DISCLAIMER: This article is not intended to treat or diagnose medical conditions and is not a substitute for medical care.
70 million dogs live in U.S. households - that’s about 40% of homes! With so many families sharing their space with a dog, it’s no surprise that, sometimes, accidents happen. Even the most well-behaved dogs can react unexpectedly in times of stress, nipping or biting their owners. Unfortunately, some of those bite incidents involve children. An alarming number of kids under the age of two ended up in the ER after a dog bite - over 10,000 in 2017 alone! The American Veterinary Medical Association reports a significant cost associated with dog bites. In fact, the Insurance Information Institute estimates insurers paid $675 million in claims on dog bite injuries in 2018.
Learn Dog Bite Warning Signs
The best way to keep kids safe from dog bites is to teach them the warning signs. Dogs give off a series of telltale signs that they are increasingly agitated. Usually, this body language will be obvious to adults. Remember, we have a bird’s eye view of the whole situation; toddlers are nearly eye-to-eye with most dogs. They literally can’t see the same signals we see. Still, teaching kids to recognize the signs is the best way to protect them.
When a dog is no longer interested in interacting, they will yawn, lick their lips, or avoid eye contact. Dogs use this body language to show they’re anxious or unsettled. This isn’t a sign that a dog bite is imminent, but it’s the first indication that the dog needs its space. Toddlers and babies can see these signals; teach them to walk away from the dog when they notice them.
The next sign that the dog is readying itself to bite is pretty obvious: growling, snarling, and snapping teeth. Most kids back away instinctively when they see a dog bare its teeth. Still, it’s worth reminding the kids that the best way to make the dog happy is to leave. Some might get confused and try to comfort the dog with touch - not a good idea at that moment!
Sometimes dogs can give off confusing signals when they’re upset. One of the more advanced signs is a wagging tail. Most pet owners think a wagging tail is a sign of happiness - and it is when your dog is waggling their whole body! But when a dog stands still and slowly waves their tail - especially if that tail is pointed to the sky - it’s an ominous sign instead.
Just like cats, dogs tend to go rigid and have their hair stand up on its end when they’re upset. This bristling body language is a big red flag! Give the dog its space and retreat to safety immediately. The final warning sign before a bite is seeing the whites of a dog’s eyes. If you or your child sees a dog show the whites of its eyes, a bite is imminent. Move away immediately!
What To Do If A Dog Bites Your Toddler Or Baby
First, don’t panic. Your child needs you to stay calm and collected until the emergency passes. Just like any skin wound, you’ll want to apply pressure with a clean gauze pad or washcloth until the bleeding stops. If the bleeding doesn’t stop within ten minutes of applying pressure, call your doctor or head to urgent care. In the case that your child has a bite on their face or neck, or if the wound looks very deep, it’s best to seek medical care. Luckily, only about 20% of children's dog bites require medical attention.
After the bleeding has stopped, clean the wound thoroughly. You can use soap and water, finishing with a long rinse under running water to completely remove any unwanted germs. I’m a big fan of the “ouchless” wound cleaners for little ones! Once you’ve cleaned the wound, cover it with gauze or bandages.
Confirm with the dog’s owner that the dog is up-to-date on shots. If you aren’t sure who owns the dog or which dog bit your child, you must seek medical care. Most doctors will administer a rabies shot as a safety measure. If your child isn’t up-to-date on their tetanus vaccine, they may receive a booster. Often physicians will leave a dog bite open, unstitched, to avoid trapping infection in the wound.
Supervision Is The Golden Rule
The most important rule of dog and child safety is supervision. Never leave a child alone with a dog, even if it’s the family pet. Teach kids to use gentle hands to pet animals, avoid roughhousing, and discourage hugs and kisses. While those might be perfectly fine for your dog, a toddler can’t know which dog is unsafe to hug. Make sure children know to let sleeping dogs rest without interruption. And finally, practice consent with your baby! Teach your toddler to ask for an owner’s permission before touching their dog. I like to tell my three-year-old that we have to let animals decide if they want to be our friend - we can’t force them to like us.