Tagged Veterinary Medicine

Got a Pandemic Puppy? Learn How to Prevent Dog Bites

The Checkup

Got a Pandemic Puppy? Learn How to Prevent Dog Bites

With new puppies and kids at home, doctors are worried about treating more children for dog bites.

Credit…Manon Cezaro

  • Feb. 23, 2021, 2:33 p.m. ET

The surge in pet adoptions during the pandemic brought much-needed joy to many families, but doctors are worrying about a downside as well: more dog bites.

A commentary published in October in The Journal of Pediatrics noted an almost threefold increase in children with dog bites coming into the pediatric emergency room at Children’s Hospital Colorado after the stay-at-home order went into effect.

The lead author, Dr. Cinnamon Dixon, a medical officer in the Pediatric Trauma and Critical Illness Branch of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, said: “If someone were to tell me they were going to get a new dog during Covid, I would first and foremost want to make sure that family is prepared to have a new entity in their household, a new family member.”

Dr. Dixon said that as a pediatric emergency room doctor, taking care of children who get bitten had been a priority for her. Still, she said, from the stories she heard, she often felt “that dogs are victims in this as well.”

Brooke Goff, a partner in the personal-injury law firm the Goff Law Group in Hartford, Conn., said, “We’re definitely seeing a huge uptick in dog bite cases.”

Ms. Goff said that dog bites harm children in ways that go well beyond the physical damage. “It creates major emotional issues and PTSD,” she said. “If you’ve ever spoken to a dog bite victim as an adult that was bitten as a child, they are deathly afraid of dogs.”

Dog bites are “an underrepresented public health problem” in the United States, said Dr. Dixon, the daughter of a veterinarian who grew up around animals. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s best estimates from old research put the number of dog bites at 4.5 million a year. There are over 300,000 nonfatal emergency department visits a year related to dog bites, and among children, the greatest incidence is in school age children, aged 5 to 9, but the most severe injuries are among infants and young children, presumably because they are less mobile, and lower to the ground, with their heads and faces closer to the dogs.

Dr. Robert McLoughlin, a general surgery resident at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, was the first author on a 2020 study of hospitalizations for pediatric dog bite injuries in the United States. He said that his research grew out of an interest in pediatric surgery and pediatric injury prevention. “I had seen a lot of cases of toddlers with head and neck injuries,” he said.

The study showed that younger children, ages 1 to 4 and 5 to 10, were much more likely to need hospitalization than those over 11. In the youngest children, most injuries are to the head and neck, and beyond the age of 6, extremity wounds (arms, legs, hands) become increasingly prevalent and predominate after the age of 11, Dr. McLoughlin said.

The bites that require hospitalization and surgical repair are the most serious injuries, such as toddlers bitten in the face and neck, where many critical structures can be damaged, including eyes and ears, and there can be devastating cosmetic damage done as well. But hand injuries can also have a very lasting impact and need expert repair.

For dog bite prevention, Dr. Dixon said, “the No. 1 strategy remains supervision.” Children should learn to leave dogs alone when they are eating, when they are sleeping with a favorite toy, when they are caring for their puppies. They should not reach out to unfamiliar dogs. And dog owners should keep their dogs healthy and should socialize and train them from an early age.

“It’s important we take responsibility for our animals,” said Ms. Goff, who has a dog named Daisy that she brings with her to the office. “Most dogs don’t bite to attack, they bite because they’re scared or provoked.”

Ms. Goff also emphasized that from the point of view of liability, anyone who owns a dog should have insurance coverage. In her state, Connecticut, a strict liability state, “I don’t have to prove anybody was at fault,” she said, and the dog owner is responsible for the damages. “If you can afford the dog, you can afford the insurance,” she said.

She said that it’s important as well that dog bites be reported because of the need to track dogs who bite multiple times, but reassured those who were worried that a dog might be destroyed that, at least in Connecticut, unless there is a catastrophic or fatal injury, “our forgiveness about animals extends quite heavily.”

When dogs do show aggressive behavior, Dr. Dixon said, owners should seek expert help from a veterinarian or “a behavioral expert in canine aggression — ideally before something bad happens.”

Dr. Judy Schaechter, a professor of pediatrics and public health at the University of Miami, said that given the increase in puppy buying during the Covid epidemic, “We’re now a year into this; puppies may be big, strong dogs at this point.” And with many parents juggling work from home with their children’s school issues, it can be difficult for them to supervise all the children (and pets) all the time.

Bites often occur, Dr. Schaechter said, “around playing and feeding behaviors.” Small children are particularly at risk, in part because they may be close to the dog’s food dish, or on the ground when food falls, and the dog may see the child as competition. “Any dog can bite, any breed can bite, and that can be horrific,” she said, but a medium or large dog, or a dog with a very strong jaw, “can quickly do a lot more damage.”

When Dr. Dixon saw children who had been bitten in the emergency room, “the most common story I would hear over and over,” she said, involved “resource guarding,” in which the child seemed to be encroaching on something that belonged to the dog. “The child was next to the dog’s food or had gone next to a dog’s toy or was playing with the dog and the dog jumped up and grabbed the arm instead of the bone,” she said.

Dr. McLoughlin sees opportunities for programs to address dog bite prevention, perhaps drawing lessons from programs that discuss “stranger danger.” It’s important to teach children not to approach strange dogs, he said, but also to help them interpret dogs’ behavior, “to identify when a dog is saying leave me alone, give me some space.” He is interested in the possibility of taking dogs into schools in order to educate children about dogs they may encounter outside their homes, but emphasized that parents should be teaching even very young children about how to approach a dog — including that they should always ask the owner first.

Dr. Schaechter pointed to research on the benefits of having a dog in the family, from the joys of companionship and the lessons children learn from caring for a pet to the medical evidence that children may be at lower risk of allergy and asthma if they are exposed early to animals. The bond between children and their pets is the substance of so many books and movies, Dr. Schaechter said. “It’s real — but don’t let that be so romantic that a child ends up being hurt or scarred.”

[Get the C.D.C.’s advice on dogs, the A.A.P.’s advice on dog bite prevention, and more tips from the American Veterinary Medical Association]

Fat Cats on a Diet: Will They Still Love You?

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Maya, a cat owned by Larissa and Doug Peluso, of Eatontown, N.J., was overweight. The Pelusos feared she wouldn’t like her new diet.

Maya, a cat owned by Larissa and Doug Peluso, of Eatontown, N.J., was overweight. The Pelusos feared she wouldn’t like her new diet.Credit

Maya has had a tough time slimming down. After 16 months of dieting, she’s dropped 10 pounds and 6 ounces.

True, that’s more than 40 percent of her body weight.

At her heaviest, the domestic shorthair cat tipped the scale at 24.9 pounds. She looked like a furry Pilates ball.

The decision to lose weight was not Maya’s; it was her owners’, Larissa and Doug Peluso, of Eatontown, N.J. Maya’s mobility was decreasing: She could no longer jump on their bed, and they knew she might be suffering from joint pain and facing diabetes. Their vet said they had to help her regain her feline figure.

Still, they hesitated.

If they reduced portions, Mrs. Peluso worried, “Would Maya get aggressive and depressed?” With no treats to curry Maya’s good graces, “Maybe she would hate us.”

But a new study in The Journal of Veterinary Behavior suggests that owners need not fear rejection if they restrict their cats’ calories. After an eight-week diet, the cats actually demonstrated more affection after they were fed, their owners reported.

Veterinarians not involved in the study, by researchers at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, hailed the findings.

“Maybe owners will now be more likely to do what’s healthy for their cats,” said Dr. Bonnie Beaver, executive director of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. ”

In recent years, the epidemic of overweight and obese cats has alarmed veterinarians. “My friends in general practice now say they are surprised when a cat comes in with an ideal body weight,” said Dr. Martha G. Cline, a veterinary nutritionist at Red Bank Veterinary Hospital in Tinton Falls, N.J., who monitors Maya’s weight.

Many factors contribute to weight gain in house cats. Among them is the complexity of the human-animal bond, namely how humans demonstrate love with food, and how cats learn “affectionate behavior” in order to get fed.

“We say, ‘dogs have owners, cats have staff,’” said Dr. Richard E. Goldstein, chief medical officer at the Animal Medical Center in New York. “A cat learns to manipulate us very well: when she’s hungry, she’s the most affectionate cat in the world. And people will do anything to keep their cats happy.”

Many owners “free-feed” cats, letting them graze at will. But bored indoor cats, like bored indoor humans, may eat beyond satiety. “Cats don’t self-regulate well,” said Dr. Goldstein.

Concerned with the human role in feline obesity, Cornell researchers asked: If a cat’s food were reduced, would its behavior change? If so, how would owners translate those changes? For the study, 48 cats, each at least 25 percent over ideal weight, were put on one of three restricted diets, equal in calories. Owners answered extensive questionnaires about their cats:

Before the diet, when your cat was hungry, did it beg? Meow? Pace? After feeding, did it jump in your lap? Since the diet, does your cat bat at you? Hide? Hiss? Steal food?

Good news, cat owners! More than three-quarters of the cats lost weight. And though the frequency of pre-feeding behavior increased — begging, meowing, pacing — it did not begin earlier. (Translation: The cats may have intensified owners’ guilt about giving them less food, but did not protract their misery.)

Better yet, owners felt that despite the restricted feeding, the cats did not turn vindictive. Instead, owners believed the cats showed more affection. After feeding, the cats would more often purr and sit in the owner’s lap.

“We don’t know why,” said Dr. Beaver. “But cats don’t hold a grudge if you limit their food.”

Dr. Emily D. Levine, the study’s lead author, now a veterinary behaviorist in Fairfield, N.J., said that one reason cats gain too much weight is that owners “misread” their pet’s behavior, unwittingly reinforcing it with treats. .

When cats rub up against their owners throughout the day, owners like that behavior, she said, so they feel guilty and think, “ ‘Oh, they must want more food.’ So people feel good feeding their cats and don’t know other ways to give them affection.”

And sometimes, if cats are expecting to be fed and the owner isn’t obeying, the cat may swat. “So you feed them to stop the behavior. There’s a learned component. It works.

“A lot of cats are bored and that’s the bigger picture,” she said. “If the only thing they have to do all day is eat, they will ask for more and more.” Rather than overfeed cats to please them, she said, owners could engage their natural curiosity with interactive play, even training them — really — to go to their place and wait for food.

Over the years, Mrs. Peluso didn’t notice as Maya, now 11, gained weight, a phenomenon similar to that of parents who do not see their children becoming obese.

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Maya had new-found energy after slimming down.

Maya had new-found energy after slimming down.Credit

Putting Maya on a diet was hard. “The begging! The meowing! I felt like I was torturing her!” she said.

With just a few more pounds to reach her goal, Maya is a different cat. “The light is turned on inside her,” said Mrs. Peluso. Maya chases toys and plays hide-and-seek with their other cat. “She can jump on our bed and sleep with us,” she said. “We unknowingly got her into that situation, but we’ve been able to bring her back.”

Some behavior modification obstacles remain, particularly when the couple goes on vacation. Mrs. Peluso’s mother cat-sits.

“My mother says, ‘Where are the treats? The cats need to know I love them!’” And so, Mrs. Peluso said, “I have to hide cat treats from my mother.”

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