Dog Bites and Kids: Expert Tips for Prevention and Treatment

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The first step to making sure your child only has happy experiences with dogs is to follow these prevention tips.

Children and dogs are naturally drawn to each other but without the proper precautions, these two can also be a dangerous combination: More than 4.5 million Americans are injured by dog bites each year, and of the 800,000 who need medical treatment, more than half are children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

“Dog bite injuries can range from small scrapes and scratches to life-threatening injuries that require surgical repair,” explains Cory D. Showalter, MD, pediatric medical director of emergency medicine at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. He adds that many of these injuries occur when a dog is provoked, if the child gets in the way of the dog’s babies or food, or if a child approaches a dog she doesn’t know. The first step to making sure your child only has happy experiences with dogs is to follow these prevention tips:

  • Never leave a small child alone with a dog, even if it’s a family pet. Any dog is capable of biting.
  • Teach your child to always ask permission from the owner before petting a dog, and then to hold out her hand cautiously first to let the dog smell it.
  • Remind your child to always respect the animal—no tail-pulling or playing aggressively, and always leave a dog alone when she is eating or taking care of her puppies.
  • If a dog seems threatening, do not make eye contact, and walk away calmly and slowly.
  • Teach your child if a dog knocks her over, roll into a ball, covering eyes and face with arms and fists.

If your child does get bitten, here’s what you need to do:

  • Ask the owner if the dog has had its rabies shots. “Fortunately, there has been good work with vaccinating dogs in the U.S. so we don’t see a lot of people getting rabies from dog bites,” Dr. Showalter says. However, if you can’t locate the owner or your child is bitten by a stray, he may still need to get the shot.
  • Wash the wound thoroughly with soapy water. “We are far more concerned about infection than about rabies,” says Dr. Showalter. “The dog’s mouth can be dirty, and then the puncture wound pushes the bacteria deeper into the wound,” he adds.
  • Assess the situation: “Most scrapes and scratches and small wounds can be handled by the pediatrician,” says Dr. Showalter. “But if the wound won’t stop bleeding, there is the possibility of a broken bone from the dog’s jaw crushing the child’s hand, arm, or fingers, or the child is throwing up or in significant pain, go to the emergency room immediately.”

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