May 29, 2017


Dog bites – contributing factors and physical warning signs

by Aili V. Heintz, DVM

No one likes to think of “man’s best friend” as an aggressive and potentially dangerous animal. Unfortunately, there are times when dogs react by biting. But why? Understanding why some dogs bite and the warning signs of an impending bite can be the best way to prevent it in the first bite

Why do some dogs try to bite?

This is a very complicated question to try to answer. When humans are scared or frightened, we have two very basic responses: fight or flight. With a “flight” response, we try to get away from the things that are making us uncomfortable. If we can’t get away, we may turn to fighting (using the “fight” response) as a method of self-preservation.

Dogs also have instinctual “fight or flight” responses.  Often times, dogs aren’t able to get away from scary or intimidating things because they are on leashes or in enclosed areas. For most dogs, a nip or a bite is a way of saying “get away” rather than an overtly aggressive act. Just because a dog may try to nip or bite doesn’t mean that it is a “bad dog.”

What factors contribute to a “fight” response?

Several underlying factors may increase a dog’s predisposition to bite.  Some of these factors include:

  • Nervous disposition
  • Not socialized with people or other dogs yet
  • Recovering from surgery
  • Painful due to health problems
  • In season for breeding
  • Protecting home territory or owner

There are some dogs that have more aggressive temperaments. These dogs need training, and their families need help to manage their behaviors to keep everyone, including the dogs, safe.

What are some warning signs?

Dogs may give you some warning before they bite. These physical signs indicate that a dog is not comfortable and may resort to the “fight” response:

  • Ears back
  • Tail tucked between back legs
  • Cowering away
  • Hackles raised (fur between shoulders)
  • Growling
  • Lips pulled back or teeth showing

Please keep in mind that there are some dogs who may give no warning at all and may just go straight to a nip or bite. Be careful when approaching any dog, and always remember to ask the owner for permission before approaching or petting a dog (especially if you don’t know the dog).

 Don’t be a statistic!

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 4.5 million dog bites occur each year in the United States. Knowing the reasons dogs bite and watching for important warning signs may keep you from being a part of that large number! For more information on dog bites and dog bite prevention, see what else the CDC has to say. Well-educated owners, together with well-trained dogs, can reduce the number of dog bites that occur this year.

Dr. Aili HeintDr. Heintz and her dog, Mimiz is a small and exotic animal veterinarian at Countrycare Animal Complex in Green Bay, WI. She earned her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from University of Illinois – Urbana/Champaign. Her passion is helping all animals, whether furry, scaly, or feathered, lead long and healthy lives.