By Jean McGroarty
When we think of public health problems, dog bites probably don’t pop into our minds.
But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, dogs bite more than 4.7 million people every year in the United States. About 1 in 5 of those bites requires medical attention; and in 2006, more than 31,000 people underwent reconstructive surgery as a result of being bitten by dogs.
The most vulnerable to dog bites are children and the elderly. Dog bites inflict physical and emotional damage on victims, and can be very costly to the community.
As is the case in so many health issues, prevention is the key. And public education is the key to prevention.
Any dog can bite. It’s not just a pit bull problem or a German shepherd problem or a problem specific to any breed. A dog may bite because he or she is aggressive, but also out of fear, uncertainty, or to protect things they consider their own.
Moms will protect their puppies. Family pets will protect their families, their yards, their houses or their cars. The No. 1 biter in Kokomo may be different from the top biter in Chicago. It depends on who is breeding for what characteristics, how much socialization the animals receive, and how responsible the breeder is. So, the cocker spaniel may be as much of a problem as a larger, more notorious dog, depending on how the individual dogs are trained and raised.
So what can YOU do to prevent dog bites? There are a few simple rules, both for children and adults.
• Never approach an unfamiliar dog. If the dog is away from home, he may be frightened or disoriented, and may bite out of fear.
• Teach children never to run from a dog or scream. Dogs chase things that move, and can almost always run faster than a human.
• Adults and children should remain motionless (“stand like a tree” or “lie like a log”) when approached by an unfamiliar dog.
• Stray dogs should be reported to Animal Control at the Humane Society. Remember that. In addition to being potential biters, dogs running at-large are potentially in danger, whether from cars, ill-intentioned humans or other hazards.
• Only pet a dog after allowing it to sniff you first. Then, instead of petting on the head, pet under the chin so the dog can see your hand.
• Avoid direct eye contact with a dog.
• Do not disturb a dog that is sleeping, eating or caring for puppies.
• Always supervise children with any pet.
• Don’t allow children to hug or kiss a dog. Dogs and cats don’t understand hugging or kissing. It can be perceived as a threat, and the dog will defend itself.
If you’re worried about how to keep your dog from biting, there are a few things to do to “bite proof” your dog:
• Spay or neuter the dog. Sterilized dogs are three times less likely to bite. The surgery reduces a dog’s need to roam and makes safe confinement an easier task.
• Socialize and train your dog. Dogs should be introduced to a variety of people and situations. Every member of the family should take part in training and socializing.
• Be a responsible pet owner. Know the ordinances in the city and the county. Provide regular veterinary care. Walk your dog on a leash. Spend time with your pets.
• Err on the safe side. If you don’t know how your dog will act in a crowd, leave her at home. If you know the mail carrier or meter reader will be coming, keep the pet away from those areas.
If you are bitten by a dog, it’s important to keep track of the dog and get a good description. Indiana law requires that dog bites be reported to the local health department. A 10-day quarantine is required if the dog bite breaks the skin, and the Howard County Health Department determines where this quarantine will take place, whether at the Humane Society or in the home of the owner. If the bite has broken your skin, wash the wound immediately with soap and water, and contact your physician’s office for further advice.
Dog bites affect many aspects of family and community life. The dog almost always loses his or her family and often loses his or her life. The solution is simple: Responsible pet ownership leads to greater public safety.
Jean McGroarty is executive director of the Kokomo Humane Society. Contact her at 765-452-6114 or firstname.lastname@example.org.