Dog owners at times may be confused when a person complains that their dog bit that person. Whether the claim is valid has important legal implications.
For example, in states which impose strict liability for dog bites, as in Arizona, Florida, California, and Michigan, the claimant can usually successfully sue an owner for damages caused by a bite from the owner’s dog. However, if the injury was the result of a scratch and not a bite, then no legal liability can be imposed on the owner.
Below, I respond to a query from a concerned owner of a mixed Jack Russell Terrier in Florida who sought an expert opinion as to whether her dog scratched or bit a neighbor living in the same condo complex.
Inquiry to Dr. Polsky
My dog is a 30 m.o. male rescue Chihuahua/Jack Russel mix. I got him when he was about 5 months old. Eddie now weighs approx. 13 lbs. He is an energetic guy who loves long walks but also spends most of the day sleeping. He loves to play with balls and soft toys. I care for an 8-month-old baby. Eddie is jealous when I hold or sit with the baby. He tolerates him well and will play “kickball and chase” as I hold the baby to help him walk.
I live in a condo complex on the 16th floor, so I have trained Eddie to use a potty mat when necessary, but I usually walk him 3-4 times a day and he does most of his business outside.
About 2 months after I got Eddie I was going to walk him one evening before bedtime. As we exited the elevator on the ground floor, two Golden Doodles belonging to another owner who had let go of the leashes, rushed to Eddie and surrounded him. Eddie was bitten on his tummy and the next day he was very sick. The vet stitched up the one puncture would after exploratory surgery to ensure that the tooth had not damaged any internal organs.
Eddie recovered but for about a year afterward, he cowered and whined whenever he saw a larger dog. This gradually changed as Eddie grew older, and he now tends to bark angrily at larger dogs. He is very friendly toward almost all smaller dogs and will give a friendly sniff to strange dogs and owners we meet on our walks if they are interested. He usually ignores other dogs if they ignore him. Eddie loves nothing more than to be petted whether by a friend or most strangers if they approach him gently.
At some point, Eddie started barking at the owner of the Golden Doodles whether he had the dogs with him or not. The Condo Association had demanded that he muzzle his dogs, carry them to his car and walk them off the property.
Toward the end of last year when I was on the elevator with the baby in the stroller and lightly holding Eddie’s leash, the elevator doors opened unexpectedly on the floor of the owner of the Golden Doodles. He was standing outside the door holding one of his dogs and Eddie rushed toward him incredibly fast and jumped up against his legs while barking furiously. I got a hold of Eddie very quickly, but the damage was done, as you can see on the picture. The owner was wearing shorts.
Now the owner claims that Eddie bit him and demands that Eddie wear right now also a muzzle. I do not think that Eddie bit him at all. I hope that you can help me determine from the picture whether anything looks like bite wounds or not.
Marianne H., Ft. Myers, FL.
Dr. Polsky’s response
Dog expert opinion relies on various sources of evidence to determine with a reasonable degree of certainty whether the injury was caused by a dog bite versus a scratch.
First, a determination needs to be made with regard to the propensities and motivation of subject dog to inflict a bite in the circumstances that were present when the incident happened. This evidence is gathered from a number of sources such as the behavioral history of the dog, the dog’s relationship with the victim, victim and owner behavior, previous bites inflicted to people, the size of the dog, and obviously the condition of the dog’s teeth and nails. Second, the physical characteristics of the injury need to be scrutinized.
This evidence is most accurately from photographs of the injury taken shortly after the incident happened. Note, information reported by the victim to medical personnel (e.g. emergency room physicians, nurses) needs to be regarded with caution because medical personnel usually enter into the notes simply they are told.
I speculate that the injury was probably caused by a bite and not a scratch:
(a) Your Jack Russell mix had obviously formed a negative relationship with the victim. Hence, the motivation was present in your dog to display defensive aggression coupled with biting;
(b) The circumstances were present for your dog to react with the defensive type of aggression – that is, the sudden appearance of the man, which likely frighten your dog, when the elevator door opened;
(c) The photograph as shown on the top of this page shows two small curves like lacerations. These physical characteristics are consistent with the size of your dog and with injuries caused by a dog bite;
(d) The victim may have sustained scratches but it appears that your dog also bit this person.
More about dog bites vs. injury caused by dog scratch
- Expert analysis by the late Sophia Lynn, DVM
- Wikipedia page on dog bites
- A blog post from owner confronted with the question of a dog bite vs scratch
- Scratch from dog nearly causes the owner to lose a leg from a flesh-eating infection