According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 5 million people a year suffer from dog bites; although less than a million seek medical treatment for their injuries. Each year over a dozen people die from dog attacks: pit bulls and Rottweilers are the two breeds held most accountable, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
Dog bites are frightening, and they can cause horrific injuries and scarring, particularly to young children who are usually bit about the face and neck. However, puncture wounds and tears from dog bites do not pose the biggest health care risk from animal bites in America today.
The most common animal bite (aside from dogs) involves cats, and while the injuries are less severe than a dog bite, the risk of infection from a cat is astronomically higher than a dog bite injury. In fact, a cat bite wound is six times more likely to require hospitalization than that of a dog bite, because of this possibility of infection.
Other common animal bites include other household pets: hamsters, rabbits, birds and the like. Again, infection resulting from these bites is of more concern than any injury caused by puncture wounds or lacerations. Infections can kill or cause permanent damage. Sepsis is a potential complication from animal bite wounds, as are meningitis, osteomyelitis, and septic arthritis.
Sepsis is potentially life-threatening disease, commonly referred to as “a bloodstream infection.” With sepsis, toxins in the blood result in symptoms ranging from fever and chills to shock and organ dysfunction. Left untreated, sepsis can be fatal.
Meningitis is an infection of the brain and spinal cord, and the most difficult-to-treat type of meningitis is that caused by a bacterial infection, such as an animal bite. Meningitis results in damage to brain tissue. Brain cells do not regenerate; therefore, an infection from an animal bite resulting in meningitis can result in serious, life-long handicaps or death.
Osteomyelitis is an infection of the bone caused by bacterial infection. Left untreated, osteomyelitis destroys bone. Animal bites that barely impact soft tissue, and therefore seem relatively minor, can result in infection spreading to nearby bones, causing osteomyelitis. Left untreated, osteomyelitis can result in portions of dead bone, and a chronic infection requiring periodic lifetime treatment.
Wild animal bites are relatively rare, and usually involve small animals like skunks, raccoons, squirrels, mice, or rats. While domestic animals are commonly vaccinated against rabies, wild animals are not. The highest danger from a wild animal bite involves a possible contact with rabies, a viral disease of the central nervous system.
Rabies is transmitted by saliva. Rabies is usually fatal; therefore, most Americans have been immunized against it, and most domestic animals have been vaccinated.
When circumstances warrant suspicion of a rabies infection, both immediate treatment of the victim as well as capture and quarantine of the animal are needed. After a 10 day observation, if the wild animal shows no signs of rabies, then the danger is past. If signs of rabies manifest, then there is a high probability of death for the bite victim.
Most states have “dog bite laws” which make pet owners strictly liable for any injuries caused by their pets, be they dog or wolf or ferret. There are exceptions: provoking a pet, or illegally trespassing upon someone’s property will be valid defenses to bite claims.
Wild animals that are kept as pets are subject to the same strict liability provisions. However, property owners may not be responsible for non-pet wild animal bites occurring on their property; and in public parks, sovereign immunity defends against government responsibility for wild animal bites.
Some personal injury attorneys include animal bite injuries as part of their specialty or practice. While animal bite cases may appear simple on the surface, proving both liability and damages in these matters can be difficult.
For example, it may or may not be an easy legal issue to determine the proper owner of the animal. Pets may be more easily identified than wild animals, or roaming dogs.
Additionally, in some states owners may be less culpable if they had no reason to know the animal had “dangerous propensities,” while in other jurisdictions, certain breeds will automatically make their owners liable for any bite injuries. (For example, in both Denver, Colorado, and San Francisco, California, specific municipal ordinances target pit bulls as inherently vicious, and make pit bull owners strictly accountable for any injuries caused by their pets).