Holle is a retired English and creative writing teacher. She is a professional freelance writer and former dog trainer.
How to Treat a Dog Bite
Do you know how many dog bite cases there are in the United States each year? Almost five million Americans are bitten by dogs each year, and those are just the reported incidents. The actual number of dog bite cases is probably much higher, as minor injuries aren’t always reported or treated by professionals. You might feel confident that you and your family are safe from dog bites because your pet is loving and affectionate. While that might very well be true, dog behavior isn’t always predictable, and your sweet pooch could be placed in a situation where a bite occurs. In fact, more than three-quarters of reported dog bites involved the family furkid, or the pet of a friend or family member. Dog bites should be taken seriously. Proper treatment largely depends on the type of wound.
How Dangerous Is a Dog Bite?
Dog bites range in seriousness from a minor nip to fatal wounds. Because of its history as a predator, a dog’s jaws are designed for holding and killing prey. The front teeth, the canines, are designed to seize, grasp, and tear. The back teeth, or molars, are for crushing. Dog bite force is usually greatest at the rear of the jaws. How strong is a dog’s bite? Obviously, the size of the canine is a factor in dog bite force. You’re not going to get the same injury from a Chihuahua that you get from a St. Bernard. More important than the overall size of the canine, however, are the shape and width of the dog’s jaws. To get some perspective, check out the following!
Dog Bite Force
According to National Geographic, the bite force of a lion and a great white shark are each about 600 pounds. But what about domestic canines? Most people think a pit bull has the most bite force, but that’s not true. A pit bull’s bite force is about 235 pounds. A German shepherd’s is around 238 pounds, and a Rottweiler’s is 328. For comparison, a wolf’s bite pressure is around 400 pounds.
You might think those figures are impressive, but consider this: A mastiff’s bite has been measured at more than 550 pounds, and a Kangal dog’s measured even higher – a whopping 714 pounds! That’s more bite force than a lion or a great white shark can achieve. I found these figures to be very sobering.
Minor Wounds from Dog Bites
The overwhelming majority of dog bites result in minor wounds. In fact, they might not even break the skin. If they do, the person administering the dog bite first aid should wash his hands first. Typical dog bite treatment should include a thorough soap-and-water cleansing, along with a good rinsing under the tap for four or five minutes. Apply antibiotic ointment or spray and a bandage. If the wound bleeds, stop the bleeding by applying pressure. Tourniquets aren’t usually recommended as part of dog bites treatment. To help alleviate pain, the wound should be elevated, if possible.
How to Treat a Puncture Wound
How to treat dog bites that result in puncture wounds is a little different. A puncture wound can be much more serious, and sometimes the damage can’t be seen from the outside. Because of the crushing force of a dog’s jaws, the bones, ligaments, nerves, muscle tissue, and tendons can be damaged, although the damage might not be visible. This is especially true with trauma to the hands and fingers, where the bones are small. Also, deep puncture wounds can more easily harbor dangerous bacteria. For these reasons, puncture wounds should be assessed and treated by a health care professional. Dog bite first aid in such cases usually focuses on stopping excessive blood loss.
How to Treat Dog Bites – Serious Injuries
How to treat dog bites that result in serious injuries? First, make sure the person is safe from the attacking dog or dogs. Call 911 as soon as possible, unless it’s faster for you to get the victim to the emergency room yourself. If there’s possible injury to the spine or bones, don’t try to move the person – let the 911 responders handle that. Try to stop the bleeding by applying pressure, and help the victim remain as calm as possible. You might find this rather strange, but feminine pads make good bandages in an emergency.
Once the victim has reached the hospital or clinic, the injuries will be assessed and cleaned, usually with a saline solution. X-rays might also be taken. Stitches might or might not be used, depending on the nature and location of the bite. The doctor might treat dog bites to the face with sutures, largely for aesthetic reasons. Some doctors don’t like to treat dog bite injuries with stitches because infection is more likely with a tightly closed wound. In extreme cases, reconstructive surgery might be necessary.
Dog Bite Infection and Complications
Dog bites can lead to some pretty serious infections. Dog bite infection might include Enterobacter, Staphylococcus, Proteus, Streptococcus, Fusobacterium, and more. In fact, the average dog mouth is home to more than sixty different types of bacteria. The medical profession seems to be split about 50-50 on whether to use preventive antibiotics for dog bites. Some doctors employ a wait-and-see method. In other words, these physicians might prescribe antibiotics only if the wound exhibits signs of infection. Signs of dog bite infection include increased pain, swelling, redness, and the oozing of fluid. People with weakened immune systems, those on steroid medications, and diabetics are more prone to infection.
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A serious bone infection, osteomyelitis, can also result from dog bites. Osteomyelitis is caused by a bacterium, most often Staphylococcus aureus. The bone and the bone marrow might be affected. Osteomyelitis is difficult to treat and could result in the loss of the affected limb. If left untreated, osteomyelitis can be fatal.
Another major concern with dog bites is the possible transmission of rabies. The biting dog must be identified, and its immunization history needs to be investigated. Wounds, especially deep puncture wounds, are also susceptible to tetanus. The bite victim might need a tetanus shot or a tetanus booster.
Why Dogs Bite
There are scores of reasons why dogs bite humans. A dog bite might be accidental, on purpose, or a case of mistaken identity. A dog might bite out of fear, because of territorialism, or as a response to pain.
A dog that’s chained, in its own yard, or in its own home feels that it’s in its own space – it’s his territory. Some breeds are very protective of their own territory and feel a need and a desire to protect it. Any strangers entering the dog’s space could wind up with a dog bite. A dog on a leash might feel protective of its owner on the other end of the leash. If the dog perceives an approaching human as a threat to its master, it might lash out with a nip or bite.
Dogs sometimes bite as a response to pain. You might accidentally hurt your pet, and it might respond quickly with a bite or nip as a reflex action. An injured or sick dog that’s in pain might bite when you try to investigate. The canine doesn’t realize you’re just trying to help.
Accidental dog bites occur, too. One of my Great Danes gave me a pretty bad bite once in the upper abdomen when he was trying to grab a cookie from his canine pal, and I just happened to get in the way. I received another nasty dog bite once when I was trying to keep my wolf hybrid from killing another dog. The bite was meant for the other dog, but my hand got in the way. Sometimes a dog might accidentally bite when playing games with humans, too.
Some dogs don't like the antics of small children, especially when the canines aren't used to being around kids. Toddlers, especially, can be rather rough with their play, and some pets don't tolerate this well. Luckily, my Great Danes love my grandkids and don't seem to be bothered at all when the kids poke, prod, and climb on them. I've tried placing the dogs in my bedroom when the grandkids are over, for the dogs' protection. The furkids strongly objected, however. They actually seek out the kids and follow them around, begging for attention. Many large breeds are like this with kids. I think that's because it's not as easy for kids to cause pain in large dogs as it is to accidentally hurt small dogs.
Some people don’t realize this, but some dog breeds are prone to nipping without intending to hurt. This is sometimes seen with herding breeds. These dogs inherently nip the animals they herd to get the critters to go in the direction the dog wants, and this nipping is occasionally transferred to humans. This is interesting, too: Great Danes often “grab” their owner’s hand. I’ve owned numerous Danes, and several of them displayed this dog behavior. Dog experts don’t seem to agree on the reasons behind this unusual dog behavior. Some say it’s a holdover from when the dogs were used for boar hunting, and others say it’s just a sign of affection. When most Danes do the hand-grabbing, they don’t apply any pressure. If the dog is a drooler, though, you may be left with a very slimy hand.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Questions & Answers
Question: I was nipped by a pit bull about six weeks ago on my shin and received a tetanus shot, but it hasn't healed yet. What should I do?
Answer: I suggest seeing a wound specialist.
jman on August 17, 2013:
i got bit by a great dane on the hand. it punctured about 3 centimeters. Its swollen and very sensative. what does this mean?
Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on April 11, 2012:
Thanks, Robin! Yep, that's how I got a permanent scar on my hand, too. I was trying to save a dog from my wolf hybrid. Glad you stopped by!
Robin Edmondson from San Francisco on April 11, 2012:
Great information, Holee. I can't believe that there is a dog with more force in its bite than a lion or great white. That is astonishing! When our dog, a German Shepherd, was younger we took her to a dog park and she and another dog got into a fight. Being a protective and very stupid owner, I jumped in the middle trying to "save" her and was bit. I think it was our dog that accidentally bit me, which made me feel better. At least I knew she had her vaccinations, etc. It was scary though. Luckily, I was able to treat it myself and it healed. I still have a scar to show for it though.
Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on April 10, 2012:
Many thanks, RM! Wow - I'm glad you escaped the Kangal. That could have been a really serious dog bite, from what I've read!
When I make links to this hub, I'll include your dog bite hub. I'm going to check it out now!
rmcrayne from San Antonio Texas on April 10, 2012:
I encountered an angry Kangal in Turkey. I was with friends in my car in a small village. Out of nowhere this territorial Kangal came bounding up to my car window. Scared the hell out of me. Thankfully he was not able to injure me.
I’ve treated a few clients after dog bites. The bites were relatively minor, but they got infected. I saw them after the hand surgeon did surgery. These clients usually required therapy 5 days a week for several weeks.
Sebastian bit me in the days leading up to his back surgery. I immediately went to the “health food store” and inquired what could prevent infection and they recommended Mint Julep Masque.
Excellent info. I linked to this hub on my dog bite hub.
Dianna Mendez on April 09, 2012:
I appreciate your posting of why dogs bite, it is a good piece of information to know. I have seen what a dog bite can do and it is not pleasant. Thanks for posting this informative hub.