Preventing Dog Bites in Households with Young Children

November 1, 2017
JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM

Dr. Pendergrass received her DVM degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory Universitys Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner ofJPen Communications, a medical communications company.

What causes young children to be bitten by dogs, and how well are children up to age 6 being supervised around the family pet?

Children generally enjoy being around dogs. Young children who grow up with dogs experience developmental benefits, including improved self-esteem and social competence. However, children are at high risk for dog bites, posing a serious public health problem. Overall, the World Health Organization estimates that tens of millions of dog bites occur annually.

A child’s interaction with a dog (eg, hugging, petting) typically precedes a dog bite. Although dogs will demonstrate warning signals prior to the bite, parents may not understand these signals, increasing the risk of the child being bitten. To date, little data are available on child-family dog interactions, and no studies have examined these interactions involving children younger than 2 years old.

An Austrian and German research team recently reported its findings on child-dog interactions for children less than age 6 years in Frontiers in Veterinary Science. Their findings have important implications for preventing dog bites in young children.

Data Collection

The researchers collected data from an online survey of 402 caregivers and parents living with a child up to 6 years old and a dog. Survey questions on child-dog interactions were scored according to interaction frequency (1, never; 6, very often). Other questions focused on supervision attitudes (“attentiveness,” “allow unsafe behaviors”) and demographic information on the caregiver/parent, dog, and child.

Survey Results

Demographics

Over 80% of respondents were mothers, and 53% of children were boys. Most dogs had been in the household prior to the child’s birth. Notably, nearly 90% of respondents never considered rehoming their dog.

Child Behaviors Toward Dog

Benign behaviors, such as petting on the head, were most frequent and were positively correlated with a child’s age. Researchers noted that other benign behaviors, like hugging, could make a dog uncomfortable, highlighting the importance of parents understanding dog body language and intervening if necessary.

Other behaviors, like pulling on a dog’s tail, were less common. Researchers cautioned that parents should prevent pain-inducing interactions because dogs can react quickly and intensely to pain.

Dog Behavior Toward Children

Dogs were frequently calm or indifferent toward children. Aggressive and resource-related behaviors were less common. Fear-related behavior peaked with children 6 months to 3 years old and was most common in dogs that lived in the household before children were present, suggesting the importance of giving dogs time to adjust to new family members.

Injuries

About 15% of dogs had previously injured the household’s child, with the injuries being primarily minor (eg, scratches on fingers).

Supervision Attitudes

Caregivers’ attitudes significantly affected all children’s behaviors, indicating that “parental supervision quite effectively shapes the child’s interactive behavior,” the researchers noted. Interestingly, attentiveness toward child-dog interactions decreased with a child’s age.

Practical Implications

Researchers acknowledged the need for a trade-off between limiting interactions to prevent dog bites and fostering a dog’s positive effects on child development. They proposed many dog bite prevention strategies, including:

  • Creating a relaxing home environment for dogs
  • Encouraging participation in dog bite prevention programs
  • Consulting veterinary professionals for individualized treatment

Taken together, the study’s findings indicate a need for age-specific dog bite prevention approaches that are tailored to the individual dog, child, and caregiver.

Dr. Pendergrass received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner of JPen Communications, a medical communications company.