A Service Dog Bit My Dad in the Butt. Here's What to Do Next

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It's been one of those days where the truth is stranger than fiction.

House of Cards has been cancelled because of sexual assault allegations against Kevin Spacey. MSNBC fired journalist Mark Halperin for similarly bad behavior. The long-anticipated Russia investigation has resulted in its first charges. And a dog bit my dad in the butt.

In exchange for free golf, my retired dad volunteers at a Boise area golf course. As he was gathering golf balls out of a pond, a man with dementia and his German shepherd service/therapy dog were sitting nearby. My family has owned many German shepherds over the decades (some wonderful, some slightly unhinged), so he was quite comfortable with a big, strange dog in his vicinity.

"Hi boy, how ya doin'?" he shouted, as the dog splashed around in the pond. Apparently, not well. The dog got out of the water, charged at my dad, and bit him in the posterior.

Strangely, the dog was incredibly well trained. The owner simply lifted his finger, and the dog sat down. My dad, on the other hand, was left with torn jeans, bite marks, and a bloody bottom. Now what?

What To Do When a Dog Bites You

If you get bitten by a wild animal, you should go to the doctor or to the emergency room. There's a chance the animal has rabies, and depending on the circumstances, the doctor might recommend that you receive a rabies vaccine.

Rabies is far less likely with a pet dog. The CDC says about 4.5 million dog bites occur each year in the U.S., and about 18% become infected. For minor wounds, the CDC advises cleaning it and observing the wound for signs of infection. However, for deep wounds, like the kind my dad suffered, the CDC recommends seeking medical help. That's what my dad did.

According to the doctor he saw, there are far worse domesticated animals by which he could have been bitten -- like a human or a cat. Though many dogs carry the bacterium Capnocytophaga canimorsus in their mouths, infections are rare (though they can be lethal). 

So, while the doctor decided against antibiotics, he did recommend a tetanus vaccine. Tetanus is caused when spores of the bacterium Clostridium tetani get inside of a wound and germinate, releasing a neurotoxin. These spores are ubiquitous in the soil1 and could even be in a dog's mouth. A tetanus booster shot is advised every 10 years, so this was a good time for my dad to get the jab, anyway.

The bottom line on dog bites is that worse things can happen. Most bites aren't serious, while about 18% become infected and probably require antibiotics. A subset of these infections can be very serious, but rarely does anyone die from an infected dog bite. Rabies from a pet dog is highly improbable.

As usual, it is other humans of which you should be most afraid.

Notes

(1) Contrary to popular wisdom, rusty nails do not cause tetanus. Instead, rusty nails found in the soil might have tetanus spores on them, which can become embedded in your flesh if a nail penetrates your skin.

(2) One intrepid researcher compiled a review of all laboratory-documented cases of Capnocytophaga canimorsus that were transmitted from animals to humans. He counted 292 cases in 25 years.