The next time Fido gets in a spat, think twice about how to intervene.
Doctors at Southern Arizona's only top-level trauma center have seen a steady increase in people admitted to the hospital for dog bites. The number nearly doubled between the 2008 and 2012 fiscal years, hospital statistics show.
While there are some exceptions, canine experts say the trend points to uneducated and inhumane actions by people, not mean dogs. Too often, owners unwisely try to stop dogfights by getting in the middle of them.
In the most recent fiscal year, 328 people were admitted to the University of Arizona Medical Center for dog bites, the data show. Those admitted include both adults and children, and they are typically bitten by their own dogs, says Dr. Tolga Turker, a reconstructive and plastic surgeon at UA Medical Center who treats many dog-bite patients. Hands and fingers are most commonly bitten, Pima County data show.
"When I ask them how it happened I am hearing almost the same scenario - either their dog is fighting a neighbor's dog or they have two dogs, they fight in the home and they try to stop them," Turker said.
Most bites preventable
Most bites are preventable. Local dog trainers say part of the problem is that people adopt dogs without learning how to properly care for them, including how to avoid or stop dogfights. Inexperienced dog owners with small children don't always choose dogs with an easygoing temperament, and the number of people who have multiple dogs is on the rise.
Also, owners who mistreat or neglect dogs have a much higher likelihood of having an animal that bites or becomes vicious.
"It might be fear, displaced aggression, food aggression - there's such a variety of reasons why dogs might bite," said Maureen Odenwald, owner of the local Dog Central Station.
Tucson caregiver Nancie Roahrig learned her lesson about interfering in a dogfight the hard way. She still isn't sure what caused her father's Maltese, Ozzie to attack her son's larger mixed-breed dog, Jade, on Dec. 15.
Roahrig's father and son both live with her, so Ozzie and Jade were used to one another and had always gotten along. Roahrig, 54, suspects the dogs picked up on tension and sadness in the home - the fight erupted shortly after her husband died.
"My dad went outside and the little dog attacked the big dog. The big dog, in defense, picked up the little dog by the neck," said Roahrig, who used her hands to try and save Ozzie. "I thought I could open the big dog's jaw. I did open it, but she about chewed my finger off before I pulled it out."
Though her finger was crushed, she managed to twist Jade's collar until the dog dropped Ozzie. She ended up in the emergency room because Jade had bitten through the joint. She now has a pin in her finger and a fused bone. Her top knuckle does not bend.
"You have to be mindful and keep your hands away from that mouth," said Roahrig, who now keeps spray bottles of vinegar water in the event of a fight. "Just like plastic bags to pick up after their dogs, owners need to have something like a spray bottle in case there is a fight."
Jade and Ozzie are now doing fine and getting along well, Roahrig said.
"They seem settled. I just don't know what that was," she said of the spat.
Small dogs, big bites
Even small dogs can have powerful bites, Turker said.
"Their jaw is very strong, so when they bite the bone becomes like powder," he said.
The number of hospital admissions for dog bites represents only a fraction of people bitten by canines. But unlike hospital admissions, dog bites reported to the Pima County Animal Care Center in the last four years have held fairly steady, at 2,300 to 2,500 per year, said José Chavez, enforce-ment operations manager for the county facility.
Chavez isn't sure why there might be more hospital admissions for dog bites than in the past. All animal bites are supposed to be reported to the county, though not everyone knows about that law. Some people may fear that by reporting a bite their dog will be euthanized, but that is rare. Unless the animal is rabid, it cannot be euthanized unless there's an order from a justice of the peace or city magistrate, or the owner gives consent. Typically dogs are quarantined, sometimes at home.
Nationally, hospital admissions for dog bites nearly doubled between 1993 and 2008 to 9,500, a 2010 government report shows. Half of the people bitten by dogs are children, with boys more likely victims than girls.
One recent local death
County records show one recent death from dog bites - musician and maintenance specialist Francis Michael "Mike" Cook died in August 2011, three weeks after his pit bull mix, Butch, bit him in the neck and arm.
Cook was alone in the house with Butch and two smaller dogs when the attack happened, so his family doesn't know precisely what occurred. But they know is Butch had just been neutered and had a cone around his neck to prevent him from biting the stitches.
Butch could have been in pain from the surgery or reacting to medication. Or Butch and the other two dogs could have been fighting over food. The family found dog food all over Cook's floor after the attack, and one of the smaller dogs had a bite injury. Butch had all but destroyed the cone around his head.
Whatever happened, the result was heartbreaking.
"Butch was our family dog and we had him for about six or seven years since he was a puppy," Cook's daughter Francine Cook said. "He was a really nice dog, and protective. My dad was always an animal lover. He'd never had a problem like this."
Cook was able to get outside after the attack, and neighbors, who heard his yells, came to his aid and called 911. At the family's request, Butch was euthanized.
Fatal attacks by dogs are rare - about 16 per year, which works out to 0.0002 percent of the total number of people bitten, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.
The CDC says there is no measure to determine which breeds are more likely to bite or kill, though many people perceive pit bull mixes as a bigger threat than other dogs.
But pit bulls are victims of dog attacks, too. Two months ago, 48-year-old Michael Wood suffered puncture wounds to his hand when a collie attacked his 2-year-old rescue pit bull mix, Rosco in a dog park.
"I wouldn't break up a fight like that anymore," said Wood, who works for a local glass supply company.
Wood gets upset when he hears people saying pit bulls are vicious and aggressive.
"If you knew my dog, he's the biggest lover you've ever met," he said. "It all has to do with the owner. If you train your dog to fight, bite and be mean, he's going to do that. If you love and take care and be good to them, they are going to be the same thing. Yes, your dog will protect you. But other than that, they are some of the most loving animals you can run across with the right owners."
Longtime Tucson dog trainer Rosemary Besenick says more people are rescuing dogs now than in the past, and that's a good thing. But taking care of a dog requires more than just feeding, walking and love, she stressed.
Training is essential
"The majority of dogs that bite just didn't get socialized properly at a young age," she said. "You have to take them and rearrange your lifestyle with them and set limits just like with children. Most people don't do that. They think their dog is the greatest thing in the world and give them freedom with no training."
Besenick suggests carrying citronella spray at all times, which can defuse a dogfight.
CDC officials advise teaching pet dogs submissive behaviors like rolling over to expose the abdomen and relinquishing food without growling. If a dog develops aggressive or undesirable behaviors, federal health officials say families must immediately seek professional advice from someone like a veterinarian or an animal behaviorist.
If it is just a spat, make a loud noise and leave the room. Most dogfights happen in the presence of humans, Odenwald says. Scooping up the back legs of the aggressor dog like a wheelbarrow will surprise them and get them to disengage from the fight, though Odenwald says that should only be done as a last resort.
Strange dog? Use care
Some people like Trudy Jacobson have been bitten after approaching a stranger's dog. Jacobson, 59, lost the bottom part of her lip last June when she tried to kiss a Doberman at the Reid Park dog park. The dog was old, deaf and blind.
"I kissed the wrong one," said Jacobson, who owns three German shepherds. "It was absolute hell. I needed plastic surgery. But it could have been worse. I could have lost my whole face."
An Arizona Daily Star analysis of Pima County dog bites between 2008 and 2012 shows at least 16 people, including Jacobson, were bitten while trying to kiss a dog.
"Most people, when I tell this story, say they would never kiss a strange dog," said Jacobson, who works for the University of Arizona Retirees Association. "However, people need to be responsible. This guy should not have had a dog in that condition at a public park."
Odenwald says it's never a good idea to kiss a stranger's dog.
"If you don't know a dog, don't put yourself in that position. It's common sense to let him sniff the back of your hand first, but always ask the owner," she said. "You don't know if a dog has a little quirk or an injury that hurts them. Even if the dog is friendly, what you are doing might be offensive to the dog.
"People have to learn basic dog etiquette."
Hospital admissions for dog bites at University of Arizona Medical Center:
*Data is recorded by fiscal year, which begins July 1 and ends June 30.
Arizona Daily Star reporter Carli Brosseau contributed to this report. Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at 573-4134 or firstname.lastname@example.org