In journalism, “Man Bites Dog” is news. Pooches biting fewer people, however, is not. But maybe it should be, considering that dog bites have declined a remarkable 9% between 2017 and 2018, according to the latest figures from the American Veterinary Medical Association.
The AVMA reported that dog bites fell from 18,522 to 17,297 in that 2-year period. Moreover, 81% of those bites caused either no injury or the injuries were so minor they did not require medical care. Among children, dog bites among older youngsters dropped, but incidents requiring emergency department treatment for children younger than 1 year increased. Between 2001 and 2018, there were 1794 visits to EDs by that age group.
The unanswered question, of course is this: With people adopting dogs at an arguably record clip during the pandemic, what will happen to those records?
Digging for the Details
There is no official national repository of dog bite data in the United States. The most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report was compiled in 2001 and released in July 2003. Analyzing information from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System-All Injury Program, the CDC estimated that 368,245 people were treated in hospitals for dog bites.
The AVMA report uses insurance claims statistics from the Insurance Information Institute, American Humane Society, and State Farm Insurance, the largest writer of homeowner insurance in the United States. All are partners with the AVMA in the National Dog Bite Coalition. “The most recent data definitely shows that (dog bites) have been going down,” Douglas Kratt, DVM, president of the AVMA, told Medical Daily. “I attribute that to better education of the public and training for the pets.”
Even the Most Gentle Dog May Lash Out
In 2019, there were an estimated 76 million to 90 million dogs living in American households, according to Woofdog.org. While some types – pit bulls, mixed breeds, German shepherds and rottweilers, along with un-neutered pets – are more likely to snap and bite, the overwhelming majority of our 4-legged friends are good dogs. Dr. Kratt said that given the right circumstances, even the gentlest, most well-behaved dog may snap or bite. “I would like to tell you there is one answer but these are really complex situations and need to be looked at individually,” he said.
A dog may be more inclined to react aggressively if it is guarding food, a toy, or its pups, he explained. They may be belligerent if they are startled, sick or injured.
“Any bite is unfortunate and too many,” Dr. Kratt said. “So, it requires working with the pet, making sure that it is trained and socialized using positive reinforcement.” That’s the message Dr. Kratt delivers to all pet owners during their first visit, whether they are new or fifth-time dog owners. Bringing a dog into your home, he tells them, means making a commitment and an investment in a family member.
Training Pays Off
A dog may be with you for as many as 12 to 15 years, Dr. Kratt pointed out. “You want to invest upfront by having the animal trained. It’s a huge investment but then it brings years of joy.” Behavioral issues, among the most common reasons pets are surrendered, can be averted with a good training and socialization program, he said. A good training class can also help Fido’s owner learn a new trick or two.
“A dog can’t talk to us in words that we can understand so we need to learn their language,” Dr. Kratt explained. “There are cues they are giving us. Take some time paying attention to their body language.”
That is especially true with an unfamiliar dog. The first rule when meeting a new dog is to ask the owner for permission to interact with the pet. Owners know if the pet likes meeting new people or is fearful of strangers. Look for body language cues like the dog seeking your attention. Conversely, an animal that seems stressed or is hiding behind its owner may not be ready to meet you.
Teach Your Children Well
Just as dogs need socialization, young children should be taught how to interact appropriately with a dog. Children should be taught not to startle or tease a dog, play rough or tug its tail. “We wouldn’t act like that with a pet and so I wouldn’t want our children to,” he said.
An important piece of advice Dr. Kratt offers his clients is never leave infants or young children alone with a pet. It is a hard and fast rule he and his wife, also a veterinarian, lived by with their children, even though the couple considered their dogs gentle and well behaved.
“I’m just not a fan of toddlers and young children being left unattended with pets, no matter how much I trust the pet,” he says. “I just think that accidents happen and I feel it is my responsibility, not as a veterinarian but as a person, as an adult, as an animal owner, to try not to set anyone up for failure.”
Will Bites Increase During the Pandemic?
The COVID 19 pandemic has everyone anxious and on edge, even pets. With more home deliveries by strangers, it increases the potential for more “unfortunate” encounters.
“I wouldn’t say I expect it, but it certainly wouldn’t be surprising,” Dr. Kratt says. “Many dogs get protective of their spaces, so having more strangers coming to the door has the potential to lead to more bites if dogs aren’t properly trained or prevented from reaching delivery people or postal workers.”
With more babies being bitten on the one hand, and more dogs being adopted on the other, there’s arguably no better time to heed Dr. Kratt’s hard and fast rule.