This week Barry was lucky to survive. Barry is a young seven-month-old wirehaired terrier. His owners had taken him out for a walk when they chanced upon another dog walker and they stopped to allow their dogs to greet one another. Unfortunately, the other larger dog took exception to Barry and before they realised what was about to happen, Barry was attacked and bitten on the back and hindquarters.

Dogs at play often pretend that they are fighting. They growl, bark, wrestle, snap, lunge and bite one another gently enough that they do not cause injury unless it is accidental.  But when dogs really fight one another, there is no pretence about it whatsoever. They bite with the intent to subdue or overcome their opponent.

There are various underlying reasons that compel adult dogs to fight one another. The first thing to appreciate is that dogfights can happen both between strange dogs, as well as dogs living in the same home. Dogs sometimes fight because they feel threatened by the other dog and take pre-emptive measures. They may feel a need to compete over territory or food – even if they live in a house where getting fed is not an issue. They may attack to protect another family dog or even their owner.

In the presence of other dogs, they may feel the need to seek their owner’s attention. Hierarchy between dogs is also very important. If they live with other dogs they will tend to fight to establish their dominance within the pack. If a dominant dog meets another dominant dog that does not back down, they will fight until the stronger of the two establishes dominance. Female dogs with puppies may attack any other canine over a perceived threat to her young, while male dogs may attack others over a female dog. Whichever the situation that prompted the dogfight, dog bites can cause injury, severe trauma and even death.

A dog’s jaw is a powerful instrument. When used in aggression, it can puncture skin and flesh as well as rip muscles, and break the bones of a smaller victim. The most common bite wounds are puncture wounds or small tears in the skin. Although these wounds may seem small and inconsequential, it is easy to underestimate the damage caused.

A dog’s skin is highly elastic in the sense that its skin can be gently pulled and stretched. When a dog bites another, it not only punctures or tears the skin, it also shakes its victim. As it does so, its canines scrape the underlying tissue to the extent permitted by the elasticity of the skin.

A dog’s jaw is a powerful instrument. When used in aggression, it can puncture skin and flesh as well as rip muscles, and break the bones of a smaller victim

A dog’s mouth is alive with bacteria. When the dog sinks its teeth into its victim, the teeth have the potential to introduce bacteria into the dog’s body. Left untreated, the skin of a healthy dog will heal quickly, sealing off the bacteria beneath the skin where it will multiply and spread to other parts of the body. This type of untreated puncture wound can cause either an abscess within the area of the bite, or more serious infection that spreads to other areas of the body, sometimes leading to sepsis or peritonitis with serious consequences. So, if you are unlucky enough to have your dog attacked, it is very important that you take it to your vet as soon as possible – even if your dog has a heavy coat of fur or does not seem to be the worse for wear for having been bitten.

Not all bite wounds are small. When there is a difference in size between aggressor and victim, or when more than one dog gang up on an individual, the injuries are often visibly life-threatening.  Injuries such as penetrations of the chest wall could cause the lungs of the victim to collapse. The face of the dog is an area that is frequently bitten with mouth and ear injuries, as well as eye injuries sometimes leading to blindness. Injuries to the soft belly and groin can be life-threatening, as can bite wounds inflicted around the neck area where major blood vessels and the airways can be damaged. With heavy blood loss, a dog will rapidly go into hypoglycemic shock which can be fatal.

Sometimes the injuries are life-threatening but less obviously visible. If your dog is whimpering, moaning or limping, it is telling you that it is in distress. If it has been savagely attacked and is bleeding heavily, has pale gums, having difficulty breathing, is exhibiting weakness or has collapsed, you must treat the situation as an emergency.

Depending on the extent of injury, your veterinarian may need to first try to stabilise your pet before attending to the physical injuries. For example, with severe blood loss, intravenous fluids will be the one of the first courses of treatment attempted. A thorough physical examination will certainly form part of the initial diagnosis. The area of injury is likely to be shaved so that the injuries can be better assessed and so that fur and dirt can be washed out of the wound. Pain relief and/or sedation may also be required.

Small wounds may need to be left open, while others may need stitches, and more serious ones may need to have a temporary drain inserted to facilitate fluid drainage in the area. Thereafter, depending on the nature of the case, your veterinary surgeon may need to take a closer look at your dog using methods such as X-ray and ultrasound to better assess the extent of the injury.  In all cases, antibiotics to fight potential infection will be prescribed, while surgery may be recommended in case of tissue damage.

If your dog is unlucky enough to be bitten by another, your first aid skills will do much to contribute towards its recovery and, possibly, even save its life. The wound should first be cleaned with clean water or medical saline solution if available followed by application of an antiseptic such as diluted hydrogen peroxide or iodine tincture.

If the wound is bleeding profusely, apply a clean towel or cloth to the wound and keep up a firm pressure until you can get to your veterinary clinic. Once your pet has been attended to by the vet, follow-up visits will ensure that stubborn infections are treated in a timely manner and that bandages are changed safely and the wound kept clean. During the warm season, do your best to keep your pet free of flies because of the high-risk of blow-flies laying their eggs in open wounds for maggots to hatch and feed on living tissue – in itself a life-threatening situation.

Luckily for Barry, his injuries were not life-threatening, but he did have several small puncture wounds which were duly treated. During the treatment, I also explained to his owners that socialisation between dogs during the younger puppy training period could go a long way towards preventing such situations. His owners tell me that he now seems to have got over the fright of being attacked but that he is averse to approaching a strange dog. Maybe not such a bad thing after all.

Dr Martin Debattista is a veterinary surgeon.

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