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Dog Bites: 7 Things Parents Should Know

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Approximately 4.5 million dog bites occur each year in the United States but only about 20% of dog bite victims seek medical care. While life-threatening complications are rare, all dog bites in children should be evaluated by a physician.

If you’ve wondered to yourself, “Should I really go to Ochsner’s Pediatric Emergency Department (ED) for a dog bite?” keep reading! This article will share with you seven things you should know when your child has a dog bite.

All dog bites should be promptly evaluated by a doctor

All dog bite victims should be seen by a doctor as soon as possible. There are many complications of dog bites, including severe, even life-threatening infections. Being evaluated early allows the doctor to best manage the dog bite. This may include cleaning out the wound, prescribing antibiotics, administering a tetanus shot, and at times, initiating rabies treatment. Sometimes the doctor may also perform x-rays to ensure no bones were broken and no part of the dog’s teeth chipped off in the victim’s skin.

Some dog bites are classified as “high risk” for developing an infection, so if any of the following are true, you should not delay going to the emergency department.

  • Bites involving the hand or foot
  • If the child has diabetes, sickle cell disease or is otherwise immunocompromised
  • Bite victim is an infant

Different factors are considered when determining treatment plans

Many important animal factors help determine the best treatment for dog bites. These include factors such as the following:

  • Provoked vs unprovoked bite
  • Domestic vs wild
  • Ability for the dog to be observed
  • Small vs large breed
  • Vaccinated vs unvaccinated

Combining this information and the wound itself will help determine the best management of a dog bite. It is the complexity of these decisions that warrant an immediate evaluation by a doctor.

Immediate wound care greatly decreases a child’s risk of infection

Although it depends on the location of the bite, 5%-10% of dog bites become infected. The most common areas of infected dog bites are bites to the hands and feet. Two percent of dog bites require hospital admission for additional treatments. However, with prompt, appropriate wound care, the risk of infection decreases by 20-fold.

You may not need stitches

Due to the risk of trapping bacteria within the wound, most dog bites can be treated without stitches. However, in children, especially with bites involving the face, improved cosmetics may outweigh this risk and lead to closure with stitches instead of allowing the body to close the wound itself. In some cases, the doctor may choose to perform “delayed primary closure,” which means that the doctor stitches the wound 3-5 days after the initial injury. Due to the complexity of these decisions, it is important to consult a physician as early as possible.

Rabies is rare but deadly

Even though human rabies is very rare, it is extremely dangerous. Of the dogs that cause bites requiring emergency department visits, only 45% are vaccinated against rabies. In Louisiana, there have been no rabies-positive dogs or cats since 2000. Even so, it’s incredibly important that the risk for rabies be considered, as you may need to start “prophylactic” treatment. Prophylactic treatment means that we initiate treatment before you have the chance to develop any symptoms. We do this because though we only see up to eight cases of human rabies yearly in the U.S., it has a nearly 100% fatality rate. Rabies can be spread through scratches, abrasions and animal saliva. If the dog cannot be observed closely, rabies treatment is important.

If you don’t know the vaccination status of the dog, it needs to be quarantined (observed)

If the dog has not received its shots or you are unsure of the dog’s vaccination status. The dog should be observed for 10 days following the bite to ensure it does not show signs of rabies. An animal may have rabies if they show any of the following symptoms:

  • Abnormal behavior
  • Difficulty walking
  • Difficulty swallowing/excessive drooling
  • Paralysis (inability to move)
  • Seizures
  • Lack of appetite

If the dog escapes or cannot be observed for 10 days, prophylactic treatment for rabies should be seriously considered in conjunction with local health departments.

You should report every dog bite

You should always report a dog bite to local authorities. Proper documentation allows the appropriate authorities to identify repeat offenders and ensure public safety. Your reporting will help future victims and could also aid in avoiding future victims. Reporting dog bites also serves as legal documentation, which may be necessary if you’re seeking compensation for medical costs, which can be expensive (for example, rabies shots cost around $3,000). Obtain the dog owner’s contact information. After seeking medical care, contact your local law enforcement and/or SPCA to report the incident.

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