The third week in May has been declared National Dog Bite Prevention Week by the American Veterinary Medical Association, with the mission of reducing dog biting incidents through public education.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 4.7 million dog biting incidents occur annually, with about 800,000 dog bites requiring medical care, and about 31 fatal dog bite cases take place per year. According to a 2009 CDC report, about 71 percent of all dog bites occur to the arms, legs, feet and hands, but 65 percent of dog bites to children involve injuries to the head and neck. This report also revealed that 70 percent of fatal bite victims were children younger than 10 years old.
A 2007 CDC report revealed that cat bites can be serious enough to send almost 66,000 people to hospital emergency rooms each year. Cat bite and scratch wounds are more likely to become infected, leading to potential complications and prolonged treatment. The CDC report from 2009 found that there were 81 cases of rabies cases from dogs and 300 rabies cases in cats. This is because fewer cats are inoculated against rabies than dogs, according to PetProNews.com. Feral cats are major sources for rabies.
Bite prevention begins with adults and children receiving accurate information regarding animal behavior. Animals have two methods of defending themselves when they feel threatened, and this is known as the flight-or-fight response. Animals will try to escape from a threat such as a human invading its space, but if cornered or unable to escape it might try to defend itself by biting; therefore, frightened dogs and cats will bite. Humans unknowingly invade an animal's space by hugging or putting their faces close to pets, sticking fingers into cages or crates, petting the top of dogs' heads (some dogs are "hand shy"), petting dogs through a fence, approaching chained dogs, removing a pet's food or favorite toy, disturbing a sleeping pet (which triggers a startled bite response) and owners forcing a shy animal to be petted.
Humans tend to be more focused on vocal warnings like growling or hissing and fail to observe the animal's body language warnings prior to an attack. In other words, we need to "listen with our eyes," according to Dr. Jacqueline C. Nelson, author of the opening chapter of "Decoding Your Dog." She advises that from learning canine body language we might understand a dog's emotional state and be able to predict resulting behaviors. Because dogs use body postures, facial expressions and vocalizations, Nelson recommends that we examine each body part and then look at the entire dog and the situation to determine what message the dog is trying to communicate. Canine body language warning signals include:
•Eyes with a fixed stare means challenge, threat or confidence. Enlarged pupils, whites of the eyes showing, or eyes darting back and forth indicate fear.
•Ears that are pricked or forward
•The mouth with the lips curled showing teeth
•A tail held upward and still, or rapidly wagging shows arousal. Fearful dogs' tails are held down and might be tucked against the belly.
•If the dog's body carriage is tense or stiff and the dog's hackles (hairs growing on the dog's neck and spine) might be raised.
Cats also provide body language warning signals that are easily overlooked. A common scenario is when an affectionate cat bites or scratches when being petted. According to Arden Moore, author of "The Cat Behavior Answer Book," cats will bite because they've become overstimulated and are trying to say, "Stop! I've had enough petting!" Moore shares that some cats will bite because owners allowed them as kittens to "hand wrestle" with them, so as adult cats they might continue to bite and swat at hands. Cats will also bite if they don't feel well. Moore advises to watch for these pre-strike body language warnings: tail twitching or lashing, ear flicking, dilated pupils, and tensed muscles, as well as when purring stops.
To prevent biting incidents parents, children and pet owners are advised to utilize the following strategies:
•Adults must always provide supervision whenever kids and pets are together.
•Never approach stray animals.
•Never stare into a dog's eyes.
•Do not allow children to pick up, hug, chase, or disturb pets when they are eating, sleeping or caring for their young.
•Never run up to or approach animals in slow motion because animals interpret these actions as threats.
•Children need to be aware of where their feet and hands are to avoid stepping on or hitting pets.
•A pet should never be approached and touched from the rear because it can trigger a bite response, particularly from sleeping, deaf or elderly animals.
•Never engage in rough games with pets, like tug-of-war or wrestling, that encourage biting.
•Adults and children should never run and scream if a dog chases them because this could trigger a dog's predatory behavior of pursuing and biting its perceived prey. Instead humans should freeze, "stand like a tree" and remain silent. If a description of the dog can be obtained it should be reported to authorities because the dog might be a menace to the neighborhood.
•Teach children how to safely meet a leashed dog by asking the owner's permission first, walking sideways toward the dog, speaking in a quiet voice, touching only the side of the dog's face and neck briefly and say "Thank you!"
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Iris Katz serves as a member of the board of directors and as an educational facilitator for the Humane Society of Carroll County. Her column appears on the third Sunday of the month.