There are 4.7 million dog bites recorded every year in the U.S alone, and children have a 50% chance of being on the receiving end of a dog bite during their childhood.
Dogs are warmly referred to as a ‘man’s best friend,’ and having a canine companion is proven to increase both our mental and physical health. However, it is crucial to remember that they are also an animal that can bite.
These may sound like quite alarming numbers for those of us with two mushy labradors lounging on the sofas beside us, yet these numbers may have something to do with the fact that the population of dogs has doubled across the world in the last decade. And although up to 85% of dogs in the U.S are strays or feral, the majority of dog attacks actually involve family pets.
Why do Dogs Bite?
In most cases, dogs bite when they feel threatened. It doesn’t matter how big the dog is, what breed they are, how old they are; any dog can bite.
It is their instinctive response when they want to defend themselves, a member of their pack, or something of value to them (like food and objects). They may also bite when stressed, fearful, ill, or in pain.
Statistics by Breed on Most Dog Bites in 2021
It is helpful to analyze the number of dog bites by breed. As seen in the table below, two of our smallest breeds–Dachshunds and Chihuahuas have the highest incidence of bites or bite attempts. On the other end of the spectrum, Labradors, Golden Retrievers, and Huskies have very low reports of bites. However, because they are bigger and their bite force stronger, they can cause more damage.
For example, in 2019, 33 out of the 48 dog bites that caused fatalities were from the Pit Bull, causing this breed to be recorded on the U.S Dangerous Dog Breeds List.
Other breeds where dog bites resulted in fatalities include Rottweiler, German Shepherd, American Bull-dog, and mixed breeds, even though they don’t top the list for the highest incidences of dog bites.
|Bites/Attempts to bite (%)|
|Australian Cattle Dog||9.6||1.5||17.9|
|Jack Russell Terrier||7.7||3.8||21.8|
|Cocker Spaniel (American)||4.7||5.6||7.5|
|Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier||4.2||1.9||16.2|
|English Springer Spaniel||3.5||3.5||17.5|
|Portuguese Water Dog||2.7||0.0||6.7|
|Bernese Mountain Dog||1.5||3.0||4.5|
(From the study: Breed Differences in canine aggression by Deborah L. Duffya, Yuuing Hsub, James A Serpella. 2008)
**As you can see in the table above with the highest percentages highlighted in red, there are various differences when it comes to dog-to-stranger, dog-to-owner, and dog-to-dog attacks.
Breeds that may not show as much human reactivity may behave higher reactivity to other dogs, such as the Akita, English Springer Spaniel, Pitbull, and Jack Russell Terrier, and those few breeds that may be more reactive to strangers, such as the Chihuahua, the Dachshund, and the Australian Cattle Dog are not, in fact, the same with their owners.**
The 5 Types of Dog Bites
Dog bites are graded in terms of severity.
Level 1: No skin contact, a snap/ air bite/ warning bite.
Level 2: Skin contact, but not puncturing through the skin.
Level 3: One to four puncture holes in the skin that are no deeper than the tooth’s length.
Level 4: One to four puncture holes in the skin that contains at least one puncture that is deeper than the dog’s tooth, with possible tears.
Level 5: Multiple bites with deep puncture wounds.
Complications That Arise From Dog Bites
Dog’s carry bacteria in their mouth that can be harmful when penetrating our skin. Dog bite infection symptoms include:
- Redness, pain, swelling, or discharge around the wound
- Stiffness and difficulty moving the affected part of the body
- Night sweats
Untreated dog bites can lead to sepsis, which is when the body initiates a severe reaction to infection. Through severe tissue injury, sepsis can lead to organ failure and death.
Symptoms can be very non-specific but can include:
- Fast heart rate
- Skin rash
- Muscle aches and joint pain
- Extreme pain
Sepsis is an emergency, so it is vital to go to the nearest hospital if you are concerned about yourself or someone you care for who is showing any of the above symptoms.
Dog bites can cause a severe bacterial infection caused by the bacteria clostridium tetani, commonly called ‘tetanus’ or ‘lockjaw.’ The bacteria enter the body and produce a toxin that causes muscle contractions.
The symptoms will typically start three to 21 days after contracting tetanus and include:
- Muscle spasms and stiffness
- Cramping in the jaw
- Trouble swallowing
- Painful fits
- Breathing issues
As a result of the tetanus vaccination, infection with tetanus is rare. However, after being affected by a dog bite, you should always ensure that your tetanus shot is up to date and seek help if you experience any of the above symptoms.
Rabies is a virus that can be caused by a dog bite, which affects the central nervous system, which humans can contract from dog bites. Fortunately, there has been a steep decline in rabies cases in the U.S due to the availability of the rabies vaccine, where there are approximately 2-3 fatalities from rabies every year. Worldwide, the figure sits at up to 59 000 cases per year.
The virus has to travel from the affected wound into the body and to the brain. The incubation period (the time it takes from exposure to the demonstration of symptoms) may last for weeks to months. Once the clinical signs of rabies appear, it is almost always fatal. Initial symptoms include:
- Flu-like symptoms, including fever and headache
- Itching or numbness around the bite
These symptoms later progress to:
- Fear of water
- Problems swallowing
After exposure, Rabies is treated by a series of ‘prophylactic’ injections to prevent infection from setting in.
Available Treatment Options Against Dog Bites
At least one in five dog bites will require medical intervention, and it is always important to seek medical care to give the wound the best outcome. There are three critical components to take into consideration in dog bite treatment, and that includes:
- Skin damage
- Damage to underlying tissue, and
Dog bite care immediately after being bitten involves washing the bite thoroughly with water and an antibacterial and covering the wound with a sterile bandage. If there is any swelling, pain, discharge, continuous bleeding, or deep puncture wounds, seek medical care.
The wound will likely be explored, ‘lavaged’ (washed), with a decision made as to whether stitches will be beneficial to the wound. If there is considerable damage to the area, surgery may be required to treat the associated injuries.
In some cases where the infection is apparent, especially if presenting to medical care more than 12 hours after the injury, antibiotics will be administered. In more severe cases, this may involve the use of intravenous antibiotics.
The Prevention of Dog Bites
Prevention is always better than a cure, and a set of simple steps and rules to follow may help prevent dog bites in the first place.
Recognize body language
Reading the body language and warning signs of a dog is of utmost importance. Just like us, they rely on postures and vocalization for communication. Growling, snarling, ear position, tension in the body, showing the whites of the eyes are all indicators that the dog may bite.
Seek permission before petting a dog
You never quite know how a dog will react to being petted by a stranger, so it is always important to ensure that a dog is okay with strangers or contact before greeting them. As we saw in the table earlier in the article, dogs are more likely to show reactivity to a stranger than their owner, so always take care when introducing yourself to them.
Educate and supervise children around pets
No matter how docile, friendly and loving your dog is, ensure that your children are respectful of them. It may just take one ear tug or tail pull for your dog to react in defensiveness.
Introducing your pet to various well-controlled and positive situations while young is essential for their adaptability when they are older. Ensuring that they are well socialized around other animals, children, and a variety of people will reduce the risk of stress and fear when they are exposed to new environments.
It is essential to recognize when a situation is at higher risk of escalating into a dog bite and when you should take care with interaction;
- If the dog is eating or sleeping
- When they are recovering from illness or injury
- When they are playing with a toy
- If they are not with their owner
- If they are on the other side of a fence
- If she is nursing, resting, and protective of her puppies
- When they are hiding or displaying fearful behavior
- When they are fighting with another dog
Our Dog Bite 7 Step Action Plan
- Wash the wound. Use soap and lukewarm water, and wash for at least 5-10 minutes.
- Slow bleeding with a clean towel or cloth.
- Apply over-the-counter antibiotic cream.
- Bandage wound with a sterile bandage.
- See your doctor ideally within eight hours of the bite to lower the risk of infection.
- Change the bandage frequently once your wound has been examined.
- Monitor for infection, including pain, stiffness, redness, swelling, and discharge.
How to Get a Dog to Stop From Biting
Does your dog bite? If you are aware that your dog has the potential to bite, there are steps you can implement to prevent injuries to yourself and others.
Avoiding situations known to be a risk, warning others if your dog has fearful or aggressive tendencies, keeping your dog on a short leash, using a muzzle when necessary, educating your family and immediate household on current actions you have put in place, and receiving professional dog training advice, are some of the actions you can immediately undertake in order to stop biting.
Training methods should avoid the use of harsh punishment and should instead focus on the use of positive reinforcement and relying on your dog’s natural instinct to please. Any use of fear or anxiety will only increase stress and lower your dog’s bite inhibition.
And lastly, always be aware of your dog’s body language, past experiences, and risk factors because, at the end of the day, you are their advocate and their greatest friend.
Meg qualified as a veterinarian in Queensland, Australia in 2015. She spent her first couple of years working in rural Australia, before moving across the water and locuming in the United Kingdom. She enjoys the variety of general practice, and is passionate about client education. When not ‘vetting’ she spends her time writing on a variety of subjects, obsessively reading, painting, and seeking the quietest corners of the world for inspiration.