05/20/2011 12:00 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2011

How To Prevent Dog Bites

A recent article I posted on Huffington Post touted the health benefits of owning pets. While the benefits far outweigh the risks for most people, the risks shouldn't be ignored. In rare cases, pets can transmit diseases to humans, medically known as zoonoses. But in not-so-rare cases, pets bite, causing all sorts of medical problems. Indeed, almost five million people in the U.S. were bitten by dogs last year, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Dog (and other pet) bites can cause rabies, serious infections, disfigurement and psychological trauma, especially in children. Children, in fact, are the most common victims of dog bites. Most kids are bitten on the head and neck, and are between the ages of five and nine. Approximately 600,000 children require medical attention each year because of dog bites.

The elderly and postal carriers are the next groups most likely to be bitten. According to the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), 5,669 postal workers were attacked by dogs last year. To help prevent bites from dogs who may "go postal," the USPS, AVMA, American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and other medical organizations have joined forces and declared this week (May 15th to 21st) National Dog Bite Prevention Week.

These organizations offer the following tips for preventing dog bites:

• Pick a dog that is good match for your home. Consult your veterinarian for details.
• Socialize your pet. Gradually expose your puppy to a variety of people and other animals so it feels at ease in these situations; continue this exposure as your dog gets older.
• Train your dog. Commands can build a bond of obedience and trust between the dog and owner. Avoid aggressive games with your dog.
• Vaccinate your dog against rabies and other diseases.
• Neuter or spay your dog. These dogs are less likely to bite.
• Never leave a baby or small child alone with a dog.
• Teach your child to ask a dog owner for permission before petting any dog.
• Let a strange dog sniff you or your child before touching it, and pet it gently, avoiding the face and tail.
• Never bother a dog if it is sleeping, eating or caring for puppies.
• Do not run past a dog.
• If a dog threatens you, remain calm. Avoid eye contact. Stand still or back away slowly until the dog leaves. If you are knocked down, curl into a ball and protect your face with your arms and fists.

Biting is not just a dog problem; cats, rodents, reptiles and even birds are also culpable. In fact, cat bites are significantly more likely to cause infections than dog bites. Many of the tips above apply to cats and other pets as well.

The bottom line is that any animal can bite, and animal bites shouldn't be ignored. If bitten, wash the wound immediately with soap and warm water, followed by an antiseptic solution. Then apply an antibiotic ointment and cover the wound. To be safe, when the skin is broken and bleeds, see a health care professional; and, if possible, have the pet evaluated by a vet.

Dog bites can also hurt the pocketbook; the Insurance Information Institute (III) reports that dogs bites are responsible for more than a third of homeowners' liability claims, adding up to more than $400 million a year. According to the III, the average claim for a dog bite in 2010 was $26,166. So preventing dog bites makes good monetary sense, as well as medical sense.

For more information about preventing and treating dog and other pet bites, check out the following links:

American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP)

American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)

American Veterinary Medical Association (AMVA)

Centers for Disease Control (CDC)

United States Postal Service (USPS)

Dr. Joan Liebmann-Smith is a medical sociologist and medical writer. Her most recent books are Body Signs: How to be Your Own Diagnostic Detective and Baby Body Signs: The Head-to-Toe Guide to Your Child's Health. She's currently writing a book on pets and health.