When a dog bites, caution is the best preventative

If provoked, even normally calm dogs will snap at people they know.


Michelle Gerhard Jasny, V.M.D. has been practicing veterinary medicine on the Vineyard since 1982 and writing the Visiting Vet column for more than 25 years. She lives and works in West Tisbury. She can be reached at: drjasny@comcast.net.

“Be careful,” the owner cautioned as we led Rita, the shepherd cross, into the living room. “She’s getting grouchier in her old age.” My assistant Elise and I were on a house call for Rita’s annual physical, heartworm test, Lyme booster, and toenail trim. Routine stuff. We have cared for Rita since her owner rescued her in 2003. As a young dog in Georgia, Rita had a litter of pups and was kept tied outside constantly. She may have been mistreated, judging by how she cowered when approached. Since then, Rita has had a long medical history. Treatment for heartworm infection acquired down south. Cruciate ligament surgery, first her right knee, then her left. She was a good patient, though nervous, but right from the start hated having her nails clipped. Many dogs feel that way. At first we used tranquilizers for pedicures, but over time Rita got used to us. We usually worked with her at home, where she was less anxious.

Elise coaxed Rita onto the couch, hugged her head with one arm, and held a front leg for me to draw blood with the other. Rita didn’t flinch as I poked in the needle. “Good girl,” I said, examining her front half, then moving around to examine the tail end. Since I was already behind her, I trimmed the nails on one hind paw. Rita didn’t flinch. “Good girl,” I said, reaching for the other hind foot tucked underneath her. Rita pulled her foot farther away. I reached deeper between the cushions and her tummy.

In a split second, without warning, Rita slid downward, rotated, and bit Elise’s face. Elise was still valiantly hugging the dog, so for a moment I thought she wasn’t hurt. Then I saw the wound on her chin. Dog bites are often just punctures where teeth penetrate skin. This was far worse. Had Elise jerked back as Rita snapped? Or maybe Rita bit, then yanked? It  happened so fast. Regardless, the result was several long, jagged gashes.

According to the Center for Disease Control, almost four and a half million Americans are bitten by dogs every year. Half are children. One in five requires medical attention. The majority occur in someone’s home. Most victims are owners, family members, friends, relatives, visitors, or babysitters. Between four and eight percent are work-related.  Around 30 Americans are killed by dogs annually. There is much controversy about breed statistics, but nowadays pit bulls and pit bull crosses appear responsible for the greatest number of severe injuries and lethal attacks. Other breeds often implicated include rottweilers, German shepherds, bull mastiffs, Akitas, dobermans, and chow chows, but any dog can bite, from feisty little Chihuahuas to big, goofy Newfies.

Who is responsible when a dog bite occurs? Many states still abide by the old common law “One Bite” rule that says “the first bite is free.” If you didn’t know Fido was prone to biting, then no one can really blame you when he nips the kid pulling his tail. But after that first freebie, if you let Fido run loose at the beach, on the bike path, even in your yard, then you are liable if he bites again. Ignoring local leash laws may legally constitute negligence. And really, you’re a responsible human being, right? You know your dog can bite? You restrain him. Period.

Because less-than-honest owners simply won’t mention Fido’s first bite, many states, including Massachusetts, have a “Strict Liability Law” that says unless the victim was trespassing, teasing, tormenting, or abusing the dog, the owner (or whoever is responsible for the animal, including pet sitters and, sometimes, landlords) is strictly liable. If the victim is under the age of seven, the child is generally presumed innocent of provocation. You really shouldn’t leave a young child alone with Fido anyway. As veterinarians, people often ask our advice after their dog bites. Most of us agree that after two unprovoked incidents, sadly, it’s time to consider euthanasia. Why not just confine the dog? You can try, but the reality is no matter what you do, mistakes happen. The gate doesn’t latch. Fido jumps the fence. Someone lets him slip out the door. And another person gets hurt.

Rita fled behind the couch. If it were me, I would have been wailing hysterically, but Elise just lay down, stoically applying pressure to her wound, blood running down her neck, while I rushed her to the emergency room. Stitches. Lots of stitches. Antibiotics. Pain medication. I was kicking myself mentally. The owner had mentioned earlier that when trying to clip Rita’s nails by herself recently, Rita had bitten her. Was that her One Free Bite? Or was it “provoked,” since it involved toenails? Was today’s bite reason to advise euthanasia? Liability laws may recognize circumstances in which a dog (or owner) is not considered at fault, such as when the victim is trespassing, committing a felony, provoking the dog, assisting police or military — or when the victim is a veterinarian or veterinary assistant. They actually call it “The Veterinarian’s Rule,” acknowledging that being treated by the doctor may be painful or make some dogs unusually scared or defensive. We routinely muzzle many patients, but we were just so used to Rita, we didn’t think it necessary.

Rita’s owner has taken the event very seriously. Though not considering euthanasia, she is confining Rita appropriately. We now use a muzzle, especially when handling Rita’s feet. A careful eye exam revealed cataracts and we suspect declining vision may be leading to her  increasing defensiveness. Another Island veterinary practice sent a nice Get Well fax, saying “It could have been any of us.” That’s the truth. A cautionary tale for everyone who works or lives with dogs. Any dog can bite, given the right circumstances. Use common sense. Use caution. We feel lucky everyone involved handled themselves with grace, compassion, and responsibility. Elise, most of all. She is one tough cookie, already back at work, fearlessly holding big dogs while I clip their nails.