Bites by animals

There has been talk of legislation to ban the importation of sterile rottweilers, but because of political pressure this has been stalling for years…

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

The attack of a young man last week by two rottweilers has received widespread media attention for several days, and was accompanied by graphics showing the man being savagely bitten by the two monsters as he lay down fighting for his life. There were also pictures showing him in the hospital bed, bandaged up after he underwent several operations.

Dog bites. Pic – Sun Sentinel

This incident reminded me of a shark bite injury in a middle-aged tourist who was brought to the SSRN Hospital in 1975, the only such case I have ever seen – and wouldn’t want to have to deal with another one! His right upper limb was torn into shreds, and I assisted Dr Steven Keating, Orthopaedic Surgeon (with whom I was attached as a junior doctor) in the operation that was carried out over hours trying to salvage his limb. He was lucky that he didn’t lose his life.

Because of their ferocity and the strength of their jaws when in action, according to a veterinarian the force produced by the rottweilers is of the order of tons! No wonder that the young man has been mangled so badly, and is likely to be left with significant dysfunction and incapacity likely to impact his livelihood. This is over and above the current suffering that he is undergoing and the loss of time off his work until he is sufficiently recovered to resume.

According to WHO, animal bites are a significant cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide, and pose a major public health problem in children and adults. Up to five million people are bitten by snakes every year, the majority in Africa and South-East Asia. Dog bites account for millions more of injuries annually and the highest risk is among children. In fact, the most important animal bites are those arising from snakes, dogs, cats and monkeys. Obviously, the health impacts of animal bites are dependent on the type and health of the animal species, the size and health of the bitten person, and accessibility to appropriate health care.

I am not aware that we have any data compiled on animal bites locally, but given that we have no snakes and wild animals, from personal experience and contacts with veterinarian friends it would seem that dog bites are the most common. This perhaps reflects the global situation; in fact, according to the WHO site ‘there are no global estimates of dog bite incidence; however, studies suggest that dog bites account for tens of millions of injuries annually.’

Most of those that I have treated have fortunately been relatively minor but one veterinarian tells me that almost 80% of the dog bites that he has seen have been caused by rottweilers. They are classified as dangerous animals, and apparently the veterinary community has for years now been canvassing against the importation of sterile rottweilers. They are only used as guard dogs by certain types of people. They have therefore become a lucrative business for some importers who breed them for sale at very high prices.

Apparently, there has been talk of legislation to ban the importation of sterile rottweilers, but because of political pressure this has been stalling for years.

These monsters, for that’s what they look like and are, are known to be very capricious, and can turn on their owners too. A few years ago, a Mauritian elderly couple settled in Canada came over for a visit, and they were invited to lunch by friends in the south of the island who had a rottweiler. The lady guest was pounced upon by the beast as soon as she went through the gate, sustaining severe injuries to her face including the eye. After initial treatment here, she had to undergo further reconstructive surgeries to her eye and eyelids when she went back to Canada.

There was also the case of a lady who lived alone in a big house in Curepipe, and she had probably six Dobermans. Usually well-behaved, suddenly one morning when she went to feed them, they all attacked her, and she was killed by them. There’s also another incident of a younger lady, who was waiting for her children to come from school, not far from the gate of an embassy, when she was suddenly bitten in the legs by two Dobermans who had been released inside the yard. Fortunately, after they bit her, they went back inside, and subsequently she had to have treatment in a private clinic.

When she and her husband went to the police station to register a complaint, they were told that it was pointless because the police were not allowed to take complaints against foreign embassies. If that is the case, then surely this lacuna needs to be addressed? At the very least embassies must ensure their dogs are well secured and not allowed outside their compounds.

When I was an intern in the Safdarjung Hospital New Delhi, I saw cases of people being bitten by snakes and scorpions, which they would bring – rightly so! – for the doctors to see so that they could record which type of animal had bitten, and especially in the case of snakes give the appropriate antivenom. Personally, I didn’t like the experience of seeing these animals, but those who had brought them accompanying the victims seemed to be quite cool!

One injury that we have seen fairly frequently is the laffe bite in the feet of people who had been swimming. It is very painful, and the toxin is very powerful. It can cause gangrene of the area; this can result in amputation of a toe, and in some cases, there may be a raw area left that needs skin grafting.

Rarely I have had to deal with a few cases of bites by red ants in people with diabetes, affecting the heel and the toes. This is because of poor hygiene, but the resulting infection was severe enough that prolonged treatment was required, and even skin grafting in the case of an elderly person.

The same medical maxim applies when it comes to animal bites: Prevention is better than cure. Whether it is large or small indoor pet, many animal bites, most of which are from dogs or cats, can be prevented. Parents and others looking after them must always keep a close eye on young kids around animals, even pets. They must be taught not to tease pets, to handle them gently, and to stay away from stray animals.

* Published in print edition on 1 October 2021

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