Throughout the pandemic, I have taken our dog Quinna for regular playdates with her buddy Fergus. We humans sit outside in the fenced backyard, 10 feet apart wearing masks, while our pups play. Last week another smaller dog was also visiting Fergus. Quinna had met this pup before, but not recently. She got overexcited. Was this a squirrel to chase? A rival to fight? A pal with whom to roughhouse? My human friend assured me they would be fine together, but I was hesitant. None of these dogs were typically aggressive. Why was I nervous?
Dog fights. I get calls almost daily about dogs who have sustained bite wounds as the result of altercations with other dogs. Sometimes it’s no big deal — a shallow puncture or two, requiring only basic first aid. Other times the animal is obviously badly mauled, requiring emergency intervention. And sometimes, though the wounds seem superficial at first glance, the situation is actually much worse than it appears. Visible injuries are often just the tip of the iceberg. While external wounds may not look worrisome, there is often far more damage occurring underneath the skin only evident to the trained eye of your veterinarian or only apparent over time. Depending on the intensity of aggression, an attacking dog may not only bite down but also hang on and shake. This can cause tissue crushing, bruising, muscle tears, and blood vessel or organ trauma. Not to mention the possible sequelae of bacterial infection and the remote but deadly risk of rabies.
So what should you do if Terrier Tyson and Hounddog Holyfield get in a fight resulting in bite wounds? The very first thing, after separating the animals and calming everybody down, is to exchange contact information with the owner of the other dog. Why? Because state laws about potential rabies exposure will affect what happens next. Depending on the vaccination status of each dog, there are different requirements about quarantine and rabies boosters. If you don’t want Holyfield to be in unnecessary lockdown, make sure you know how to find Tyson and prove whether or not he’s vaccinated.
Okay. You’ve exchanged contact info. Now what? In the rare times when bleeding is profuse and won’t stop, apply pressure with a clean cloth and call to find out what veterinarian can see you as soon as possible. If no serious bleeding but obvious lacerations that may require suturing, the “golden window” for treatment is preferably within four to eight hours, so ideally you want to get Holyfield right to the vet. That’s easier said than done these days. Pandemic issues have many practices booked three to four weeks out or longer. To be seen immediately, you may be referred to whichever Island veterinarian has agreed to cover emergencies that day, or even advised to go off-Island to one of the big referral emergency clinics on the mainland. How do you decide what to do? Can you treat the wound at home? Wait a day or two to see the vet? Rush off-Island?
Although it is always best to see your veterinarian promptly, the level of urgency depends on the size, location, number, severity, and type of wound. A simple puncture (in other words a small hole poked by a tooth) is often less worrisome than a laceration — a larger tear in the skin, usually with jagged edges. We generally do not suture puncture wounds. Lacerations that warrant suturing should be seen as soon as possible. If you wait too long, it can become too late to suture. Then it ends up being treated as an open wound, which takes much longer to heal than if it had been stitched up promptly. If you cannot get to the veterinarian right away, wounds can be cleaned gently with antiseptic soap and water (being sure to rinse off the soap residue well) or flushed with half-strength hydrogen peroxide mixed with water. You can apply over-the-counter topical antibiotic ointment. Once in a while, you can get away with just these steps, but it is smarter to have your veterinarian see Holyfield. They can prescribe oral antibiotics to prevent infection, medication for pain, and give a rabies booster if required by law. More important, they can prepare you for what may happen over the next few days when things may start to look much worse.
If Tyson grabbed and shook Holyfield, the skin may have been pulled away from the underlying tissue during the fight, even though you can’t see that now. Over the next few days, this injured tissue may start to die and slough. Fluid or pus may build up inside. Holyfield may need to be anesthetized to have the dead tissue debrided surgically and a “penrose drain” placed. This is a little rubber tube that goes under the skin and pokes out openings made above and below the wound allowing fluid to drain out. It usually stays in place for three to five days. Holyfield will need to wear an Elizabethan collar so he doesn’t chew out his stitches or drain.
The best way to deal with fight wounds is to prevent them. Carefully socialize your dog with other dogs you know well. Out in public, always keep your dog leashed. Holyfield may not want to fight, but Tyson might have other ideas. It only takes one dog to start an altercation. Luckily, many fights naturally deescalate quickly, but over the course of my career I have seen too many of the extremes. Horrific injuries. Even dogs killed by other dogs. So I have a bit of PTSD when it comes to fights. That doesn’t mean dogs shouldn’t have friends and playdates. We introduced Quinna to the new pup slowly, avoiding any triggers that might lead to upset. Within a few minutes, all three were playing happily together. Why had I been so anxious? An occupational hazard, I suppose. I exhaled slowly, sat down, and thanked my friend for being an excellent Emotional Support Human.