Whether accidental or not, dog bites do happen. According to the National Canine Research Council, there are an estimated 4.5 million dog bites a year. The good news, though, is that most are minor and aren’t serious enough to require medical attention. Most importantly, our experts say, most can be prevented. “There are always signals that you see before a bite actually happens,” says Kris Denny, owner of Petlandia Pet Care in Portland, Oregon. Here’s what you need to know.
Learn the warning signs a dog might bite
“Dogs don’t just lash out suddenly; they’ll give you warning signs first,” says Albany, New York–based veterinarian Laurie Coger. “If you learn to heed warning signs and just back up two steps, that dog bite could be avoided. From the way they look to the way they hold their body and face, there is a lot a dog is telling you before reaching the biting stage,” she says. In fact, the way a dog holds its tail holds many clues as to how it’s feeling.
Five signs a dog may bite
Warning signs of dog bites include:
- looking or moving away
- putting ears down
- licking lips
- growling or baring teeth
What to do if a dog bites you
- Ask about the dog’s medical records. If the dog bite has broken the skin, you want to ask the owner about a rabies vaccination, to ensure the dog is up-to-date. Your doctor may also want to give you a tetanus booster if you’re due. Be assured, though, that rabies is extremely rare, says Dr. Coger. “Fewer people are injured by rabid dogs than are killed by sharks,” she says. “If a dog was truly rabid, no one would be out walking it.” These are the dog vaccinations all puppies really need.
- Clean things up. “Simply clean a dog bite like you would any wound,” says Denny. Soap, water, antiseptic, and covering it with a bandage will typically do the trick if the dog bite hasn’t broken the skin.
- Check for broken skin around the dog bite. With dog bites, the problem goes beyond the possibility of infection. “What you’re more worried about is crushed tissue,” says Dr. Coger. That’s because, unlike with a cat scratch or bite—which results in a more surface injury—a dog bite can go deeper. “That’s mainly why you want to seek medical attention—to make sure you haven’t damaged muscles and tissues,” she says.
- Don’t blame the breed. The biggest offenders are often those who are not the likeliest suspects: “It’s definitely a myth that any particular breed is more prone to biting than another,” says Denny. “It’s like the nature versus nurture question, so we will never truly know,” she adds. And while the bigger breeds may make headline news more often, the smaller breeds can actually be more prone to biting. “Some of the worst offenders I see in my practice are Chihuahuas and Mini Pinschers,” says Dr. Coger. “They’re snarky little dogs but if you think about it, they’re carried everywhere, they’re doted upon, and they’re rarely trained—it’s no wonder they act out.” More relaxed rules surrounding service dogs contribute to the issue, she adds. Speaking of breeds, check out the best dog breeds for kids.
How to prevent a dog bite
Small steps go a long way: Let the owner lead the way and wait for the dog to approach you. You don’t want to take something out of a dog’s mouth, or take something out of the bowl while they’re eating, especially with a dog you don’t know. And, says Denny, never hug a dog. “Even the most family-friendly, socialized dog doesn’t like to be hugged, they just tolerate it,” she says. And it’s not a good idea to hold out your hand to let a dog sniff it—in fact, that’s one of the 13 common “facts” about dogs that are completely false.