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When Push Comes to Bite

March 16, 1997|SHARI ROAN | TIMES HEALTH WRITER

Talk about a traumatic relationship. One minute, our 6-month-old beagle and my 5-year-old daughter are happily cavorting. The next minute, the 5-year-old is sobbing and the puppy is crouched behind the sofa trying to disappear into the carpet.

Despite attempts by my husband and me to teach our children how to play safely with Coco, nips and scratches have been far too frequent.

That's why it's a relief to see both veterinary and human health experts making concerted efforts to help pet owners avoid injuries, primarily dog bites, recently described in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. as "a largely unrecognized yet preventable public health problem."

Add "common" to that description.

About 2% of the population is bitten by a dog each year. As many as 675,000 cat bites occur annually--and up to half of them become infected.

Because of their size and their curious nature, children suffer the most from animal bites. About 26% of dog bites in kids require medical attention, compared with 12% in adults. And of the 18 or so fatalities from dog attacks each year, 60% are children younger than 10. According to a 1994 JAMA article, breeds such as German shepherds and chow chows are most likely to bite. Male dogs are generally more aggressive than females. In addition, dogs of either sex that haven't been neutered or spayed are more likely to bite.

"Dog bites cause an incredible amount of carnage. This is one of the top 10 causes of nonfatal injury," said Dr. Jeffrey Sacks of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the recent JAMA report.

Both medical doctors and veterinarians are quick to point out, however, that the animal is not solely to blame. In many instances, the injury occurs because the pet owner doesn't fully understand the responsibility that comes with ownership.

"One of the problems we see is unrealistic expectations among pet owners," said Randall Lockwood, vice president for training initiatives at the national office of Humane Society. "Companion animals are not little people in furry suits. They have their own sets of needs, and we need to be sensitive to that and cannot expect them to conform to what we want out of them. It's like learning to live with other people."

People, especially children, misread animal behavior and inadvertently provoke responses in animals that can lead to bites or scratches, Lockwood said. But children can learn how to interact with pets and even strays, Lockwood said, which is why he is endorsing a new video on animal bite prevention called "Dogs, Cats & Kids" (Pet Love Partnership, 1996).

Targeted to kids 5 to 12, the video teaches the right ways to approach, handle and play with pets; how to read pets' body language; danger signs children should know; and safe ways to interact with others' pets or strays.

"One of the reasons we like this tape is, it clearly sends the message that animal-bite and -scratch prevention goes hand in hand with being a responsible pet owner," Lockwood said. "We need to appreciate the fact that animals have emotions and feelings, and they communicate those to us. But often we are not very good listeners.

"This is also the first video we've seen that talks about playing it safe with dogs and cats, recognizing that cats are more abundant these days. And cats, if improperly handled, can cause injuries too."

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Other attempts are being made to reach out to pet owners. The Humane Society and the U.S. Postal Service have designated June 9-13 as Dog Bite Prevention Week for the third consecutive year. Post offices will be working with animal shelters to hold educational events.

The Postal Service is also encouraging its employees to enter pictures of their dogs in an in-house photo contest this year. The winning photos will be displayed during Dog Bite Prevention Week, said spokesman Mark Saunders, "to get away from the idea that letter carriers hate dogs."

And the American Veterinary Medical Assn. has joined State Farm Fire and Casualty Co. to provide brochures on reducing animal bites.

Insurers are concerned, according to a State Farm spokeswoman, because claims from dog bites have increased. Last year State Farm paid out $70 million for bodily injury liability claims for dog bites compared to $3 million for all types of other animal injuries, including horses. Medical claims for dog bites totaled $4.28 million compared to $382,779 in medical claims for all other animal injuries.

"Dog bites are some of our most expensive claims, and particularly, injuries to children," said State Farm's Mary Boone. "A German shepherd is head high to a 2-year-old. So any injury to a child that size is going to be to the head or face and will be much more severe. That's why we're looking to pediatricians as a major resource to educate people."

State Farm's brochures will be available through agents and will also be distributed at vets' offices, animal clinics and, possibly, pediatricians' offices.

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