Who pays when teeth fly? Five rules for pet bite etiquette from the vet's POV

Patty Khuly, DVM
Published: August 27, 2008
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It’s not just the simple bite wounds sustained during a brief brawl at the puppy park. 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 are fall under the category of “BDLD” (“big-dog-little-dog”) interactions or occur 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 dominance-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:

1-The owner of a presa Canario (big mastiff dog) whose notoriously dog-aggressive female got out last month and crushed the also-inadvertently-free-roaming neighbor’s bischon.

The bischon didn’t make it. But the presa’s owner handled everything with the kind of grace all humans involved in these sad cases should. What with our initial work-up and then transfer to the specialists (which this dog’s non-owner handled personally himself), $6,000 must have changed hands over the course of four days.

And the guy didn’t blink. Not once. Bless him.

2-How about the owner of a trained attack dog who was purchased for his family’s protection? Two weeks ago the postal worker ignored the “Bad Dog” sign, 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. No bite. Just a rough scratch—and 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 following every single regulation pertaining to the keeping of such a dog.

Quarantine for rabies (as if you could get rabies from a scratch) and the expense of veterinary visits for pepper spray inhalation—all because some humans feel pet owners and their pets deserve to be punished when animals act like animals, regardless of the circumstances.

With these examples (and our recent fighting dogs and dog park discussions) in mind here’s my advice for pet bite etiquette on 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” distinction.

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. To the majority of humanity it may not.

3-Go ahead, call the cops

It’s OK to call a cop if your pet gets bitten out in public by an owned animal unknown to you. How else can you be sure to determine 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 go to the vet of their 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. You wouldn’t take your kid to another’s pediatrician just because his patient treats the kid who bit her on the playground, 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 himself or his property (and the property was so marked in accordance with the law). Similarly, assessing your own role in allowing your Chihuahua to go off leash and attempt to befriend a leashed Rottweiler is critical to 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 owners’. Keep this in mind when we ask you to wait outside of a crowded waiting room, keep your cat in his carrier, or when we refuse to see you next time unless your dog is muzzled. Understand we have both your safety and our legal liability to contend with in these instances.