An inquest into the dog-bite-associated death of Gary Dickinson, age 57, is underway in the UK. When people think about deaths from dog bites, they usually think about death from severe trauma, especially in kids. However, as I’ve mentioned repeatedly, minor bites can also pose major risks.

Mr. Dickinson died in February, only three days after being nipped in the finger while breaking up a fight between his dogs. It was a minor bite that many people would quickly dismiss. However, trauma isn’t the only possible problem with bites. Infections from bites can be very serious, and in some situations all it takes is a very small break in the skin to allow bacteria to move into the tissues.

Despite suffering no consequences from the initial trauma of the bite, Mr. Dickinson was feeling sick by the next day. He went to the hospital and was sent home with a diagnosis of food poisoning (probably based on vague signs and lack of any other obvious diagnosis, rather than any true evidence of food poisoning. A key question here is whether the dog bite was mentioned at the hospital, which is unclear to me).

Mr. Dickinson deteriorated rapidly after returning home and was rushed back to hospital. Despite aggressive treatment, he died just six hours after admission. The diagnosis was Capnocytophaga infection, and this is a pretty classic picture of this rare but devastating infection.

Capnocytophaga is a type of bacterium that is found in the mouths of dogs. Pretty much every dog has loads of it in the mouth, and people are very commonly exposed through contact with saliva. Fortunately, it rarely causes infections and usually is only a problem in people with compromised immune systems. People who do not have a functional spleen (typically because it has been removed for one reason or another) are the classical high risk group for Capnocytophaga infection. Alcoholics are another high risk group, and that appears to have been the issue in this case.

Minor bites are usually just that – minor. However, sometimes very bad things can happen following very minor bites. Serious consequences are most common in young kids, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems (especially people who have had their spleen removed). While no one should panic after a mild bite, everyone should take any bite seriously. In most situations, thorough cleaning of the wound is adequate, but bites over critical areas (e.g. face, joints, hands) or in high risk people need to be assessed promptly by a physician.

More information about bites can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources – Pets page.

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