Man's Best Friend Can Kill

Photo: Children are most likely to be attacked by a dog during the summer, new study shows

Spring is finally here and soon the kids will be out in the warmer weather, running for their lives from the family dog.

That's right, Fido may be man's best friend, but he can also be a bitch, especially during the dog days of summer. A new study out of the State University of New York at Buffalo shows that young children are more likely to be bitten by a dog during the summer than any other time of the year, and the beast is most likely to be the family pet or a pet of a friend.

The study doesn't explain exactly why the summer months are more dangerous, although it suggests it's likely due partly to the fact that kids are outdoors more during the summer, and thus more exposed to dogs. And a very young child may run in jerky, irregular patterns that resemble the flight of prey.

Like Humans, Dogs May Get Huffy in the Heat

It's also likely, according to the study, that dogs, like a lot of humans, can be a bit more grouchy when they are uncomfortably warm.

"Children are particularly vulnerable to severe dog bite injuries on the head and neck, and the injuries can be extensive and a risk to life, especially in young children," Philomena Behar, clinical assistant professor of otolaryngology in the university's school of medicine, said in releasing the study. Behar is the lead author of the study, published in the current issue of the journal Otolaryngology -- Head and Neck Surgery.

The researchers studied the hospital records of 84 children who suffered dog bites severe enough to be treated at the university's hospital. The injuries occurred from 1999 to 2007, and the average age was 6.19 years. There are a number of gaps in the study because some information, like the breed and gender of the dog, was not always included in the records.

But of the breeds that were identified, "pit bulls were responsible for a notable proportion of the injuries (13 percent,)" the study reports. That's consistent with a number of other studies that cite pit bulls and Rottweilers as the breeds most likely to inflict serious injuries.

But some researchers caution that these breeds are thought by many to be vicious, and thus, more easily identified, tainting the statistics to an unknown degree.

Most Attacks Due to Failures of Adults

Many different breeds account for the 4.5 million Americans who are bitten by dogs each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In one horrifying case, a 6-week-old baby was killed by the family's Pomeranian, of all things.

And the number of fatalities has risen steadily over the years from an average of about 17 per year a couple of decades ago to around 30 per year now. That's despite the fact that the overall number of dogs has remained fairly steady at around 74 million.

Many of the attacks are due to obvious failures on the part of adults -- leaving an infant alone near a dog, failing to train a dog properly, playing aggressively with the dog, and even picking the wrong kind of dog to take home as a pet.

Beware of (Sweaty) Dog

Different breeds have different characteristics, as any dog owner will know, and some are more aggressive than others.

The CDC recommends that potential dog owners talk to a vet, or professional breeder, before picking the animal, and avoid dogs with a history of aggression, especially if children are in the home.

To a large degree, it comes down to common sense, but special precautions may be necessary during the summer. The new study from Buffalo, in detached clinical language, found "a high correlation between increased ambient temperature and incidence of dog bites."

In other words, be wary of sweaty dogs.

The study was limited to children who required surgery because of bites to the head or neck, and most of those injuries were to the cheeks, lips, nose and ears. Some 35 surgical repairs were performed under general anesthesia, and they consisted of closing complex wounds and punctures and attempting to replace flesh that had been ripped from the child.

None of the children died, reflecting one of the few encouraging statistics in this and several other studies. Fatal attacks are still rare, considering the overall number of people attacked each year, but one out of every five people who are bitten require medical attention. In 2006, according to the CDC, 31,000 people required reconstructive surgery.

But... Dogs Are Still Man's Best Friend

Those are alarming statistics, but to be fair, dogs also play an important role in many lives. They ease the suffering of many who would otherwise be left alone, they can be a very helpful and satisfying companion, and yes, they can be a child's best friend.

But the new study contends that even a gentle dog can be provoked to attack, especially if it's territory is threatened, or it is startled by an unexpected move.

And they can really bite. The study notes that a typical dog has a jaw capable of exerting 200 to 400 pounds per square inch. That rises to 1,800 pounds per square inch among pit bulls.

The study continues:

Dogs "may bite repeatedly and shake the victim vigorously, causing more trauma or 'hole and tear' effect." Children, it warns, have few defenses, they probably cannot outrun the dog if they get in trouble, and the head of a child is an easy mark for an angry dog.

So, it doesn't make sense to invite an aggressive dog into the family. Find a nice, gentle animal instead, and keep your eye on him.

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