Animal related injuries on the rise

May 16,2024

Animal Care And Farming

Pet-Related Injuries: An Escalating Issue Amidst Australia's Pet Ownership Boom 

An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) study reveals a worrying increase in animal-related hospitalisations for several years, with a noticeable surge since the start of the pandemic. This coincides with a significant rise in Australian pet ownership. In contrast to the small town of Gunnedah in New South Wales, known for its venomous snakes, a surprising culprit often underlies these injuries: our furry companions. 

Sarah Carter, a Gunnedah resident, shared her experience. During a puppy training session with Maxi, her corgi, she faced an unexpected hospital visit. While offering a treat, Maxi excitedly jumped up and inadvertently lacerated her finger. Carter, being immunocompromised due to chemotherapy, required antibiotics and specialist treatment to prevent complications. Thankfully, she recovered successfully. Yet even playful puppies can pose risks. 

Domestic Pets, A Growing Cause for Concern 

The AIHW study highlights that in 2021-22, dogs and cats accounted for over 50% of the 23,379 animal-related injury hospitalisations recorded. This growing trend aligns with an increase in pet ownership spurred by the pandemic. 

Dr Sarah Ahmed, the report's lead author, explains, "Over the 10-year period, overall hospitalisations rose gradually. However, concerningly, hospitalisations involving common pets grew much more rapidly, particularly from 2019-20 onwards." 

Understanding the Impacts 

The AIHW report's findings dovetail with an Animal Medicines Australia survey confirming an upswing in pet ownership during the COVID-19 pandemic. This corresponds with a 10% rise in animal-related hospitalisations documented between 2019-20 and 2020-21. 

Analysis of the report indicates that open wounds and fractures are the most frequent injuries. Unsurprisingly, the upper limbs, including wrists and hands, are the most commonly affected body parts (nearly 50%). Dogs were identified as the leading cause of hospital treatment, with 40% percent of all animal-related injuries being dog bites or strikes. 

Insights from Emergency Medicine 

Dr Jonathan Karro, director of emergency medicine at St Vincent's hospital in Melbourne, underscores that the AIHW findings align with their observations. St Vincent's data reveals a gradual uptick in animal bites over the past decade, with a clear escalation between 2020 and 2023. Dr Karro reports that approximately 75% of animal-related injuries they treat involve dogs, followed by cats. Interestingly, they also treat occasional cases involving other animals like rabbits, possums, bats, and even monkeys (often acquired overseas). 

A common pattern Dr Karro observes is patients admitted after intervening in fights between their dogs and other dogs encountered on walks. Sadly, a concerning 40-50% of these cases require hospital admission for surgery to cleanse the wounds and administer antibiotics. 

animal-related injuries

Important Considerations 

It's important to note that the AIHW report focuses on hospital admissions and excludes emergency department presentations without admission. Consequently, it likely underestimates the total number of animal-related injuries treated outside of hospitals. 

Dr Christopher Harrison from the University of Sydney's Menzies Centre for Health Policy and Economics emphasizes that this report could represent just "the tip of the iceberg." He references findings from the Bettering the Evaluation and Care of Health (BEACH) national study, which estimated that GPs attended to around 49,000 dog bites and 6,000 cat bite patients in 2015-16. These numbers are expected to have grown. 

Age and Vulnerability 

While anyone can be injured by an animal, the AIHW report draws attention to specific age groups who are disproportionately affected. Children under the age of five had the highest hospitalisation rate (125 cases per 100,000 population), while adults aged 65 and over also faced a considerable risk (about 88 cases per 100,000 population). 

These findings reinforce the need for careful supervision of children around animals, particularly new pets or those in unfamiliar settings. Additionally, older individuals may benefit from particular care and consideration due to potential physical limitations that can hinder their ability to react swiftly in an encounter. 

Beyond Bites: Horse and Livestock Related Injuries 

Although dog bites garnered significant attention in the report, equestrian activities and livestock also played a notable role. Injuries resulting from encounters with horses were responsible for the highest number of prolonged hospitalisations (an average of 6.6 days). Livestock-related incidents were also significant. This emphasizes a specific risk within agricultural and rural settings, requiring specialized safety protocols for people working with large animals. 

Strategies for Prevention 

While animal-related injuries can occur in unexpected ways, proactive measures can significantly reduce their occurrence. Implementing strategies for positive animal behavior, responsible pet ownership, and prioritizing safety practices are crucial. Here are some vital considerations: 

  • *Training and Socialization: Investing in obedience training for dogs, particularly for puppies, lays the foundation for positive behavior and lowers the risk of unpredictable actions. Early and consistent socialization of pets also allows them to acclimatize to various environments, people, and other animals. 
  • Supervision and Education: Consistent supervision of children when interacting with animals is paramount. Teaching children respectful behavior around pets, including recognizing signs of distress in animals, can avert potential injuries. 
  • Risk Assessment and Animal Choice: Thoroughly considering the breed, size, and temperament of a pet before bringing it into the household is essential. Choosing an animal that aligns with your family's lifestyle and capacity for care minimizes potential compatibility issues. 
  • Understanding Animal Behavior: Educating ourselves about animal behavior and body language, particularly for our own pets, allows us to identify signs of anxiety, fear, or potential aggression. Recognizing these cues can help us de-escalate situations pro-actively. 
  • Safe Practices Around Livestock: Following established safety protocols when working with livestock is crucial. Understanding their behavior, and respecting their size and strength is key to preventing accidents. 

The Importance of Recognizing Our Role 

It's vital to remember that while animals can cause accidents, human behavior often plays a pivotal role. Dr. Karro stresses that preventing animal-related injuries primarily hinges on responsible pet ownership and understanding animal behavior. Taking time to train our pets, respecting their boundaries, and prioritizing safety in interactions can significantly mitigate risks. 

By adopting these approaches, we can foster positive and fulfilling relationships with animals while ensuring the well-being of both ourselves and our cherished companions. 

The Psychological Impact: Beyond Physical Wounds 

While the AIHW report primarily focuses on physical hospitalizations, animal-related injuries can also leave significant psychological scars. The trauma of an animal attack, particularly severe bites or encounters with aggressive animals, can trigger anxiety, fear, and even symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For children who frequently experience a heightened sense of vulnerability, these effects can be particularly pronounced. 

Dr Georgia Lockwood, a clinical psychologist specializing in animal-related trauma, explains the multifaceted impact of these encounters. "Experiencing an animal attack can disrupt a person's sense of safety and control. It can lead to a lingering fear of specific animals or a general distrust towards them," she notes. 

The psychological consequences can manifest as hypervigilance, nightmares, difficulty sleeping, and avoidance behaviors. For some, specific triggers, such as encountering a dog of a similar breed or even a bark, can provoke a severe emotional response. 

The Path to Healing: Support and Intervention 

It's essential to acknowledge the potential psychological effects as part of the healing process. Seeking professional support from a psychologist or therapist trained in trauma can prove invaluable in addressing these issues. Therapy might involve cognitive-behavioral approaches to reframe negative thoughts, exposure therapy to manage anxiety in a controlled setting, or specific interventions tailored to PTSD symptoms. 

For those who develop a significant phobia of animals, gradual and supervised exposure, coupled with therapy, can help them regain confidence and reduce fear. 

"It's important to remember that healing takes time. With the right support, people can successfully recover from the psychological trauma associated with animal-related injuries," Dr Lockwood reassures. 

When Animals Assist: Service Animals and Therapy Dogs 

Interestingly, while animals can sometimes cause injuries, they also play a vital role in the recovery process. Service animals, specifically trained to support individuals with disabilities, offer both physical and psychological benefits. They can enhance independence, reduce anxiety, and provide vital companionship. 

Furthermore, therapy dogs, carefully screened for temperament and training, have an extraordinary ability to offer comfort and support. They assist in therapeutic settings for a wide range of issues, including anxiety, PTSD, and physical rehabilitation. 

Animal-assisted therapy, when conducted under professional guidance, can be highly beneficial. The unconditional acceptance offered by animals can help individuals rebuild trust, reduce stress, and promote emotional regulation. 

The Significance of Compassion and Empathy 

Even in instances where animals cause harm, it's vital to approach the situation with empathy. Most often, animal aggression stems from fear, misunderstanding, or a lack of proper socialization and training. Demonizing an individual animal or an entire breed does little to address the root causes of problematic behavior. 

By fostering a culture of responsible pet ownership, educating ourselves and our communities about animal behavior, and providing support and resources, we can create safer environments for both humans and animals. When an injury does occur, focusing on rehabilitating the animal through positive training methods, where possible and appropriate, offers a compassionate and constructive path forward. 

Venomous Creatures: Australia's Unique Hazards 

Australia's unique wildlife presents its own set of challenges in terms of potential animal-related injuries. The AIHW report highlights the risks from venomous animals, including snakes, spiders, and marine creatures. While responsible for a lower overall number of hospitalisations compared to domestic animals, these encounters can result in severe and potentially life-threatening consequences. 

In 2021-22, approximately 21% of animal-related hospitalizations involved venomous animal encounters. Reptiles, predominantly snakes, were the leading cause, followed by insects and arthropods (such as spiders and scorpions). 

Dr Timothy Jackson, a leading toxinologist specializing in venom research, sheds light on the medical complexities of venomous envenomations. He says, "Australian venoms possess a diverse array of potent toxins that can trigger varied physiological effects, including severe pain, paralysis, tissue damage, and even systemic organ failure." 

Understanding the specific risks presented by different venomous species and the necessary first-aid responses is paramount, particularly in high-risk areas. "The prompt administration of the appropriate antivenom remains the cornerstone of treatment in many venomous bite and sting cases. It's crucial to seek immediate medical attention if an envenomation is suspected," Dr Jackson emphasizes. 

Protecting Ourselves in the Outdoors 

Precautionary measures can significantly reduce the risk of encountering and being harmed by venomous animals. Taking steps like these can enhance safety: 

  • Awareness and Education: Familiarizing oneself with potentially venomous species common in the local region allows for better identification and avoidance. Resources like wildlife guides and online identification tools prove beneficial. 
  • Appropriate Clothing and Footwear: When exploring the outdoors, especially in known snake habitats, wearing sturdy boots and long pants offers some protection against bites. 
  • Vigilance and Caution: Paying close attention to surroundings while hiking or camping is key. Avoiding putting hands or feet into crevices, under rocks, or in thick vegetation where snakes or spiders might be lurking is sensible. 
  • Responsible Behavior: Disturbing, provoking, or attempting to capture venomous animals poses a significant risk. Respecting their space and leaving them undisturbed is critical. 
  • First Aid Knowledge: Learning basic first-aid procedures for snake bites and venomous stings is wise. In Australia, the primary treatment for snake bites involves pressure-immobilization techniques and rapid transport to a hospital. 

Marine Hazards: Respecting the Ocean's Power 

Australia's beaches, with their inviting waters, are also home to potentially harmful marine life. Stings from jellyfish, stingrays, and stonefish can cause intense pain, and in some cases, severe reactions. 

To minimize the risk of marine envenomations, practicing the following measures is advisable: 

  • Heeding Warnings: Paying close attention to beach signage for jellyfish warnings or the presence of lifeguards. During stinger season, wearing protective clothing like stinger suits can significantly reduce risk. 
  • Shuffling Feet: Stingrays often bury themselves in the sand. Shuffling feet when walking in shallow water can alert stingrays and encourage them to move away, avoiding an inadvertent sting. 
  • First Aid and Awareness: Being familiar with first aid for marine stings is sensible. For instance, hot water treatment can help alleviate the pain from some types of stings. Seeking medical advice after marine stings is wise, to rule out severe reactions. 

A Holistic Approach: Promoting Safety and Harmony 

The growing number of animal-related injuries in Australia highlights the importance of a multifaceted approach prioritizing prevention, responsible pet ownership, and raising awareness of potential risks. By working together as a community, we can foster safer environments for both humans and our animal companions. 

Here are several key strategies that can contribute to mitigating animal-related injuries: 

  • Supporting Positive Training and Socialization: Encouraging and promoting access to positive reinforcement dog training and early socialization programs, especially for puppies, can instill good habits and reduce problematic behaviors. Subsidizing training costs, particularly in areas with higher incidents of dog-related injuries, could be a beneficial strategy. 
  • Public Education and Awareness Campaigns: Launching targeted educational campaigns about responsible pet care, animal behavior, and specific safety measures when interacting with animals or in environments with potential wildlife hazards plays a significant role. This could utilize various platforms like social media, schools, and community events. 
  • Enhanced Data Collection and Monitoring: Investing in more comprehensive data collection on animal-related injuries, including detailed information on the circumstances and causes of the incident, can help inform and improve prevention strategies. 
  • Supporting Animal Welfare Organizations: Collaborating with animal shelters and welfare groups benefits animals and reduces potential risks. These organizations promote responsible pet ownership, offer resources for training and behavioral support, and work to rehome animals responsibly. 
  • Legislative Considerations: While not a primary focus, considering well-structured policies to address issues such as irresponsible pet ownership or breeding practices of potentially dangerous dog breeds can have a role to play alongside other prevention strategies. 

The Importance of Recognizing Our Shared Responsibility 

The vast majority of animals are not inherently aggressive or dangerous. With greater understanding, responsible practices, and a commitment to fostering positive relationships, we can significantly reduce the incidence of animal-related injuries. 

Ultimately, creating safe and harmonious interactions between humans and animals is a shared responsibility. By emphasizing responsible pet ownership, respecting the natural behaviors of animals, prioritizing proactive safety measures, and offering support and education within our communities, we can build a society where both animals and people can live together safely and enjoyably. 

A Final Word 

While animal-related injuries represent a serious issue in Australia, and indeed in other parts of the world, a balanced approach is essential. Our animal companions bring immeasurable joy, companionship, and support to our lives. Demonizing animals unnecessarily is unhelpful. Instead, by emphasizing safety practices, fostering understanding, and promoting empathy, we can build healthy and enriching relationships with the animals that share our world. 

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