When a pet gets into a fight with a dog, many different medical problems may arise. This handout is intended to help you understand these problems and how we can address them in order to maximize the chances for your pet’s full recovery.

Dogs are natural hunters. In the wild, they are use to killing their prey in order to survive. Nature has given them very powerful jaws with strong, sharp teeth to be used as their weapons for both hunting and defending their territory. When dogs get into fights with other animals, they instinctively attempt to kill them by focusing their biting in the neck area. Because of the large blood vessels located in the neck, a well-placed bite can cut off the blood supply to the brain and kill their prey. Of course, dog bites occur over the body and do serious damage in other places besides the neck.

If you’ve ever witnessed a dog fight, you know that frequently, a dog will inflict a bite and hold onto that area and tear at it unrelentingly. When this happens, the dog is ripping the muscles, nerves and blood vessels under the skin. When the dogs come apart, you may notice only one or two small puncture wounds, however, there may be severe damage to the underlying tissues that must be addressed if your pet is to heal. When the teeth penetrates the skin, they drags dirty hair, debris and bacteria from their mouth through the wound into the sub-cutaneous tissues. The bacteria then begin to reproduce in the blood and crushed tissue and can form an abscess.

Frequently, a larger dog will pick up a smaller dog or cat in its mouth and shake it. This can lead to damage to the spine or neck. Your pet may have difficulty using one or more legs as a result of this type of injury. This may require x-rays to help determine the extent of the injury.

In addition to the obvious injuries associated with dog fights, your pet may suffer from severe pain and actually go into shock as a result of the fight. Small dogs and cats are particularly prone to these problems.

How do we treat dog bite wounds?

If you know your pet got into a dog fight, it is important to bring them into the veterinarian as soon as possible. Once there, the veterinarian will evaluate your entire pet, checking all the major organ systems and then focusing on the damage done by the fight.

Most often, your pet will need to be treated for shock and pain with intravenous fluids (to restore the blood pressure) and pain relief medication. Then, it may be necessary to sedate your pet to evaluate the full extent of the damage. Once sedated, the bite wounds are clipped of hair and cleaned of debris, then we probe the wounds to determine how much damage was done to the underlying tissues.

Frequently, x-rays and/or blood tests may be needed to ascertain the extent of the injuries. When we know where the injuries are, we then anesthetize your pet completely and open the wound(s) surgically. We remove any debris and unhealthy tissue and repair any tissues that can be repaired.

Finally, we implant a plastic drain tube to allow any blood, serum or pus to drain out of the body rather than forming an abscess. We close the skin with stitches and place the pet on antibiotics for 7 to 14 days. The drain tube is usually removed in 3-6 days and the pet is most often sent home with a plastic “Elizabethan” collar to prevent the premature removal of the drain and/or stitches. Pain medication is frequently dispensed to help reduce your pet’s suffering.

What can I do at home to ensure my pet’s recovery?

We encourage you to apply warm moist compresses to the wound(s) 2-3 times daily during the postoperative period. This encourages blood to come to the area to help it heal. It also encourages contaminated pus to drain from the wound. You should keep the Elizabethan collar on your pet at all times during the healing phase. The medication must be given as directed and you should keep your pet indoors until the sutures are removed. If the wound begins to open up, smells bad, or doesn’t appear to be healing, as you would expect, be sure to bring your pet in for evaluation.

What is the prognosis for my pet?

Bite wounds can be very serious diseases. If left untreated, bite wounds can readily kill your pet. When treated with appropriate surgical technique, 80-90% of bite wounds will go on to heal in a couple of weeks. In some cases, the skin around the wounds may continue to die off, in spite of the surgery and the wounds may pull open. In this case, a second surgery may be warranted. Occasionally, a bite wound becomes infected with bacteria that are resistant (can’t be killed) by the antibiotic selected. In these cases, a culture and sensitivity test and addition of other antibiotics would be necessary. If neurologic (nerve) damage was sustained during the fight, the long-range prognosis may be more guarded, as nerves are very slow to heal.

What can I do to prevent bite wounds?

Obviously, maintaining your pet on a leash when in public is the first defense against bite wounds. In the home (frequently bite wounds occur between house mates) feed pets in separate areas since most fights begin over food or treats. Learn to “listen” to your pet’s warnings. Low growls, bared teeth, and snarled lips are all signs that your pet may bite. When you see these signs, separate the pets immediately and review what factors may have just contributed to the aggression. Sometimes, behavioral counseling and obedience training may be needed to help prevent this type of behavior.