Pooches, a preventable public health problem in children

The headline read “Dog Attacks, Kills Toddler.” The newspaper story described the fatal attack on an 11-month-old child by a family pet. The child’s grandmother, who witnessed the scene in the living room, was quoted as saying, “He (the dog) just walked up to the baby and just grabbed him.” She went on to say that family members never imagined the animal would intentionally attack the boy. Horrible’ Yes. Unusual’ No. Almost 400,000 persons are bitten by dogs every year in Texas, and 60 percent of those victims are children. More than half of all children will be victims of a dog bite by the time they reach age 12. One-quarter of all persons bitten require medical care, and most bites are inflicted by dogs whose owners thought their dogs would never bite. Studies show that most victims of fatal dog bites are the very young and the very old’those who are often least able to protect themselves. In most cases, the dog was familiar to the family, frequently the family pet. The chances of dying of a bite are much greater for babies than adults. Often, the infant is killed while asleep or in a crib. The dog does not have to be of a large or aggressive breed; a 6-week-old puppy mauled a 3-week-old baby while the father was asleep in the home in a small west Texas town. Dog bites are a major, yet preventable, public health problem among children. No one knows why a normally friendly dog will act aggressively toward an infant who is too young to intentionally provoke an attack. “Do dogs, as pack animals, view their human family as their pack and resent the intrusion of the new baby into their territory'” said Jane Mahlow, DVM, director, Zoonosis Control Division of the Texas Department of Health. “Are the biting dogs displaying jealousy’ Does the baby’s crying and flailing of arms merely push the dog over the edge’ No one can really say for sure.” People with a dog should: ‘ Always supervise a young child around any dog, no matter how well known, friendly, or small that dog may be. A parent sleeping the same room does not constitute supervision. ‘ Lavish extra attention on the dog when a new baby is brought home. All too often the family house dog is relegated to the backyard when the new baby arrives. “A better alternative would be to encourage the new dog to view the baby as a ‘good thing’ by petting and talking to the dog while holding the baby,” recommended Mahlow. “Also, have somebody else carry the baby into the home for the first time. That way, when the dog jumps toward the mother who has been away in the hospital, she can give her attention to the dog and not worry about the safety of the baby at that moment.” Parents can reduce the chances of older children being bitten if they teach them some basic safety tips: ‘ Never approach an unfamiliar dog; ‘ Never run from a dog and scream; ‘ Stay still when an unfamiliar dog comes up to you; ‘ If knocked over by a dog, roll into a ball and lie still; ‘ Do not stare a dog in the eyes because it may view that as threatening; ‘ Do not disturb a dog that is sleeping, eating or caring for puppies; ‘ Do not pet a dog without letting it see and sniff you first; ‘ Do not ride your bicycle or run past a dog; ‘ Do not tease a dog, pull its ears or tail or squeeze it too hard. Almost half of all dog bites are provoked, regardless or whether the victim is a child or an adult. The mistake is made when people view provocation from a human viewpoint rather than from the animal’s perspective. It’s important for new dog owners to understand: ‘ that canines are pack animals, and puppies should be trained to look to humans for leadership and to avoid competition with children; ‘ the need to socialize the puppy to many different types of people; ‘ the importance of puppy obedience class; ‘ that wrestling, tug-of-war, and “siccing” instills bad habits in a dog; ‘ the importance of spaying or castrating the dog (studies show that neutered animals are less likely to be aggressive); and ‘ the significance of teaching children how to properly behave around animals. For more information on Bite Prevention Week, May 21-27, and other topics, see the Texas Department of Health’s Zoonosis Control Division web site at http://www.tdh.state.tx.us/zoonosis.

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