Many people experience anxiety about dog bites, often stemming from a childhood experience. Maybe as a child they startled a dog and it snapped at them or they saw a friend bitten. It happens fairly often – about 4.5 million Americans are bitten by a dog every year, and most of them are children. In most cases, though, these bites are more frightening than they are dangerous; only about 20% require medical attention. However, when they are serious, it’s important to act quickly.
If you or someone you know is bitten by a dog, it’s important to know how to respond, as there may not be time to wait. These four steps will ensure the best possible outcome and you can feel confident knowing you have the skills you need to help.
Identify The Location
How you respond to a dog bite depends, in large part, on the severity and location of the injury. If the victim has suffered a large bite or a bite to the face, you need to seek medical attention immediately. In most cases, you can judge whether or not someone needs emergency treatment for a dog bite by the same standards you would use to evaluate any other injury – based on mobility, injury depth, and similar factors.
When it comes to facial wounds, in particular, it’s important to know that dog bite wounds can be especially jagged. If you think the injury needs stitches, you may want to see an experienced plastic surgeon, rather than an ER resident or urgent care provider.
Flush The Wound
When it comes to dog bites, some bleeding is actually a good thing, so press gently on the wound before flushing it with soap and water. The bleeding helps to remove bacteria from the injury site, reducing the risk of infection, which is one of the greatest risks associated with dog bites. You should also apply antibacterial ointment before bandaging the wound. Dog bites can cause injuries so severe that they require IV antibiotics and hospitalization, so take your time cleaning the injury.
Document The Situation
While your first response to a dog bite should be to deal with the wound, it’s also important to document what has happened – that’s because, at the most basic level, a dog bite is not unlike a car accident. It has legal ramifications and could result in a personal injury lawsuit. More importantly, though, the dog’s owner has information you need about its health and vaccine status. Request the dog’s vaccination history and any other medical information and get the contact information for the owner. You should also document whether the dog was on the owner’s property, whether it was walking off a leash, or any other circumstances surrounding the bite.
You can sue a dog’s owner in relation to a bite if you were legally on the owner’s property (not trespassing) or if you were bitten in a public place. Specific laws vary, but most areas have fairly strict liability regulations surrounding dog ownership and bites, such that you can sue for damages as long as you weren’t provoking the animal at the time. The dog does not need to have a history of aggression or other untoward behavior for their own to be subject to a lawsuit.
You should also seek medical attention immediately if you don’t know who the dog belongs to or its medical history. In these cases, the victim will need comprehensive testing and booster shots to make sure they haven’t contracted any diseases.
Monitor The Wound
Even if a wound resulting from a dog bite doesn’t seem to require emergency medical care, it’s important to carefully monitor the wound. Change the bandage several times a day and watch for signs of redness, swelling, or infection. If the victim develops a fever or the injury becomes warm to the touch, it’s important to see a doctor because it is likely infected.
In addition to monitoring the wound for infection, keep an eye out for any nerve or muscle abnormalities and check to be sure that your own tetanus vaccine is up to date. Dogs may carry tetanus and while Americans typically receive booster shots every 10 years, you may have overlooked a booster, especially if you’ve changed doctors frequently.
One thing you most likely don’t need to worry about if you are bitten by a dog is rabies. Despite all the fuss, rabies is quite rare; every state except Hawaii mandates dogs be regularly vaccinated against it. It’s transmitted when a carrier animal bites another and is uniformly fatal, so unless the bite comes from a stray dog, it’s highly unlikely they are a carrier. Unfamiliar dogs can be held under quarantine to monitor for signs of rabies if a medical history isn’t available.
If you have any doubts about what to do after a dog bite, call 911 or proceed to the nearest emergency room. The professionals will be able to guide you through the appropriate protocols and ensure the best possible outcome for everyone involved.