
Any injury that appears to have broken the skin should be evaluated immediately.
Important information that you should tell your doctor includes:
- The environment in which the injury occurred.
- The time of the event.
- What breed of dog.
- How large the dog was.
- The dog owner’s name.
- Immunization status of the dog.
- Whether the dog has been involved in any similar events.
Your doctor will also do a thorough evaluation to make sure no other injuries, such as broken bones, have occurred.
In general, are dog bites treated differently that other puncture wounds?
Dog bites are typically treated differently than other wounds. Dog bites generally tend to crush and tear skin, and they are very dirty wounds, which increase the risk of infection. Typically, dog bite wounds are usually left open, at least partially, to allow them to be cleaned frequently, to allow drainage, and to prevent infection. Antibiotics are usually prescribed as well.
Are most dog bites from aggressive breeds such as pit bulls or German shepherds?
The majority of dog bites are from the most common breeds of dogs, such as retrievers, simply because we have so much more interaction with more common dogs, even though they may not be considered the most aggressive breeds. The more aggressive breeds, such as pit bulls, are more likely to bite, however, than the less aggressive breeds.
What are common mistakes that people make when they encounter strange – or even familiar - dogs?
Many people are very familiar with dogs and feel very comfortable around them. This may lead a person to approach a dog in a situation that puts them at risk of being bitten. My advice is to never approach a stray or unattended dog, and never approach an attended dog without the owner’s permission. Never approach a dog that is eating or tending its young.
When it’s safe to approach a dog, always approach gently, allow the dog to smell you and allow it to react before doing anything, such as trying to pet it. Never put your face or allow your child to put his or her face near a dog’s face. Many encounters that result in bites occur with dogs with which we may feel familiar, such as our grandparents’ dog or neighbors’ dog. However, the dog doesn’t necessarily feel the same degree of familiarity and may react aggressively.
What are some tips for parents on how to keep their children safe from dog bites?
The most important thing that will keep us and our children safe from dog bites is being aware of the danger (in the first place.)