When he got bitten by a dog who had jumped out of a car in a shopping plaza parking lot, at least family medicine physician David Wolpaw didn’t have to go to a hospital for treatment. After calling the police so they could locate the owner and take a report, Dr. Wolpaw tended to the bite himself at his office in Manchester, Connecticut.
Few of us are lucky or confident enough to be able to provide our own emergency medical care in the case of a serious dog bite. But thanks to his education and experience treating other dog-bite victims, Dr. Wolpaw knew what to do – and not just in regard to the wound itself. He knew it was also important to report the bite to the proper authorities.
IMMEDIATELY AFTER A DOG BITE
There are two things to do right away should you get bitten by a dog: contact the proper authorities and get medical attention for the bite. Dog bites can cause a puncture, scratch, or laceration. In addition, there may be bruising from the force of the bite.
With any luck, the dog’s owner is present and cooperative. In the best of worlds, you will be able to get the dog owner’s name, address, phone number, information about the dog (name, age, breed or breed-mix, and veterinarian’s name). If the dog happens to be wearing a license and/or rabies tag, you can photograph these for a quick way to get this information.
However, you may have to be quick. It’s all too common today for people to try to avoid responsibility or consequences in the case of a mishap. Though you are likely to be shocked and upset in the aftermath of a bite, if it looks like the dog’s owner might try to flee with the dog, be ready to take photos or video of the dog, the owner, any of the owner’s companions who were present, and the owner’s car. If it’s possible, ask your companion or any willing bystanders if they can call the police while you are taking pictures or vice versa.
There are several reasons you need information about the dog and owner. The first has to do with rabies.
In the United States, it’s very unlikely for a dog to transmit rabies to a human, but there are mandatory reporting and quarantine requirements for dog bites in most jurisdictions. These public-health laws trace back to a time when rabies vaccination was less common; if an unvaccinated dog (or a stray dog without identification) bit someone, and the dog showed signs of illness during a quarantine period, the person would be advised to receive post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) – injections of human rabies immune globulin and rabies vaccine.
If the dog’s vaccination can be verified and he displays no sign of illness during his quarantine, the bite victim won’t need PEP.
If the owner is being antagonistic, don’t hesitate to call police and/or animal control for assistance. Public safety officers will also be needed if the dog who bit you seemed to be a stray, with no owner in sight. Do not try to chase or capture the dog, but photograph the dog if you possibly can; photos can help animal-control officers identify the dog.
GET MEDICAL ATTENTION FOR DOG BITES
Though it may sound a little mercenary, before the wound is cleaned or treated, take pictures of your injuries. Continue to document the bite wound and any other bruises or abrasions you may have received. This evidence might be needed in case of any litigation – or to help prove the extent of the injury to the dog owner’s insurance company.
Assuming you’re not in need of an ambulance, the next step is deciding whether you are capable of dealing with the wound yourself or if you need to get to an emergency room.
Facial wounds require immediate emergency medical treatment for both cosmetic reasons and high risk of infection. For other wounds, both Drs. Phillips and Wolpaw advocate cleansing the wound with warm, soapy water for 10 to 15 minutes thoroughly to flush out any debris or foreign bacteria. If the wound is bleeding, Dr. Phillips advises elevation first – particularly if the bite is to a hand or arm – and applying pressure to the area for 15 minutes, then washing with warm, soapy water. If the wound continues to bleed, seek professional medical care right away.
If the wound stops bleeding, and you opt not to seek professional medical care, Dr. Phillips advises watching for redness around the wound, especially if the bite is on your hand. If an infection sets in, you may see red streaks running toward your forearm, you may develop a fever, or your hand or fingers may feel numb. All these signs necessitate medical intervention as soon as possible.
Once cleaned, the wound can be covered with a loose bandage, changed multiple times a day as needed. Fluids should be allowed to seep out of the wound. Dr. Phillips is not a proponent of topical ointments because patients tend to overdo it, and the ointment sometimes acts as a stopper, leading to an infection.
For bites other than facial wounds, both doctors agree that it is never a bad idea to be seen by a medical professional right away, or, at most, within 24 hours of the bite. This goes double for people with diabetes or compromised immune systems. Tetanus is a consideration, and while not all dog bites require antibiotics, oral antibiotics may be indicated, or prescribed prophylactically.
Also, if the wound is significant and legal action ensues, you will want to have a record that you sought care. Dr. Wolpaw notes that in case of a lawsuit over the costs of treating the bite, if the victim failed to get immediate medical attention, the defense attorney will surely seek to mitigate her client’s responsibility and suggest that the victim is partly responsible for failing to get prompt care.
Dr. Phillips says he has seen some “gruesome stuff,” but he is quick to acknowledge that the emotional component associated with dog bites is sometimes worse than the physical ones – at least the physical wounds usually heal more quickly than the emotional ones. It may take some time before the victim realizes that they experienced a traumatic event. Dr. Phillips says he has had patients develop crippling anxiety after being bitten – severe-enough anxiety that they required a referral to a mental-health provider.
My own sister was bitten by a dog while on a walk, and years later, still feels highly anxious when approached by off-leash dogs. Fortunately, she is comfortable with my dog, and she has learned to “be a tree” and avoid eye contact if an unfamiliar dog approaches her during beach walks.
Dr. Wolpaw believes that emotional fallout is another reason to seek medical care right away. He has seen cases of people dealing with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that required treatment; credible medical documentation is helpful should liability issues arise.
His final advice: Keep good records and take care of your medical issues, especially if the dog is not known to you. “You shouldn’t minimize the situation because there could be problems down the road. Better safe than sorry,” he says.