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When the weather warms up, many kids head outdoors. But did you know that young children are more likely to be bitten by a dog in the summer months? Here's how to keep summer playtime safe and fun for your kids.
Plus: Find out how to protect your little ones against other summer dangers, from dehydration and bug bites to sun, water, and the downside of bike riding.
The dog days of summer
Every year, about 4.7 million people in the United States are bitten by dogs. About 800,000 require medical treatment, half of them children.
What does this have to do with summer? For unknown reasons, more young children are bitten by dogs in the summer. Experts speculate that it might be because children spend more time outside playing around dogs or because our canine friends are grumpier when it's hot.
Why and how dog bites happen
"I see at least one dog bite a month, and it's often on the face," says Tanya Remer Altmann, a pediatrician in Westlake Village, California, and author of Mommy Calls: Dr. Tanya Answers Parents' Top 101 Questions About Babies and Toddlers. "It's usually a dog that the kids know and has always been friendly before."
Most dog-bite victims age 18 and younger are bitten by the family dog (30 percent) or a neighbor's dog (50 percent). Injury rates are highest in the 5- to 9-year-old crowd, and young children are more likely than adults to be bitten in the head, neck, or face.
Altmann's animal-bite patients include babies who were left unattended around a dog, cat, or other pet. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends spending time with a dog before you adopt it and using caution when bringing a dog into the home of an infant or toddler.
"Children tend to look animals right in the face, which is why most dog bite injuries are facial injuries," says pediatrician Jeffrey W. Britton. "Children will also grab dogs and not recognize warning signs such as a growl or a snarl, placing them at higher risk for bites," he says.
Medical treatment for dog bites
No matter how insignificant a dog bite may seem, doctors recommend seeking medical attention to avoid a scar – and to check for infection, because dog bites can pass along germs. A large wound may need stitches or other repair.
"Ask the emergency room physician how comfortable he is working with this kind of injury and whether there's a need for a plastic surgeon," says John Canady, a plastic surgeon at the University of Iowa and president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.
How to help children avoid dog bites
Have your children follow these basic rules around all dogs, even your own:
- Introduce yourself. Before petting a dog, offer your closed fist (no fingers extended) for the dog to sniff.
- Be gentle. Pet softly anywhere from the back of the neck to the base of the tail.
- Don't grab ears, tail, fur, or feet.
- Don't lunge for the dog's head or face.
- Don't disturb a dog that's eating, sleeping, or caring for puppies. Even the sweetest dogs may snap in these situations.
- If it's a dog you don't know, first ask the dog's owner if it's okay to pet the dog. Don't approach any dog whose owner isn't around.
- Pay attention to a dog's body language and move away quietly if you notice growling or snarling.
- Don't run past a dog while playing. The pooch's instinct will be to chase you.
- If a dog approaches to sniff you, stay still. And if you feel threatened by a dog, don't scream or run. Just avoid eye contact and stand still or slowly back away.
- Playful roughhousing with dogs can quickly turn to a more serious situation, so don’t provoke a dog, even in fun.