Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Dog Bite Deaths

Dog attacks are a major public health concern worldwide. In the United States, dogs bite more than 4 million people each year, occasionally resulting in fatalities. In an issue of Wilderness and Environmental Medicine (2009;20:19-25), Ricky Langley from the Division of Public Health in Raleigh, North Carolina published an article entitled, "Human Fatalities Resulting From Dog Attacks in the United States, 1979-2005."

The statistics are instructive. In the years studied, there was an average of 19 deaths each year from dog attacks. Not surprisingly, males and children less than 10 years of age had the highest rate of death from dog attacks, with Alaska reporting the highest death rate. The number of deaths and death rate from dog attacks appear to be on the rise, perhaps for no other reason than there are more people and more dogs, in both absolute numbers and in proximity.

I am a dog lover (of friendly dogs), but am aware both as an owner and as an emergency physician that dogs will sometimes bite people, sometimes with serious consequences. In addition to causing deaths, dog bites may cause disfigurement, morbid injuries, and both wound and systemic infections. Most dog bites are from domestic breeds, rather than wild dogs. However, domestic breeds are sometimes raised for their fighting and attack potential. When people come into contact with these animals, the encounters can be harsh and unpredictable. Furthermore, even friendly dogs will bite when threatened in a number of different ways.

What to make of all this? First and foremost, prevention is paramount, followed by knowing how best to defend oneself if attacked. While nonprovoked attacks are most common, and perhaps are difficult to predict and avoid, provoked attacks will not occur absent the provocation. Children in particular may inadvertently provoke animal attacks by teasing the animals or appearing to be in flight. Fending off a dog attack often requires a weapon or advanced knowledge about how to repel a predatory action from a larger, or certainly stronger, animal. If a dog is behaving aggressively, it should be avoided and, if possible, reported to animal control authorities.

A dog bite is unfortunate at best and can be tragic at worst. A generally friendly dog that is tormented into an attack may suffer the same fate as an animal that is spontaneously vicious and aggressive. When you are in the same location as any carnivorous animal, wild or domestic, understand its behavior, recognize warning signs for a bad situation, and be prepared to defend yourself or others.

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Tags: Bites & Stings

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.