Recently, a relative was bitten by a dog, and the incident emphasized that you need to take such things seriously and pay attention to making sure things get taken care of properly.

So what should you do if you’ve been bitten?

1) Identify the dog.

  • You need to know who the dog is, and who owns it. If you can’t identify the dog, you have to assume it’s rabid (even though it’s extremely unlikely) and get treated with a series of vaccinations.

2) Get medical care as needed.

  • Bites can be associated with significant trauma and risk of infection. Getting to a doctor is particularly important if the bite is severe, occurs at a high risk body site (e.g. over the hands, joints, tendons and nerves, groin, prosthetic devices) or if you are at higher risk of infection (e.g. immunocompromised, don’t have a functional spleen, very young or very old, pregnant). If in doubt, go to a doctor to be on the safe side.

Once you’ve done this, it’s important to make sure that the offending dog actually doesn’t have rabies. If you go to a doctor, they will (in most regions) report the bite directly to public health. Public health inspectors will investigate the rabies vaccination status of the animal and ensure that it is quarantined for 10 days. If the dog has rabies and is infectious, it will develop signs of infection within this 10 day period. If the dog is healthy after 10 days, it did not have rabies at the time of the bite.

Seems pretty simple, eh?

Unfortunately, there are a few places where this process can break down.

Reporting: All bites need to be reported. Bites that do not result in people going to the hospital may be missed. You don’t need a serious bite to contract rabies (or another serious infection).

Public health follow-up: This is hopefully not an issue, but you should make sure that public health has investigated, and done so promptly. Don’t be afraid to call to find out the status of the investigation, and make sure information has flowed quickly from the physician to a public health inspector. Hopefully they’ll be in touch with you, but don’t be afraid to initiate contact. The main issue with follow-up relates to the next point:

Prompt euthanasia of the dog: Sometimes, people will decide to euthanize a dog after a bite, because it’s done it before, because they consider any bite unacceptable, and/or they fear for family members or legal liability. Dogs (or cats) that have bitten someone must not be euthanized before the 10 day quarantine period is over. If the dog is euthanized and the body is not available for testing, you have to consider the dog rabid and undergo post-exposure treatment. Veterinarians are required to ask whether a dog has bitten someone in the preceding 10 days prior to performing euthanasia, but it’s possible that this could be missed, or people may not tell the truth because they want to have the dog put down ASAP. This is why public health inspectors need to investigate promptly – to provide another level of assurance that the animal is not euthanized inappropriately. You should follow up with public health to make sure things are underway and the dog is quarantined.

Rabies associated with dog bites is extremely rare in Canada (and many other countries) but still kills tens of thousands of people every year, mainly in Asia and the Middle East. Considering it’s almost invariably fatal and pretty much 100% preventable, you need to pay attention to the risks, no matter how small.