Friday, February 26, 2010

Vicious Dogs in Veteriary Settings

This week, the internet became inflamed from the story of a dachshund named "Spork." According to this article, Spork bit a veterinary technician and now faces "euthanasia or kenneling." He even has a Facebook page. The veterinarian is being defamed as incompetent and uncaring, and Spork and his owners are being portrayed as innocent victims of circumstance.

Sadly, even without knowing the particulars, it is very clear to me that this story has been misconstrued and blown out of proportion by the media. I don't know the veterinarian involved, but I definately sympathize with her. I'll list the inconsistencies and the problems that the media (and, apparently, the general public) do not understand.

1. First, it is important to realize that, if an animal bites anyone in a veterinary clinic, the practice owner is liable. Though slightly different in different states, this fact is widely understood in the veterinary community and precautions are made to minimize the risks. Even an owner that walks into the waiting room and is bit or scratched by their own pet can hold the vet liable, as inane as that sounds. It is for that reason that most veterinary clinics enforce rules such as making sure all animals are properly leashed or confined in a carrier at all times, and that only the hospital staff is allowed to hold any animals for treatment, even if it is something simple. The veterinary staff is trained in ways to safely restrain animals to minimize the risk of injury to any humans or pets around, and workman's comp insurance will cover injuries to staff but not to a client. Even with precautions, occasionally someone will get injured.

2. Secondly, most communities require the reporting of any animal-related injuries, especially if the person bit seeks medical treatment. I do not know how severely this tech was bitten, but many animal bites require copious flushing plus antibiotics if not stitches and the like. The report is made to the local animal control or whatever the local authority is that monitors such things. Then, depending on the community, several routes are taken. For example, in my community, if a dog bites someone, they need to be quarantined for rabies (more on that later) for a period of time, even if they have a recent vaccination. If an animal bites three people causing injury, he may be deemed "vicious" by the city and potentially face euthanasia. Though I am having difficulty wading through the gobs of hype related to this issue and finding out exactly what the regulations in this community are, I have a feeling the vet did as she was supposed to do in reporting the incident and it is the city's business what the next step is.

3. Thirdly, a word or two about rabies...The biggest fear whenever an animal bites someone is the spread of rabies. Though it is very rare now due to good vaccination protocols, rabies is still around. Rabies is always (for all intents and purposes) fatal and hugely difficult to test for. The only was you can test for rabies is with brain, it is always a post mortem diagnosis.

However, for all of its difficulties, rabies follows a fairly predictable course. When an animal is bit, the virus is transmitted via the saliva into the blood and nerve cells of the animal. It then travels via nerve sheaths to the brain. Distance does animal bit on the face will develop rabies faster than an animal bit on it's hind leg due to the proximity to the brain. The virus must enter the brain and multiply before it is then shed in the saliva. So, for an animal to transmit rabies, it must be present in the brain first.

For this reason, in most cases, animals that bite someone are put in a 10-day quarantine (at home or in a veterinary clinic, depending on the community and the situation). The reason for this is, if an animal bites you and is shedding rabies at that time, it will be dead or showing signs of rabies within 10 days. The only other way to test for rabies it by sampling the brain so if the animal cannot be quarantined for some reason, they may be euthanized. This is important because, if a person is bitten by a rabid animal, treatment must be started (which is both painful and expensive) ASAP or the bitten person risks contracting the disease.

4. Any dog can bite...and will! No matter the size or breed of the dog, there are circumstances that will trigger even the nicest dog to feel threatened and, if they cannot flee they will fight. Circumstances are everything!!! Small dogs can bite just as easily as big dogs, but the difference is that big dogs are much more likely to cause serious injury. In my experience, smaller dogs can be harder to restrain than some bigger dogs, so sometimes the risk of biting is greater when dealing with small dogs. Dachshunds are especially tricky because they can be a "bitey" breed (related to their history as being bred as hunters of aggressive badgers), and their anatomy puts their very long nose very near you, especially if you are trying to do something like take a blood sample from their jugular vein or placing an IV catheter in their front leg.
There is a substantial difference between a "normal" dog bite and a bite from a dog that can truly be deemed a "vicious" dog. My own dachshund bit me once. I had him at the clinic for something and it was slow appointment-wise, so I decided to practice performing an abdominal ultrasound on him. He was terrified and I could see it, but I ignored it. Abdominal ultrasound is uncomfortable, but not painful, so I figured he could handle it. Since I ignored his signs, he escalated his behavior and bit my hand. It was nowhere near a serious bite, and I think he and I were equally as surprised. However, it was completely (1) predictable and therefore preventable, and (2) controlled and appropriate to the situation. Those two points are what make that bite "acceptable" versus the unacceptable bite of a truly vicious dog.

The bottom-line of this story is that we do not have all the facts. There are clearly extenuating circumstances in Spork's case that are not being adequately aired and recognized. Spork would not be facing euthanasia for biting one person once unless there is some very serious issue the we don't know about.

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