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Veterinarian Technician June 2007 (Vol 28, No 6) Focus: Endocrine Disorders

A Question of Conscience: "Once Bitten ... Too Shy?"

    While taking a dog's temperature, you are bitten and require stitches. The dog has a history of kennel aggression but has never bitten anyone. The practice owner refuses to tell the dog's owners because it was a "provoked bite." Do you agree with the veterinarian's decision?

    Beth Grimes, LVT, Fairport, NY

    The practice owner absolutely should have informed the clients that their dog bit you. As a trained professional, you were doing your job not provoking a bite. If the owners choose to go to another veterinary hospital in the future and they are unaware that their dog has bitten someone, the dog could inflict another, more serious bite wound. Also, the dog might be sensitive to having its hind end touched, which is an issue that the owner needs to know about.


    When a dog bites someone, the owner must be informed. Dog bites can cause serious damage, illness, and even death. Also, a dog's behavior is a reflection of the environment in which it lives. The owners must be made aware of potential problems so that they can be corrected.


    The practice owner should have in­formed the dog's owners. In fact, if my employer refused to tell the owners that their dog bit me, I would tell them myself. They need to know.

    Kim, LVT

    The owners should be told, and the bite should be recorded in the dog's file. Where was the other staff member who should have been holding this pet? This is a standard safety procedure for liability reasons.

    Sharon, LVT

    The owners definitely should be told, and the discussion with the owners should be noted in the record along with the fact that the dog bit a staff member. It is a matter of safety for everyone who encounters that dog in the future.

    Tammy, RVT

    What if the next provoked bite is a child who accidentally steps on the dog's tail? All bites need to be reported to the owner. Some parents would never know what their kids do when they aren't around if the neighbors didn't tell them!


    Of course the owners of the dog need to be told. The dog has now crossed the threshold from warning to actively biting a human. The dog was not provoked if it was being handled in a professional manner. The owners need this information and guidance to learn to manage their dog's behavior.

    Maria, RVT

    All bites should be reported to the owner. As long as the discussion is presented in a professional manner, clients should appreciate the honesty. This may prevent future injury because the clients will then know that their dog may bite if provoked by a certain action. Even if the clients are offended and go elsewhere, they will probably mention the incident, which may protect the staff at that hospital.

    Jill, LVT

    If any animal bites someone, regardless of the situation, its owners should be notified. It is not only a matter of principle, but also a matter of legal importance. In many states, the law indicates that owners may be forced to euthanize the pet if it is deemed dangerous. Also, the animal must be sent for a rabies examination, which wouldn't be possible if the owners are unaware of the bite. The owners need to be adequately informed about the situation so that they know to be cautious in future situations with the animal.

    Lacey, RVT

    Our Ethics Expert Comments

    The classification of a dog bite as "provoked" or "unprovoked" seeks to assign blame for the bite and hence assessment of the dog's temperament. Was the dog's response dictated by circumstance, or is the dog truly aggressive (i.e., prone to bite without just cause)? Veterinary school taught me that, by definition, any dog bite in a veterinary setting is provoked.

    Is the practice owner keeping this information from the dog's owners for paternalistic reasons? If the bite was, in fact, not the dog's fault, is it in the owners' best interests to not know that their pet is capable of inflicting a serious wound?

    Or, is the practice owner being utilitarian, where the correct act is the one that maximizes good consequences? The practice owner would not want to risk losing the dog's owners as clients if the owners were to misunderstand the event and protectively assume the bite was provoked by the practitioner rather than being a function of surroundings.

    Unfortunately, it is not the practice owner's role to decide what is in the best interests of the dog's owners. In addition, many more positive consequences come from telling the owners the truth. Once the owners are aware of their dog's behavior, they can pursue further training or socialization to decrease the likelihood of the dog biting in the future.

    This scenario could occur in a city or town that has a "one-bite law," wherein a dog must first demonstrate that it is a biter before the owner can be held legally liable for damages caused by a bite. Thus, the owners need to know that the dog has used up its "one bite."1 Utilitarianism even requires consideration of future consequences, such as the potential for the owners to lose their homeowner's insurance if the dog were to bite again.2 Therefore, all of the respondents are correct; the practice owner must reveal the incident to the dog's owners.

    Nadine Hackman, MS, VMD, MBE (Master's in Bioethics)

    Director, Veterinary Technology Program

    Harcum College, Bryn Mawr, PA

    1. Wilson JF: Law and Ethics of the Veterinary Profession. Yardley, PA, Priority Press Ltd, 1993, pp 80-81.

    2. Home Insurance for Dog Owners. Accessed April 2007 at http://info.insure.com/home/ dog.htm.

    References »

    NEXT: Ask the TECHspert (June 2007)


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