The day the U.S. went on COVID lockdown back in March 2020, Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic head Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, left Massachusetts for California to care for her parents, both of whom are in their 80s and had just been hospitalized with the virus.
“A couple of weeks into my stay there,” she says, “I happened to dislocate my shoulder and couldn’t wrestle it back into its socket. So I went to the hospital emergency room and, while waiting to have my shoulder reset, chatted with the medical staff.
“You don’t have time for anything other than virus cases,” I said.
To which they responded, “Except we’re seeing a lot more dog bites to children than usual.”
Little did Dr. Borns-Weil know that she was witnessing the leading edge of a worldwide dog bite pandemic that was going to go hand-in-hand with the viral pandemic. Since then, physicians at Children’s Hospital Colorado have published an article in The Journal of Pediatrics stating that the facility experienced an almost three-fold surge in the rate of visits to the emergency department because of dog bites once the statewide “stay-at-home” order was instituted. High rates persisted even after the relaxing of regulations. The incidence of emergency department visits by children because of dog bites is still more than double that of the summer rate, when such injuries are most common.
It’s not just a U.S. phenomenon. Healthcare professionals in Italy have reported in the journal Children that at a hospital in Bologna in the northern part of the country, the rate of dog bites to children from the family dog increased by some 70 percent in 2020 compared to any of the six previous years. Moreover, there were many more bites to children’s faces in 2020 than during prior years and a tremendous increase in the proportion of dog bites requiring stitches. That is, dogs were becoming more aggressive.
Why are more dogs biting the children who live with them?
It has been known for a long time that almost all dog bites to children are not from stranger dogs but from family dogs who live with them or at least are well known to them. And those bites are frequent. Of the 900-plus emergency department visits that occur every single day in the U.S. because of dog bites, more than half involve children and adolescents. Those ages 5 through 9 are at greatest risk.
The reasons are not hard to figure out. Some children play too roughly with dogs. Others don’t know to respect a dog’s space and try to interact with the family pet while he is resting, often startling or scaring him in the process. Then there are the contests over resources. A child may put his hand in the food bowl or try to take away a dog’s bone or toy. Add to that the fact that young children often misinterpret dogs’ body language, and you have a recipe for disaster.
“A grownup is likely to understand a growl or a lip lift,” Dr. Borns-Weil comments. “But kids sometimes say the dog is ‘purring’ or ‘smiling.’ That’s really scary because the dog is saying ‘No thank you, No thank you’ in a number of ways that aren’t being understood.”
Then, too, children have high voices, which some dogs may find irritating, and they often make more sudden movements than adults, running around and screaming as part of their fun, which a dog could find unnerving.
Throw COVID into the mix, when kids have been stuck at home with few outlets for social interaction and their parents have been too harried to supervise the situation while trying to get through their work day on Zoom calls, and the problem becomes exacerbated. The losers in this scenario: our dogs.
Ironically, in fact, a study in Spain showed that while having a dog at home helped people cope during the pandemic because of the pet’s ability to combat isolation and loneliness, the pandemic in certain ways diminished the quality of life for dogs. Yes, they have had their families around, but life has been rather chaotic, and having children with them almost 24/7 who are not necessarily being carefully supervised has not soothed dogs’ souls. Moreover, dogs can suffer from what animal behavior researchers call emotional contagion — a situation in which they mirror the levels of stress and anxiety experienced by the overwhelmed adults taking care of them.
“The problem hasn’t been seen with cats becoming aggressive because cats can go out of reach if they want to be left alone,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “A dog can’t get on top of the refrigerator.”
How to keep children safe — and dogs protected
The Children’s Hospital Colorado doctors put it best when they said that “the most important strategy to prevent dog bites is to always, always, supervise infants and children when they are near a dog.” We agree. Our stance at Tufts is that children younger than six should never be left alone with a dog for any length of time — no matter how gentle the child and no matter how docile and obedient the dog. No one ever thinks the family dog would bite a small child. But that’s exactly what keeps happening. Neither dogs nor young children have the reasoning ability to refrain from using their hands — or teeth — in ways they’re not supposed to.
Other guidelines to keep dogs from becoming overly aroused and children from inadvertently antagonizing a dog:
- Teach children to move slowly around dogs.
- Do not encourage or turn a blind eye to rough play with your dog.
- Don’t let small children eat on the run. Small children are very much at a dog’s eye level, and a cookie or a chicken nugget flying by could prove too tempting to your canine friend and might promote the use of sharp teeth to grab the food.
- Don’t let your small child near the dog while the dog is eating.
- Keep child toys and dog toys separate. Bring out the dog’s toys only if you are certain you can keep children away from them. And periodically dab the children’s toys with a clean-smelling antiseptic, which will smell especially pungent to a canine nose.
- Be certain the dog has personal space he can retreat to — like a crate or dog bed kept in an out-of-the-way spot that is off-limits to children.
- As children grow older, teach them to feed the dog and groom him so that he understands the kids have desirable resources and thus are worth respecting.
For more information on keeping children from getting bitten by dogs, check out doggonesafe.com, a nonprofit whose goal is the education of safe canine-human interactions to prevent dog bites. Another resource is thefamilydog.com. It has videos for kids that teach (without preaching) about how dogs like to be treated.