How to treat a dog bite

How to treat a dog bite

The Kid’s Doctor

I am a dog lover. We have always had a dog in our house, even before we had our children. But some dogs will bite and, unfortunately, there are more than 800,000 people every year who receive medical care for a dog bite. More than half are children.

Children are also more likely to be severely injured from a dog bite, and I was reminded of this recently when I saw a very serious dog bite to a child’s face. The child was brought to my office by his nanny after being bitten on his cheek by the family’s dog. It was one of the worst bites I had ever seen! He was severely injured and should have gone straight to the ER. The good news is that he will be OK, but he had to undergo surgery to repair the bite and will probably require another small surgery.

In this case, as in most, the dog bite occurred when the child was interacting with a familiar dog. The little boy is a toddler with a twin sister, and they were playing when he was bitten. The dog had been around the children since they were born, and it is unclear what precipitated the bite. Sometimes a dog becomes aggressive if it is bothered while eating or sleeping. And you know toddlers — they can “bother” anyone.

One of my sons is also a dog bite statistic. He was raised with dogs (my sweet lab Maggie is at my feet as I am writing), so I was totally caught off guard one night when the phone rang. My son had been spending the night at a friend’s house (he was about 10 years old), and the voice on the other end was the father of the friend (he, too, a doctor), informing me that my child had been bitten by their dog. It seemed the boys were lying on the floor on blankets watching a movie and eating popcorn. For some unknown reason the dog bit my son on his face. The bite was not precipitated by anything; they had not been playing or roughhousing with the dog, and the dog was not known to be aggressive. The next words out of the father’s mouth: “Do you know a good plastic surgeon?” Not words you want to hear from another physician.

Thankfully, I did know a good plastic surgeon. I woke him up after his long day in the OR, and he got out of bed and met us to suture my son’s face with over 20 stitches. Luckily it only involved his nose, cheek and chin, just barely missing his left eye. I am sure I cried more than my son did. He still has a scar across his nose, which only bothers his mother. Incredibly, he never “blamed” their dog, he went back to play at their house, and he still loves his own dogs more than anything. My brother, who is a vet, still thinks that any dog that bites without provocation should not stay in the home with children; but that is one vet’s opinion.

It is especially important to teach your children never to approach a dog or to pet it without first asking the owner if it is OK. Children should learn to move slowly and let the dog “sniff” them first and to stay away from their face and tail. Teach your child how to gently pet an animal and to always be gentle. If they are around a dog who is behaving in a threatening manner by growling or barking, they should slowly back away from the dog and try to avoid eye contact with the dog. If they are ever knocked over by a dog they should curl up in and ball and protect their face with their arms.

If your child is bitten and the bite is superficial, it will probably just require care with soap and water. For bites that break the skin you should check in with your pediatrician. Make sure you know the rabies vaccination status of the dog that bit. You also need to make sure that your child is up to date on their tetanus vaccination. In some cases your child may also need an antibiotic.

(Dr. Sue Hubbard is an award-winning pediatrician, medical editor and media host. “The Kid’s Doctor” TV feature can be seen on more than 90 stations across the U.S. Submit questions at The Kid’s Doctor e-book, “Tattoos to Texting: Parenting Today’s Teen,” is now available from Amazon and other e-book vendors.)