Some of our happiest childhood memories tend to include family pets. Whether a sweet dog that belonged to Mom and Dad before the addition of children or a hamster that joined the household years later, pets often become treasured friends for kids.
But that doesn’t always mean that these relationships are entirely harmonious. Unfortunately, we see quite a few pet bites at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, and they frequently involve an animal that is well known to the family. We’re not talking about aggressive breeds here; these are dogs or cats that may have never displayed threatening behavior before.
Why does this happen? Sometimes a playful child unwittingly intimidates the pet by getting too close to the feeding bowl or there may be a change to the home environment such as a new pet or toddler that causes your older pet to act out. Other times, the pet is trying to be protective of the family and nips in their defense. We know it’s most likely to happen to with dogs, as 4.7 million Americans experience dog bits each year. Of those patients, 60 percent are children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
While the trauma to the skin may look scary, what we’re really worried about in the majority of these cases is the risk of infection. This is especially an issue when a child – or an adult for that matter – is bitten on the hand. Experts believe that as many as 40 percent of the bite wounds that occur on hands lead to infections. This is because of the complex anatomy of our hands and how easy it is for a bite to make it through those tendons, bones and joints, leaving bacteria behind.
And while dogs may be more likely to bite, we worry even more about infection with cats. Their teeth are sharper and more angled than their canine counterparts. When they tear through skin, the wounds are deeper and much more difficult to clean.
Of course, the risk of infection stems from the organisms that are in the biting animal’s mouth. If a child has been bitten by an animal, it will be important to watch for signs like increased redness, swelling, tenderness and fever in the days after the injury.
Anytime a child is bitten by an animal and it breaks the skin, parents should contact the family’s pediatrician. If the animal isn’t known to the family, parents should seek medical attention immediately – even if the bite seems superficial. This is especially important with any kind of wild mammal – bats, skunks, squirrel, raccoons, even foxes. With these animals, we worry about the risk of rabies.
Luckily, rabies is fairly rare, with only five or six cases reported in the U.S. annually, according to the AAP. Unfortunately there has been a significant increase in wild animals, particularly skunks, testing positive for the virus in Arkansas over the past year. Because rabies is nearly always fatal, the AAP says all wild animal bites should be considered a risk for the virus. Prevention is our best bet when it comes to rabies.
At ACH, we more commonly see bites from friendly, vaccinated pets in the home. So what should you do if your little one is bitten? If the wound is bleeding, immediately apply pressure for about five minutes or until the bleeding stops. The next step will be to gently but thoroughly wash the wound with soap and warm water. Then pick up the phone and call your child’s doctor.
A large wound may require stitches and your pediatrician may also prescribe antibiotics. The physician will also check to see if immunization records are up to date and whether your child will need an updated tetanus vaccine.
If you have pets in the home – or will be sending your child to the house of a friend or family member with animals – talk about the right way to treat and approach them. Remind your child that it’s important not to roughhouse with animals and to be careful about pulling and poking.
The best way to avoid pet bites is to be vigilant and supervise any interactions your child has with an animal. You may be able to spot the signs a pet is becoming agitated and remove your little one from the scenario.
Pets are an important part of many of our households, but they can be unpredictable. We can do our best to create positive relationships and fun memories with our animals, but always be aware of the risk of an unexpected bite.
Sam Smith, MD, is surgeon in chief at Arkansas Children’s Hospital and a professor of Surgery at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. He writes a column each week covering a variety of kids’ medical concerns. If you have a topic you’d like him to consider addressing, email firstname.lastname@example.org.