How to Treat a Dog Bite

While it’s important to know why dogs bite so that we can do everything we can to prevent them from happening, it’s also important to know what to do if your dog bites someone, or you or someone else is bitten by a dog.

How do dogs bite?

According to WebMD, dogs use their front teeth to hold their victim, resulting in puncture marks, while their other teeth pull the skin, resulting in tears and lacerations.

Children are more likely to be bitten in the face and neck, as these are in easy reach for most medium-to-large dog breeds. Adults tend to be bitten on the legs, arms and hands, unless they are knocked off their feet, in which case the face is often also bitten.

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Dog bite levels

There are six levels of dog bites, as classified by Dr. Ian Dunbar. The levels are based on the severity of the bite wounds, with level 1 being the least serious and level 6 being the most serious.

When it comes to rehabilitating the dog, it’s important to look at the type of wound left by the teeth (puncture marks) to determine the seriousness of the behaviour. For example, a level 5 bite from a small dog like a dachshund may be less painful and cause less damage than a level 4 bite by a larger dog, but the prognosis for rehabilitation for the dachshund may not be as good.

In addition, a level 4 bite from a dachshund won’t require as much medical attention as a level 4 bite from a pit bull.

Let’s take a look at the levels:

Level 1: This is actually a pre-bite. It’s when dogs snap close to legs, faces or arms but don’t make any contact with skin. It’s a calculated move; they didn’t accidentally miss you and you didn’t move too quickly for the dog. If your dog or a dog you know starts exhibiting this behaviour regularly (whenever annoyed, irritated or afraid) you should consult a qualified behaviourist for help immediately to prevent progression to the next level. Note: Never punish the pre-bite. It’s an important warning signal intended to intimidate the threat into backing off, and if a dog is punished for it, they will skip this step and go immediately to proper bite mode.

Level 2: This is a near-bite or inhibited bite. It’s when dogs make contact with skin but it doesn’t break skin, although there may be bruising and slight abrasions. It’s important to pay attention to the triggers (situation, people or environment) that preceded the attack, so you can spot the warning signs earlier and prevent the situation from actually reaching level 2 status. Again, call a behaviourist if you haven’t already.

Level 3: The bite punctures the skin. The depth of the wound should only be about half the length of the canine tooth and there should be 1 – 4 visible holes (no tearing, as the dog hasn’t shaken her head from side-to-side). In the USA, this type of bite has to be reported to the authorities. In the UK, you are advised to report any incident in which you feel that you might be bitten by a dog – a dog bite isn’t even necessary. According to Dr. Sophia Yin, dogs that have even one level 3 bite are considered a liability – even if their behaviour is successfully modified.

Level 4: The bite punctures the skin. The depth of the wound is deeper than half the length of the canine (the dog clamped down) or there is tearing (the dog shook her head). These types of dog bites are not inhibited at all and it’s at this point the chances of successful rehabilitation start to decrease. In addition, while they may only result in a painful and ugly-looking wound in adults, level 4 dog bites can be fatal to small children.

Level 5: There are multiple bites with deep punctures and tearing. This is a repeated attack, in other words, the dog is in such a high state or arousal that she can no longer think and keeps biting and attacking until the threat is neutralised. Dogs with one or more level 5 bites under their belt are often euthanised.

Level 6: The attack results in death. Most dogs who reach level 6 bites are euthanised.

Note: Some dogs may stay hover at level 1 or 2 bites for years until rushing through levels 3 and 4 and reaching level 5, while other dogs may go through all the levels much more quickly (just 2 or 3 months). This is why it’s important to seek help as soon as you see your dog exhibiting pre-bites, even if you only have a Chihuahua and you think it’s kind of cute when she tries to defend herself.

Treating dog bites

All major dog bites should be treated by a medical professional. Some minor dog bites can be treated at home, but you should always be aware of the risk of infection or disease, the best advice is to consult a qualified medical professional.

The first thing to do is to clean the wound by running it under warm water for a few minutes. Your instinct may be to stop the bleeding, but this could actually encourage infection. Instead, you should allow blood to flow from a bleeding wound and if there is no blood flow you should squeeze the wound gently to try and stimulate bleeding. This will help to keep bacteria out.

Continue for a few minutes and then stop the bleeding with a clean towel and applying antibiotic or antiseptic ointment or spray to the wound and wrap in a clean bandage. You will need to apply the ointment or spray every day until the wound starts to heal properly.

Over-the-counter painkillers will ease the pain; ibuprofen is good because it is also an anti- inflammatory.

Spotting infection

No matter what you may have heard, dogs’ mouths are full of bacteria that can cause nasty infections, which can in turn lead to blood poisoning and even heart infections and meningitis. Signs of infection include:

The most common infections that result from a dog bite are Streptococcus, Staphylococcus, and Pasteurella. They are treated with antibiotics, so get to a doctor as soon as you see any infection signs. A tetanus booster injection may be necessary for adults, but UK children are immunised against tetanus as part of the vaccination programme and should be ok.

Severe dog bites

All dog bites to joints, tendons, face, scalp and genitals should be treated professionally. Before help arrives, you should rinse the wound thoroughly and staunch blood flow (major wounds are unlikely to stop bleeding on their own) with a clean towel or cloth and keep the wound elevated.

If the bite wounds are extensive, stitches may be required, but this increases the risk of infection which is why bites that aren’t too severe are left open.

Particularly severe attacks could require surgery to repair nerve and muscle damage and sometimes even reconstructive surgery is necessary.

If you can, you should provide medical staff with the following information:

Was the bite provoked or unprovoked – this is difficult for many people to properly assess because they may have missed subtle but persistent warning signs from the dog. It’s best to simply describe events leading up to the bite.

Whether you are the victim of a dog bite or are assisting someone else who has been bitten by a dog, it’s important that you remain calm. If you’re the one who has been bitten and you panic or become overly emotional it is more difficult to treat your wound and prevent shock. If you panic after witnessing a dog attack, you won’t be able to provide proper immediate treatment.

Remember that preventing dog bites is your first line of defence, so learn to recognise the signs that your dog (or any dog) is uncomfortable and take steps to manage the situation. Never, ever leave children and dogs alone together. All dog-child interactions should be actively supervised. How many times have you heard, “I only looked away for a second,”? A second is all it takes for a dog bite incident to occur.


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