With a small number of exceptions, dog attacks do not occur randomly or suddenly. From minor bites that don’t break the skin to serious attacks that can have a lifelong impact, most incidents occur when a dog feels that biting is their best reaction. The aggressive dog often displays warning signs prior to attacking, which may include growling, loud barking, or snapping at the air. However, these signs may be missed, particularly if the victim is a young child or unfamiliar with dogs and their warning behaviors.

In this article, we discuss some of the reasons that a dog may attack and the types of injuries that a canine bite can cause. Our goal is to help people understand how to interact with dogs in a safe manner to reduce the risk of bite injuries.

Why Do Dogs Attack?

To some degree, most dog attacks occur when the canine is afraid. The dog may be worried about someone or something encroaching on their space, which can cause them to lash out. When a dog attacks out of fear, it is generally trying to build space between itself and whatever has scared it. Similarly, a dog that is startled may be disoriented or confused enough to attack someone nearby, even an owner or other trusted human. Sleeping canines and dogs that are older with weaker hearing and sight are particularly prone to attacking when alarmed.

A dog that is frustrated or in pain may also be at an increased risk of aggressive behavior. When a dog feels trapped or is overwhelmed by an injury, they may lash out at those around them. If you notice a behavioral shift in your pet, it’s always a good idea to schedule an appointment with your vet and a local trainer to see whether they are dealing with an undiscovered injury or other problem.

What Factors Determine the Severity of a Dog Bite?

Multiple factors influence how severe a dog bite is, both in the moments following an attack and during the years to come. Some of the factors that can influence the severity of an attack are the bite level, victim’s age, level of medical expenses required, permanency of injuries sustained, and emotional trauma.

Bite Level

Dog bites are classified by veterinarians as animal behaviors, meaning a dog that reaches specific levels of aggression is at risk for committing harmful attacks in the future. The different levels of bites are:

  • Pre-Bite: The dog is aggressive and may bite at the air but does not contact human skin.
  • Near Bite: A dog contacts human skin with their teeth but does not puncture the victim’s flesh.
  • Shallow Puncture: A bite punctures the skin, but only the shallow layers of tissue. A shallow puncture may nonetheless be painful, and the victim is still at risk of rabies or other infectious diseases.
  • Multiple Shallow Punctures: A victim is bitten more than once, but the wounds are not deep.
  • Deep Puncture: The dog bite inflicts serious harm upon the victim, who will likely require at least one surgery to recover fully from the attack.
  • Death: When a dog consumes a victim’s flesh or inflicts a fatal bite, they have reached the highest attack level.

The Victim’s Age

A victim’s age plays an important role in calculating the severity of a dog bite. A bite that would not inflict lasting harm upon an adult may be fatal to a small child. A study done by the National Library of Medicine found that, among bite victims younger than eighteen years old who were bitten in the face, the majority were five years of age or younger. Children struggle to accurately gauge a dog’s mood and demeanor and are oftentimes attacked when they are unable to heed common warning behaviors. Additionally, a young victim may suffer emotional trauma or disfigurement in a dog attack.

Medical Expenses Required

A minor dog bite that doesn’t break the skin will most likely require very little medical attention, if any. However, a severe bite can require multiple surgeries for the victim to fully recover and resume their lifestyle. A dog attack that results in numerous bites may require multiple operations to keep the patient healthy and prevent the risk of infection. Depending on the state in which the attack occurred, the dog’s owner may be held liable for the incident under “strict liability” or “negligence” personal injury laws. Existing and future medical bills may be included in a settlement or verdict in favor of the victim.

Permanency of a Bite Injury

A minor dog bite may cause very little lasting harm, though any attack can be incredibly traumatizing for the victim and their loved ones. However, a more serious attack can cause involuntary amputations (particularly upon fingers and toes), permanent disfigurement, or force the victim to undergo multiple plastic surgeries to restore their appearance following a bite.

Emotional Trauma

Emotional trauma is an often-overlooked component of a dog attack. While it’s not a guarantee that everyone who is bitten will be fearful of dogs moving forwards or suffering from psychological effects, many victims will. Some of the emotional impacts of a dog attack can include a fear of animals, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), difficulty working, or a reduced quality of life. Depending on these factors, a dog attack may be more severe than the victim’s physical injuries otherwise indicate.

Protect Yourself by Exercising Caution Around Dogs

Under the exact right circumstances, any dog can be provoked to bite – even the beloved family pet. By staying aware of behavioral warning signs and teaching young children to respect the space of dogs and other animals, you can reduce the risk of being bitten.

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