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Preventing Dog Bites

Small dog growling while being held

Dog bites can cause pain and injury, but they can also spread germs that cause infection. Nearly 1 in 5 people bitten by a dog requires medical attention. Any dog can bite – know how to enjoy dogs without getting bitten.

Dogs can be our closest companions – in the United States, over 36% of households own at least one dog. Dogs have been proven to decrease stress, increase our exercise levels, and are playmates for children. But sometimes man’s best friend will bite. In addition to causing pain, injury, or nerve damage, dog bites can become infected, putting the bite victim at risk for illness or in rare cases death.

Although the idea of being bitten by a dog is scary, it doesn’t mean you need to avoid dogs completely. If you work or live around dogs, be aware of the risks and learn how to enjoy being around dogs without getting bitten.

Small child pointing at large dog

Children are at highest risk for dog bites. Small children should never be allowed to play with dogs unsupervised.

Know the Risks

Children are more likely than adults to be bitten by a dog, and when they are, the injuries can be more severe. Over half of dog bite injuries occur at home with dogs that are familiar to us. Having a dog in the household is linked to a higher likelihood of being bitten than not having a dog. As the number of dogs in the home increases, so does the likelihood of being bitten. Adults with two or more dogs in the household are five times more likely to be bitten than those living without dogs at home. Among adults, men are more likely than women to be bitten by a dog.

How to Prevent Dog Bites

Do:

  • Always ask if it is okay to pet someone else’s dog before reaching out to pet the dog.
  • When approached by an unfamiliar dog, remain motionless (“be still like a tree”).
  • If a dog knocks you over, curl into a ball with your head tucked and your hands over your ears and neck.
  • Immediately let an adult know about any stray dogs or dogs that are behaving strangely.

Don’t:

  • Don’t approach an unfamiliar dog.
  • Don’t run from a dog.
  • Don’t panic or make loud noises.
  • Don’t disturb a dog that is sleeping, eating, or caring for puppies.
  • Don’t pet a dog without allowing it to see and sniff you first.
  • Don’t encourage your dog to play aggressively.
  • Don’t let small children play with a dog unsupervised.
Dog smelling woman's hand

Do not pet a dog without allowing it to see and sniff you first.

What to do if an unfamiliar dog approaches you and you do not want to interact with it:

  • Stop! Stay still and be calm.
  • Do not panic or make loud noises.
  • Avoid direct eye contact with the dog.
  • Say “No” or “Go Home” in a firm, deep voice.
  • Stand with the side of your body facing the dog. Facing a dog directly can appear aggressive to the dog. Instead, keep your body turned partially or completely to the side.
  • Slowly raise your hands to your neck, with your elbows in.
  • Wait for the dog to pass or slowly back away.

What to do if you are bitten or attacked by a dog:

Protect Yourself

  • Put your purse, bag, or jacket between you and the dog.
  • If you are knocked down, curl into a ball with your head tucked in and your hands over your ears and neck.

Wash Wounds with Soap and Water

When you get to a safe place, immediately wash wounds with soap and water. Seek medical attention, especially:

  • For minor wounds:
    • Wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water.
    • Apply an antibiotic cream.
    • Cover the wound with a clean bandage.
    • See a healthcare provider if the wound becomes red, painful, warm, or swollen; if you develop a fever; or if the dog that bit you was acting strangely.
  • For deep wounds:
    • Apply pressure with a clean, dry cloth to stop the bleeding.
    • If you cannot stop the bleeding or you feel faint or weak, call 911 or your local emergency medical services immediately.
    • See a healthcare provider as soon as possible.
  • See a healthcare provider:
    • If the wound is serious (uncontrolled bleeding, loss of function, extreme pain, muscle or bone exposure, etc.).
    • If the wound becomes red, painful, warm, or swollen, or if you develop a fever.If you don’t know if the dog has been vaccinated against rabies.
    • If it has been more than 5 years since your last tetanus shot and the bite is deep.

Report the Bite

  • Because anyone who is bitten by a dog is at risk of getting rabies, consider contacting your local animal control agency or police department to report the incident, especially:
    • If you don’t know if the dog has been vaccinated against rabies.
    • If the dog appears sick or is acting strangely.
  • If possible, contact the owner and ensure the animal has a current rabies vaccination. You will need the rabies vaccine license number, name of the veterinarian who administered the vaccine, and the owner’s name, address, and phone number.

Diseases You Can Get from Dog Bites

In addition to causing injury, dog bites can spread germs from dogs to people. Up to 18% of dog bites become infected with bacteria. Over 60 different kinds of bacteria have been found in dog mouths, but only a handful of these germs can make you sick. Dog bites can cause the following diseases:

  • Rabies is one of the most serious diseases people can get from dog bites. Although getting rabies from a dog in the United States is rare, it is still a risk. Rabies is a virus that affects the brain and is almost always fatal once symptoms appear. Rabies virus is most commonly spread through the bite and saliva of an infected animal. The disease can be prevented by vaccinating dogs. People who are bitten by a dog should speak with a healthcare provider to see if rabies vaccination is necessary.
  • Capnocytophaga bacteria live in the mouths of people, dogs, and cats. These bacteria do not make dogs or cats sick. Rarely, Capnocytophaga can spread to people through bites, scratches, or close contact from a dog or cat and cause illness. Most people who have contact with dogs or cats do not become sick, but people with a weakened immune system are at greater risk of becoming sick because it is harder for their bodies to fight infections.
  • Pasteurella is a type of bacteria seen in over half of infected dog bite wounds. Pasteurella commonly causes a painful, red infection at the site of the bite, but can cause a more serious disease in people with weakened immune systems. There may also be swollen glands, swelling in the joints, and difficulty moving.
  • MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is a type of staph infection that is resistant to a certain group of antibiotics. Dogs and other animals can carry MRSA without showing any symptoms, but the bacteria can cause skin, lung, and urinary tract infections in people. In some people, MRSA can spread to the bloodstream or lungs and cause life-threatening infections.
  • Tetanus is a toxin produced by a type of bacteria called Clostridium tetani. This toxin causes rigid paralysis in people and could be a problem in deep bite wounds.

Any dog can bite, but if you understand the risks for dog bites and know how to protect yourself, you will reduce your likelihood of getting sick or injured.

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