When a Pet Bites the Vet: Hidden Consequences You May Not Realize

Dog growling
Dr. Patty Khuly knows from experience that dog bites can have deeper consequences on a veterinary staff than just a few puncture wounds.

It’s inevitable. No matter how safe we may feel in our everyday working lives, clinical veterinary workers are never immune to the reality of bite wounds. Whether we work with dogs, cats, horses, cows, monkeys or mice, we risk teeth marks every time we interact with our patients. And when we do, we risk more than some skin and maybe a trip to the hospital.

I’ve learned this the hard way, after many, many bites. But after a colleague was bitten by a feline patient badly enough to be hospitalized, I started wondering about all the “hidden costs” of a bad bite. Here’s a roundup of a few issues you might not consider:

1. It costs more money than you’d think. Sure, workers' comp insurance covers most of our financial expenses for the injury itself, but it rarely makes us financially whole again — not after a serious injury, anyway.

For example, after I was head-butted by a Rottweiler last year and had to miss half a day of work recovering from the pain, another seeing doctors and a third getting my bones surgically realigned, I received no compensation for my days off. In fact, I should’ve taken an extra day or two off (the swelling was horrible) but I couldn’t realistically afford it (nor could my patients).

Then there’s the cost to our insurance premiums and the practice’s temporary loss of income to consider — which ultimately translates into how much you pay for your veterinary services, believe it or not.

2. The risk of rabies may be slight but it’s real. After the above-mentioned colleague was bitten by an 18-year-old cat and hospitalized for his injuries, he suffered an unexpected bit of additional trauma: post-exposure rabies vaccines. Although most veterinarians undergo prophylactic rabies vaccinations while in veterinary school precisely because of this risk, my colleague had not.

Despite the fact that the cat who had bitten him lived 100 percent indoors, she hadn’t been vaccinated since she was 13 years old. This 5-year lapse in vaccination history was considered significant.

According to our local public health powers-that-be, even this minuscule risk was sufficient to subject my colleague to a $20,000 round of painful post-exposure vaccines. Although hospitals may vary in how they handle this, the risk of rabies is not something taken lightly in the world of human health.

3. The psychological risk is no small matter. Getting back on the horse again after a fall is no simple thing — not when your job requires that you interact closely and confidently with the same species of animal that just ripped your arm open a few days before.

Though I always manage to get past that traumatic movie playing in my head (where I relive the incident in all its not-so-glorious detail), it still takes a while to wrap my head around the instinctive urge to stay away. I mean, who would willingly expose their hand to the flame after being badly burned?


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