Chew on This: Consequences of Dog Bites on Children More Impactful Than You Think

The scars of dog bite attacks go much further than skin deep. Many dog bite victims will attest that the psychological damage nearly always outlasts the physical healing process. For children, it may be even worse.

Half of the 800,000 Americans who need medical attention for dog bites each year are children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The age range most at risk for dog bites is 5 to 9 years. For children of these ages to suffer a dog bite means that, if untreated, they could suffer the psychological repercussions of the attack for the next 80 years or more.

As attorneys who represent dog bite victims, we always fight for our clients to receive compensation not only for hospital bills but also for their physical and emotional suffering. Why do we fight for compensation that exceeds the medical costs of fixing physical damage caused by the dog bite? What must be taken into account is the lasting emotional damage inflicted by a dog attack, particularly when the victim is a child. Long-term costs of counseling are going to add up, and the child deserves some sort of recompense for being the innocent victim of a dog owner’s negligence.

Doctors at the University of Cincinnati surveyed families of pediatric dog bite victims and found that more than 70% of parents noted at least one concerning behavioral change in their child after the attack. Below, we discuss the long-term damage a dog attack may have on a child and what to do in case of an incident.

What is the emotional impact of a dog bite attack on a child?

Intense Fear

The CDC notes that nearly 66% of injuries among children ages 4 years and under are to the head or neck region.

Child psychiatrist, R. Larry Schmitt, M.D., states on the Doggone Safe website, “Such attacks equate to that of a bear attack on an adult, in terms of the shock, overwhelming fear and residual stress. The emotional impact on the child and the adult is huge.”

Dr. Schmitt paints a revealing picture. The average three-year-old stands approximately 36 inches fall, meaning even an ironically nicknamed “ankle-biter” could reach the child’s face. Standing on four legs, large dogs may be taller than a toddler and on two legs, would tower well over most children. Dogs that adults may have to bend down to pet are still easily big enough to overpower a child.

Inability to Communicate

Not only does the size disparity play a role in the fear the child feels during the attack, the age of the victim may hinder the child from being able or willing to discuss what happened. If the child is very young, he or she may entirely lack the verbal skills to communicate what happened.

Dr. Schmitt adds, “The difference is the adult will talk about their experience…The child will not talk about it and greatly needs to. This is because the child sees the sad faces of his parents anytime the topic comes up. They remain silent to save their parents from additional grief.”

In severe cases, a child may exhibit deep psychological issues after a dog-bite related trauma. Such is the case for a 4-year-old girl in Greece, who developed selective mutism (inability to speak) after suffering a dog attack, reports the Journal of Medical Case Reports. The little girl would speak within her home, but refused to engage verbally with doctors, neighbors and others outside the home. She would also have outbursts of anger and anxiety when left alone. After six months of psychotherapy for the girl and counseling for her parents, her behavior had improved but not entirely rebounded. This supports the need for careful monitoring of and response to changes in behavior after a dog attack.

Shattered Self Image

Dr. Henri Gaboriau, a plastic surgeon who specializes in reconstructing people’s faces after they have been bitten by animals, said that face wounds in particular often destroy a victim’s self-esteem and sense of themselves. “We have to reassure them that this is going to be an ongoing project and that we will try to make them look as normal as possible,” he says.

Loss of Family Member

The CDC reports that approximately 16 people die each year as a result of dog bites. It’s important to be aware that children who have lost a family member to a dog attack may struggle with fear of dogs in addition to dealing with the death of their loved one. We have filed wrongful death claims to obtain compensation for costs of counseling, such as that which may be needed by a child in this situation.

What should you do if a dog has bitten your child?

  • Seek Immediate Medical Attention – Even if the bite is minor, the risk for infection is too great to ignore. In addition to first aid and cleaning of the wound, your child may need antibiotics, a tetanus shot or booster and/or rabies vaccination.
  • Have Your Child’s Wellbeing Assessed – Monitor your child in the days and weeks following the incident. If your child seems fearful, acts differently from normal, experiences nightmares or otherwise upset or disturbed, you should have him or her evaluated to see if therapy is needed. Do not be afraid to seek therapy for yourself as well if the event has traumatized you – doctors at the University of Cincinnati found that 85% of parents had concerns over their own reactions to the dog bite.
  • Talk About What Happened – Dr. Schmitt suggests that parents “repeatedly encourage and allow their child to talk about the accident and what happened.” He suggests beginning a conversation about it almost immediately after the event. Doggone Safe emphasizes not using words that might add to the child’s guilt, such as “you should have…” or “why didn’t you…”
  • Find Out if the Dog was Vaccinated – When you report the bite to your local health department, find out whether the dog had its vaccinations. Do not take the dog owner’s word for it, no matter how much you trust them.

We Will Help You

While we hope you and your loved ones never fall victim to a dog attack, we want you to be prepared if such a tragedy does occur. After seeking medical attention, contact the law firm of Oshman & Mirisola, LLP immediately for a free consultation. We will help you decide the best path to getting you the compensation you deserve.

Ted Oshman

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Ted Oshman has been with Oshman & Mirisola since 1988 serving clients for over 25 years. Learn more about Ted's background and featured practice areas here.

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