Dogs can be a wonderful addition to a family, but it’s important to keep safety in mind when they are around children. Millions of kids are bitten by dogs each year, with CHOC treating hundreds. Often, if a pet or neighborhood dog is aggressive or frightened, they might try to bite your child — and the bite may require care in the hospital or even surgery.
Recently, a CHOC-led team of researchers published one of the most comprehensive studies of its kind on pediatric dog bites. Here, CHOC experts share their study’s findings and how you can protect your children from getting bit.
CHOC’s study on pediatric dog bites
The study, a collaboration between CHOC’s trauma and plastic surgery departments, as well as researchers from the CHOC Research Institute and other institutions, looked at nearly 1,000 CHOC patients who were identified as victims of a dog bite from 2013 to 2018.
The study concluded that dog bites continue to be common in the pediatric population, with children ages 1 to 5 most at risk and pit bulls likely to inflict the most severe injuries, while German shepherds are responsible for the highest number of injuries.
While many studies have identified trends in pediatric dog-bite injuries and treatments, this study is one of the first to identify the severity of the injury based on the type of surgical treatment required to treat it, said Dr. Raj Vyas, chief of plastic surgery at CHOC and co-author of the study.
How common are dog bites in kids?
Nearly 200 kids came to CHOC each year between 2013-18 to be treated for dog bites.
61.7% of the bites studied were inflicted on the head and neck, followed by 20.6% on the hands or arms, and 13% on the feet or legs. The study also found that 33.4% of children are bitten most frequently by their own pet at home.
Among the cases where the breed of dog responsible was known, the study found that the dog breed most associated with severe bites was the pit bull, followed by German shepherd and other unknown breeds. Pit bull bites were found to be significantly larger, deeper, and/or more complex than the average dog bites included in the study.
However, instead of making judgments about pit bulls, German shepherds or other breeds, the study urged the importance to consider a dog’s age, gender, level of training and whether the dog was separated from children.
Why are young children susceptible to dog bites?
“Dogs may perceive the behavior of young children as threatening,” the researchers noted in their report. “Infants, toddlers, and preschool children are less cautious, tend to explore their environments with their hands and mouths, and exhibit unpredictable behaviors, such as suddenly kissing, biting, grabbing, and climbing upon a dog.”
Because of its proximity to the floor, the head and neck region of a child is particularly susceptible to dog-bite injury, the study concluded.
“What I’ve seen is any dog can impact any kid,” Dr. Vyas said. “The common story every parent says when their kid comes in with a dog bite is, ‘Oh, you know, the dog was minding its own business and the kid was just tormenting the dog; the kid kept hitting it in the face and eventually the poor dog had to react and fight back.’ It’s rarely the dog’s fault.”
How should kids act around dogs to avoid getting bit?
Any breed of dog might bite. Even the nicest, best-trained family dog may snap if it’s startled, scared, threatened, angry or hungry.
No matter how well you think you know the dog, always supervise your kids around animals. To reduce the risk of bites, teach kids these safety guidelines:
- Always ask the owner if it’s OK to pet the dog.
- Let the dog see and sniff you before petting it.
- Do not run toward or away from a dog.
- If an unfamiliar dog approaches you, stay calm, don’t look it directly in the eye, and stand still or back up slowly.
- If a dog tries to bite you, put anything you can between you and the dog. If knocked over by a dog, roll into a ball, cover your face and lie still.
Make sure that your kids understand some “nevers” about being around dogs:
- Never squeeze dogs too tight, drop them, fall on them or jump on them.
- Never tease dogs or pull their tails or ears.
- Never bother dogs while they’re eating, sleeping, or taking care of their puppies.
- Never take a toy or bone away from a dog or play tug of war with a dog.
- Never feed a dog a treat with your fingers. Put the treat in your palm with your fingers and thumb held close together.
- Never crowd a dog or back it into a corner.
What should parents consider when getting a family dog?
Before getting a dog, talk to a professional (such as a veterinarian, respected breeder or pet shelter) about what type of dog or breed is best for your household. If you have found a dog you are considering bringing home, ask questions about the dog’s temperament and health. A dog with a history of aggression will not make a good pet for a household with kids.
If your family has a dog, make sure it gets all the required immunizations and regular vet checkups. Also, have it spayed or neutered. Consider taking your dog to obedience school to make it more social and obedient, and thus less likely to bite someone.
When you take your dog out in public, always keep it on a leash so you can be in control if its behavior gets out of hand. If you have kids, closely supervise them when they’re around the dog and never leave an infant or toddler alone with your pet.
What to do if a dog bites your child
If a dog bites your child, contact your doctor, especially if the dog is not yours. Some dog bites need to be treated in an emergency department as the study indicated. Some dog bites can seem minor on the surface but can cause deeper injuries to muscle, bone and nerves.
While rare, rabies and other kinds of infections from dog bites like bacterial infections can happen and should be treated right away. Your doctor will let you know if your child needs antibiotics to prevent a dog bite from becoming infected. Not all cuts (lacerations) due to dog bites are closed with stitches. Sometimes, closing a wound can increase the risk of infection.
To help the doctor know the infection risk and what treatment your child might need, try to have this information ready:
- The name and location of the dog’s owners.
- If the dog is up to date on its vaccinations.
- Whether the attack was provoked or unprovoked. A provoked attack, for example, includes approaching a dog while it’s eating or taking care of its puppies. Knowing the attack was unprovoked lets the doctor know that the dog could be sick, which might affect treatment decisions.
- Your child’s immunization status and medical history.
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