Five rules for pet bite etiquette, from the vet’s POV
It’s not just the simple bite wounds sustained during a brief brawl at the puppy park that can follow a dog fight. It’s also the crushing injuries, the broken bones and the bleeding lungs that are at stake when pets get into it.
The worst cases we see fall under the category of "BDLD" (big-dog-little-dog) interactions, or incidences when cats get handed the business end of a dog’s maw. In these cases the aggressors are usually out to kill — and they can make pretty neat (and expensive) work of it.
Then there’s the human-animal adverse interaction — as in, you’re taking in a civilized tea at your neighbor’s house and the severely dominant-aggressive cat hurls itself at your daintily outstretched pinky finger.
In my experience, it’s cases like these that bring out the best and worst in humanity.
Two recent examples from the annals of Dr. Khuly’s diverse and interesting clientele:
The Bischon didn’t make it. But the Presa’s owner handled everything with the kind of grace that any human involved in such a sad case should strive to communicate to the injured party. What with the initial work-up and then transfer to the specialists (which the Presa's owner handled personally), $6,000 must have changed hands over the course of four days. And the guy didn’t blink. Not once. Bless him.
#2 – The owner of a trained attack dog that was purchased for the family’s protection.
Two weeks ago a postal worker ignored the "Bad Dog" sign at the gate, bypassing the mailbox at the curb and letting herself in to the gated yard with package in hand. When the sleeping dog awoke to find someone in his yard he managed to claw the mail carrier’s leg. Not a bite, just a rough scratch — but a serious fright, I’m sure.
Three police cruisers and one disgruntled postal worker later, this dog had been branded "dangerous." He got the first of a three-strikes-you’re-out (as in euthanasia) violation for doing pretty much what he’s supposed to do, after his owners had followed every single regulation pertaining to the keeping of such a dog.
The dog was also quarantined for rabies (as if you could get rabies from a scratch) and treated for pepper spray inhalation, with the concomitant veterinary expenses — all because some humans feel that pet owners and their pets deserve to be punished when animals act like animals, regardless of the circumstances.
Keeping these examples (and our recent dog fighting and dog park discussions) in mind, here’s my advice for pet bite etiquette for both sides of the equation:
1-Stay cool and keep it civil
I tend to think simple bites between friends, family, neighbors, and even strangers should be settled amicably (in the best of worlds), with the biter’s family offering to pay for any reasonable expenses incurred.
But if your pet injures a human in any way, experts say you should talk to a lawyer. You may be liable for damages present and future. This is what my client in the above example should have done to attempt to resolve his dog’s "dangerous" appropriation.
2-Pay for “reasonable” expenses
Paying for "reasonable" veterinary costs are the norm for adverse pet-pet interactions. But this gets murky. How much is "reasonable" given the widening gap between what’s doable and what’s affordable? Ideally, the offender’s owner should be willing to pay for whatever costs the affected pet’s owner thinks is fair — and that might amount to $60, $600, $6,000 or $60,000, depending on the situation.
The extreme expenses pets can incur in a medical setting these days muddies the waters, doesn’t it? Is four days on a ventilator considered "reasonable"? To you it might, especially if it's your pet that needs it. To the majority of humanity it may not.
3-Go ahead, call the cops
It’s OK to call the police if your pet gets bitten in public by an owned animal that is unknown to you. How else can you be sure of determining that the animal has been vaccinated and that you’ll be compensated for your "loss" (i.e., veterinary expenses)?
4-Choosing the vet
The afflicted pet(s) should be taken to the vet of their owner's choice. I’ve seen plenty of situations where the owners of the animals argue over which of their vets should handle the case, and that’s not right. If it was your kid getting bitten by another kid on the playground, you wouldn’t take your kid to the other kid's pediatrician just because the parents insisted on it, right?
5-Take responsibility for your own role
If you’re injured by an animal you shouldn’t expect compensation in a setting where the animal was justifiably defending itself or its property (and the property was marked as such in accordance with the law). Similarly, assessing your own role in allowing your Chihuahua to go off its leash and attempt to befriend a leashed Rottweiler is critical in determining your right to compensation in the event of an attack.
Accepting responsibility for our pets' foibles — and our own — is part of belonging to a civil society. If only more common sense and civility were applied to our pet-on-pet and pet-on-human interactions I wouldn’t have to write a post like this.
PS: Humans and animals injured in veterinary settings are typically the legal responsibility of the owner of the establishment — not the pet's owners’. Keep this in mind when we ask that you wait outside of a crowded waiting room, keep your cat in his carrier, or when we refuse to see you again unless your dog is muzzled. Understand we have both your safety and our legal liability to contend with in these instances.
Dr. Patty Khuly