Ask the expert: How to prevent dog bites

Carolyn R. Rogers-Vizena, MD

Our 5-year-old neighbor was recently bitten by a dog. How can I keep my kids safe?

-Fearing Fido

Unfortunately, dog bites happen every day, and for the most part, they are avoidable. At Boston Children’s Hospital, we see everything from small lacerations that can be repaired in the Emergency Department to bone-crushing facial injuries that require multiple reconstructive operations. Most of the patients with bad dog bites that I see in our Department of Plastic & Oral Surgery are in the 4-6-year-old range – an age when children are usually mature enough to avoid a completely unfamiliar dog, but still young enough to unintentionally provoke a dog they feel comfortable with.

Sometimes bites are caused by a pet that the child lives with. More often, they seem to come from dogs that children are familiar with but don’t know as well, such as a friend or family member’s dog. Although I can’t necessarily say that one breed of dog is more likely to bite than another, certain breeds have incredible power and can cause a lot of damage with just one bite. The most serious bites I have cared for are from Pit Bulls, Rottweilers and Akitas.

The most serious bites I have cared for are from Pit Bulls, Rottweilers and Akitas.

A patient treated by our team was attacked by a dog that smashed the child’s jaw and cheekbone, and badly injured the tissue around the eye. We repaired the patient’s bones with plates and screws and used bone from the skull to reconstruct areas where bone was missing. The child looks much better but still has a long way to go and will undoubtedly have some permanent injury. Fortunately, severe bite injuries like this are much less common than skin injuries!

As a dog lover and owner as well as someone who treats many kids with dog bites, these are are my tips for keeping your kids safe:

1. Always supervise your children around dogs.

Never leave a dog alone with kids, particularly young children. I don’t think you can be too safe.

2. Never approach a dog that is eating or sleeping.

Many of the bites we see occur when a dog is eating and feels threatened, or when it is sleeping and feels startled.

3. Teach your children how to interact with dogs.

Ask permission from the owner, approach dogs gently with the back of your hand, let them sniff you and get to know you, and don’t pull their tails or otherwise antagonize them.

4. Know when to back off.

Teach your children to slowly back away if a dog seems at all uncomfortable, or they feel uncomfortable.

5. Know what to do if a dog bite does happen.

Regardless of the severity of the injury or breed of dog, all bite injuries that penetrate the skin deserve discussion with a health care provider. Even if the bite is not bad enough to need stitches, it should be cleansed and may warrant antibiotics. Bite wounds from all animals are at risk for infection.

Carolyn R. Rogers-Vizena, MD, is a specialist in plastic surgery at Boston Children’s.