Unsupervised Kids at Risk for Dog Bites

Study Shows if a Dog Bites a Child Once, He’s Likely to Bite Again

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on November 12, 2010

Nov. 11, 2010 -- Pet dogs pose a major health risk for children, especially kids who aren’t being supervised as they touch or play with the dogs, a new study shows.

Researchers at the University of Colorado School of Medicine studied 537 children treated for facial bites by dogs and turned up some findings they considered surprising:

  • In almost 90% of dog-bite cases examined, the dog was known to the child. In 51% of cases the dog was a family pet; in 15% the dog belonged to a neighbor, 13% a friend, and 10% a relative.
  • Dogs that bite once are likely to attack again, and the second attack is often more vicious than the first.
  • The dogs that attack most are not necessarily the breeds most commonly thought of as aggressive. Mixed-breed dogs were responsible for 23% of attacks studied, followed by 13.7% by Labrador retrievers. Rottweilers were the attackers in 4.9% of cases, German shepherds 4.4%, and golden retrievers 3%. The study was done in the Denver area, where pit bulls are banned.
  • 52% of children attacked were boys.

Severity of Dog Bites

Dogs when attacking commonly bite in the area of a child’s face and eyes, says Vikram Durairaj, MD, of the University of Colorado School of Medicine and one of the study researchers.

“We have seen facial fractures around the eye, eyelids torn off, injury to the tear drainage system and the eyeball itself,” he says in a news release.

Durairaj says some of the injuries studied were so severe that they required multiple reconstructive surgeries. He says dog bites are especially dangerous for children because they have smaller faces, often within each reach of the animal’s mouth.

He says the likelihood of a child getting bitten by a dog in their lifetime is about 50%, and that 80% of those are to the head and neck.

The study was presented during the American Academy of Otolaryngology -- Head and Neck Surgery Foundation’s annual meeting in Boston in September.

The 537 attacks in the study occurred between 2003 and 2008. More than half the time, the attacks were provoked by children who petted too aggressively or startled or stepped on the dogs.

The study also found that 68% of bites occurred in children age 5 and younger, with the highest incidence in 3-year-olds at 15.8%.

Other key findings:

  • Adolescents were more likely than younger children to be bitten by an unknown dog.
  • 22.5% of bite victims required in-patient treatment.

“What is clear from our data is that virtually any breed of dog can bite,” Durairaj says. “The tendency of a dog to bite is related to heredity, early experience, later socialization and training, health and victim behavior.”

Parents Need to Be Aware of Dog-Bite Risks

He emphasizes that parents and other adults should realize that familiarity with a dog does not mean it won’t bite and that if a dog bites once, it is likely to bite again with the second attack possibly being more vicious than the first. He says a dog should be removed from the household the first time it bites, and not given a second chance.

“I was called in to see a dog bite,” he says. “A girl had a puncture wound to her lip. Two days later, I saw the same girl, but this time her eyelids were torn off and she had severe scalp and ear lacerations.”

He says it is the parents’ responsibility “to recognize aggressive breeds as well as behaviors and never allow their young children to be left unsupervised around any dog.”

The CDC says about 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs every year, and 885,000 of those require medical attention with a price tag of up to $250 million.

Researchers say parents and other adults should be better educated about dangers posed by dogs, whose bites account for about 1% of all emergency room visits in the U.S.

This study was presented at a medical conference. The findings should be considered preliminary because they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.

Show Sources


News release, University of Colorado Denver.

American Academy of Otolaryngology -- Head and Neck Surgery Foundation annual meeting, Boston, September 2010.

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