In 2007 3,800 people were treated for dog bites in the UK. However, estimates can be inaccurate because dog bites themselves are not measured: they are included in dog attack figures which also include dog strikes such as being knocked over by an over enthusiastic dog as well as genuine, more serious cases of dog attacks. Also only half of dog bites are actually reported to police or healthcare workers. One in five people seek medical attention for dog bites, of whom only 1% requires hospital admission.
Any dog can attack and in 70% of cases people are bitten by a dog they own or a dog they know. Even older dogs without a previous history of aggression can be potentially dangerous, because they may have sight or hearing impairments or be especially sensitive so they may over react or not understand normal movements or circumstances. Children are significantly more likely to be attacked or to suffer more severe injuries: the highest incidence is among those who are 1 year old. This may be for several reasons. Firstly parents with young children are more likely to take their child to see a doctor as a precaution even if it doesn’t seem very serious, therefore the case is recorded and can be used in figures to measure dog attacks. Secondly children are more likely to provoke a dog by trying to play with it or cuddle it. Finally, since children are smaller they are more likely to sustain more serious injuries as their head, neck and face are at a similar level to the dog and are easier to reach in an attack.
Why dogs attack:
Dogs can attack for a number of reasons:
- They are frightened
- They are surprised or shocked and so react instinctively
- They are disturbed.
- They are excited and bite by mistake. Rough play should not be encouraged in case the dog doesn’t differentiate between play and real life situations, or becomes confused as to where the boundaries of play are.
- They are nervous and bite by mistake
- They are possessive of people, places and things. If you:
- Remove a favourite toy or food.
- Invade their private space such as a garden, a car or a porch.
- Approach, or harm their owner or something their owner possesses
Then they may attack, especially if you approached suddenly or they didn’t hear or see you coming.
If you crowd, corner or stand over a dog they feel threatened and act defensively which may cause them to bite.
Any dog that is loose may be lost, frightened or injured and therefore not behaving characteristically and they may be more prone to bite.
Some situations put you at more risk of being attacked and some actions may provoke a dog more than others. Dogs are more likely to attack if they feel threatened, feel that their territory is being invaded or become jealous of attention being paid to another family member. Don’t approach a dog that is chained up or in a car, they may feel vulnerable or protective of their territory and attack.
Never leave children unsupervised with dogs. Children may, either intentionally or unintentionally, provoke attacks by disturbing the dog or trying to play with it. Also dogs sometimes see children as something that squeals and runs about which is similar to the behaviour of prey, therefore the dog’s instinct may be to chase it.
You may be able to avoid being attacked by a dog if you use common sense, behave sensibly around a dog and understand some of the reasons why they may attack. For example larger dogs such as German Shepherds and Rottweilers are more likely to bite, but all dogs should be considered potentially dangerous. Also male dogs are more likely to bite than female dogs, while men are more likely to be bitten than women. Sometimes dogs bite while you are stroking them because they lose track of your hand as it goes behind their heads so it think you are about to strike. If you want to stroke a dog check with the owner first in case the dog is scared of, or reacts badly to strangers. Also let the dog sniff you first and see your hand before you approach to stroke it.
Common circumstances that may provoke an attack:
- Playing with or near the dog
- Passing the dog, either walking or cycling
- Cuddling the dog
- Feeding the dog
- Disturbing the dog while eating
- Disturbing a dog caring for puppies
- Surprising the dog
- Pulling the dog’s tail
- Interfering during a dog fight
- Running or screaming in the presence of a dog.
What to do when you’re faced with a dangerous dog:
If you find yourself with an aggressive or dangerous dog don’t provoke it further, either by shouting which may shock or scare it causing it to attack, or by running away: dogs love to chase things as they were originally natural hunters who chased prey. Also don’t move suddenly or try and surprise it or scare it away: it may behave unpredictably and attack you. The best thing to do if you are faced with an aggressive dog and you are not in immediate danger (it is not currently attacking you) is to stand perfectly still with your hands by your sides. Avoid eye contact at all times as dogs see this as a challenge and may attack. The dog will lose interest and hopefully leave without attacking you, if this happens back away slowly, but don’t turn your back to it as you won’t to be able to see what it is doing in case it attacks suddenly.
Don’t interfere if you see two dogs fighting as they may turn on you, also if you see a dog attacking someone, approach with caution and try not to interfere: you do want to help but you could easily be its next victim. Don’t break up a fight using your hands; throw a stick to distract them, or throw a blanket over them to confuse and disorientate them.
If a dog does attack try not to scream. “Feed” it your jacket, purse or anything to hand that can be used to put between you and the dog. If you do fall during the attack try and remain as still as possible, curl up into a ball with your hands over your ears and try not to roll around.
The warning signs of an aggressive or potentially dangerous dog:
- Growling, snarling or barking
- Shyness or fear such as a dog that is crouched, has its head low or its tail between its legs. A scared dog is just as dangerous as an aggressive dog.
- Raised fur or hackles
- Erect ears
- Stiff body
- High tail
- Unnaturally still or unresponsive dog: dogs bred for fighting are bred for their ability to disguise aggressive intentions.
- Dogs in pain: they might bite anyone who tries to touch them.
Rabies is a serious disease that is fatal to humans. At the moment the UK is free from rabies (although some bats are thought to carry it in the UK), but it is common in Africa, Asia, Central and Southern America and some cases have been reported in Eastern Europe.
Some species are more prone than others, in particular: untagged or stray dogs, bats, raccoons, skunks, foxes, rats and squirrels. If you see one of these animals don’t approach it or do anything to provoke an attack, but walk away slowly; making loud noises may scare the animal away.
There are some signs which suggest that an animal has rabies:
- Wild animals come close instead of running away
- The animal foams at the mouth and the tongue hangs out
- The animal can’t catch it’s breath and it’s breathing is very laboured
- The wild animal suddenly lunges or snarls; it is ready to attack without provocation.
If you sustain a bite or even a scratch from a dog while abroad then you should contact the Health Protection Agency Centre for Infection or Health Protection Scotland even if you don’t think that you have contracted anything: rabies is virtually undetectable. Staff will need to know:
- Your previous vaccination status
- The country where you were bitten
- The site and date of the bite
- Whether the attack was provoked or unprovoked
- Whether you were attacked by a domestic or feral dog
- The current status of the animal if it is known. You can have tests done on an animal to see if it has rabies, as long as the brain is still intact, even if it is dead.
The treatment to prevent rabies developing is called post-exposure prophylaxis. Prophylaxis is a Greek word meaning an advance guard, in medical terms it means that a measure is taken to maintain health and prevent the spread of a disease or condition. The treatment involves 1 dose of rabies immunoglobulin, which is a blood product containing antibodies against rabies, and 5 doses of rabies vaccine.