If you’re raising an animal lover, you know the drill. Whether you’re at the park or strolling downtown, it’s hard for kids to resist the chance to say hello to a new furry friend passing by.
But parents should be aware that dog bites are a serious concern for children – and they don’t only happen when dealing with unknown dogs.
“The truth is it’s actually both,” says Dr. Amy Cortis, an attending pediatric emergency medicine physician at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan Emergency Department and the medical director of the Children’s Hospital of Michigan – Troy Emergency Department. “A lot of times it can be a family pet or a dog that’s known to a child, or other times we do see the bites where it was just a random dog or a dog that the child didn’t necessarily know.”
Of the approximately 4.5 million dog bites that occur each year in the U.S., children ages 5 to 9 are at highest risk for injury related to a dog bite, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s a year-round risk, though dog bites may be more common in summer when kids and dogs are more likely to be out and about.
“I think in most situations it’s a child who’s trying to engage with the dog and doesn’t know how to do that properly,” Cortis says.
Rarely, dog bites can even be unprovoked.
“They don’t know them and the child didn’t do anything – that does occur too,” she says.
Injuries from a dog bite can range from minor to severe, so prompt attention is critical.
“I think what’s really surprising is the severity that some bites can be, and that can be really scary,” Cortis says. “We see bites that aren’t severe where they might require a couple of stitches and need to be cleaned out – and we’ve seen kids have severe injuries to an extremity or to their head. Some dogs, when they latch on or when they go to bite a child, they don’t let go, and kids can have really serious injuries.”
Depending on the injury, surgery may even be needed to treat a dog bite. If your child does get bit, assess whether emergency care is needed.
“The first thing is you want to get the child in a safe place, get the dog and the child away from each other,” she says.
When a dog bite breaks a child’s skin, children are at a higher risk of infection and should be evaluated in a hospital. Nearly 1 in 5 dog bites becomes infected, the CDC reports.
“The dog’s mouth is so dirty, and that’s where there’s a lot of bacteria. If that enters the skin then, there’s a high risk of infection,” Cortis says.
Scratches from a dog’s nails can also become infected, so be on the lookout for signs.
“A scratch is something you definitely want to watch and keep an eye on,” she says.
While you’re at the hospital for dog bite treatment, the doctor will likely ask about the dog’s immunizations, including rabies vaccine status.
“Sometimes in situations where the dog is known, they can put the dog in isolation and monitor the dog for rabies” before needing to administer the rabies vaccine to a child (a series of four doses), Cortis says. “If there is any concern or if we don’t have access (to the dog’s records), we do err on the side of caution.”
To address the risk of infection, a course of antibiotics is often started.
“Getting them on antibiotics for the bite is one of the most important things to do,” she says.
Signs of infection include warmth, redness, pus draining from the site of the injury and fever.
“If there’s ever a concern, I would seek medical attention,” she says. Parents can start at their primary care doctor’s office, an urgent care facility or by going straight to an emergency room.
Many dog bites can be prevented by making sure kids know how to be safe around a dog. For starters, be sure your child asks permission before petting a dog they don’t know.
“I think it’s really important that kids and parents both ask the dog owner if it’s OK to pet their dog,” Cortis says. “If you do get permission, (kids should) have their hand closed and let the dog sniff them before they try to touch.”
While kids often feel inclined to pet a dog’s face, “that can feel threatening to the dog,” Cortis points out. The chest or shoulders are better options.
“If you’ve seen a dog and it doesn’t look friendly, that’s probably a dog that you’re going to want to avoid,” she adds.
Teach your kids about respecting a dog’s space and how to approach them. Also, look for classes in the community that can help children learn how to behave around pets.
“Dogs can be great companions, but kids need to learn as they’re growing up how to interact appropriately with dogs and how to be around them,” Cortis says. And even with proper education, it’s best to keep a close watch at all times. “If children and dogs are interacting, there should definitely be supervision.”