Preventing and Treating Dog Bites
I remember my first dog bite. I was out for a walk, minding my own business, when – bam! A golden retriever nailed me just below the elbow. (Wait – isn’t that breed a goodwill ambassador for the canine kingdom?!) Luckily, I was wearing a sweater, so the bite wasn’t serious, but a crescent moon scar reminds me that dogs aren’t always a woman’s best friend.
What should you do when the bite is worse than the bark?
That depends, says Dr. Alberto Jacir, a family medicine physician with the University of Miami Health System. Dr. Jacir treated three dog bite cases over Memorial Day weekend. In summertime, we’re more likely to encounter unfamiliar dogs at outdoor activities or family get-togethers.
Once bitten, twice shy
For starters, avoid approaching an unfamiliar dog (including service dogs), no matter how cute it seems. (A near-miss with a testy Chihuahua taught me this lesson.) Attacks by stray dogs are rare, says Dr. Jacir. A bite is more likely to occur when visiting family and friends. What could go wrong in a familiar setting? Think of it from Fido’s perspective. His territory is suddenly flooded with new scents, sights, and sounds. And some of the two-legged visitors don’t respect his personal space. Even a friendly pooch could become anxious, especially if it is unaccustomed to children.
Bite prevention tips:
- Never touch a dog when it’s eating.
- Don’t touch or handle puppies if mama dog is present – she may feel threatened.
- Don’t play roughly with a dog.
- Avoid startling or cornering a dog.
- If you want to pet the dog, first ask the owner for permission. If you get the go-ahead, approach the dog slowly and calmly. Let the dog sniff your hand before petting.
Accidents – and dog bites – do happen.
What’s the first thing to remember if bitten?
“Rabies shouldn’t be your first concern. Infections from bacteria inside the animal’s mouth are more common,” Dr. Jacir says.
If it’s a superficial scratch from a “known dog,” you don’t need medical care. Just clean the scrape with soap and water or hydrogen peroxide. Then, dry it with a clean towel, then apply topical antibiotic ointment. Keep the scratch clean and dry. However, if you experience pain, redness, swelling, or fever within 24 hours, see a doctor, even if it is a scratch or small cut.
“Bite wounds can easily and rapidly become a complicated infection,” says Dr. Jacir.
If your wound isn’t severe, you should still go to an urgent care center if:
- Your tetanus shot isn’t up to date.
- You have a condition affecting immunity, such as diabetes, or if you take medications that compromise immunity.
In the case of a puncture wound, follow these steps:
- If the dog belongs to someone you know, ask to see the pet’s vaccination record.
- If it’s a stray, complete an Animal Bite Report on the Miami-Dade County website. Animal Services will investigate the incident.
- Did the dog bite, then quickly let go or did it hang on? A dog that clamps on creates more serious injuries that need emergency medical care.
- Deep wounds or tears may injure veins, ligaments, or bones. Take a trip to the emergency room.
- Open wounds may require stitches. Seek emergency medical care.
- Is your tetanus shot up to date? If not, tell the medical provider.
- Dog bites on the leg or ankle can injure a vein. Seek emergency medical care.
- Were you bitten on the face? For cosmetic reasons, even small bites to the face may need a skilled medical professional to suture the wound. Go to the emergency room.
Will you need stitches?
A bite wound doesn’t necessarily require stitches. In fact, that could interfere with healing. “If I close a wound with sutures, it could create an abscess, versus allowing natural secretions to occur. Unless there is a complex tissue tear or gaping wound, I don’t seal a laceration with sutures. If I must suture, I may leave a small opening, to allow the wound to heal.”
Even without stitches, the doctor may prescribe antibiotics to guard against infection, or a tetanus shot or booster. “You need a tetanus shot every 10 years. If you had one within the last five years, you’re okay. If you’re within the second five years of that 10-year period, you need a booster.”
In the case of a dog bite, don’t panic. With proper, timely care, most bites heal well. And most dogs aren’t out to get you.
Nancy Moreland is a regular contributor to UMiami Health News. She has written for several major health care systems and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Her writing also appears in the Chicago Tribune.