Dog bite liability claims on the rise

We have all heard it many times before: “a dog is a man’s best friend”, however training is an important responsibility for all dog owners. Training provides mental stimulation, increased sociability, enforces positive behaviours and obedience. Without proper training these canines may act aggressively or unpredictably, being a danger to strangers, neighbours, friends and family members.

Recent statistics indicate there are over 10 million dogs in South Africa, many dog owners have introduced these pets as guard dogs due to the ever growing crime statistics in our country. It is believed the introduction of these untrained guard dogs for security purposes may be the cause of the recent increase in dog bites/attacks reports we have seen in the media the past two years.

In fact, South Africa has the highest reported dog bite/attack incidents in the world relative to population. Fatality rates are also higher than other countries due to the lack of knowledge of post-exposure treatment and proper medical healthcare for victims particularly in rural areas.

This increasing concern has brought about great awareness to both dog owners (understanding their liability) and victims of dog bites/attacks (understanding their rights).


Dog owner’s tips for preventing Dog biting behavior

According to the NSPCA (National Council of SPCA), dog owners have a responsibility to prevent their dogs from attacking or putting fear into another person/animal/bird (as stated in the By-laws relating to Dogs and Cats, 2005) and provide some guidelines for dog owners to follow:

  • Training to encourage positive, obedient behavior
  • Socialising to encourage non-threatening behaviors towards people and other animals
  • Sterilisation to prevent hormonal changes that may lead to aggression
  • Harmless play to encourage gentle play behaviours as aggressive/rough play may instill harmful behaviours
  • Good behavior affirmation by rewarding the dog when they display good behaviours to other people/animals
  • Have good breed knowledge so you better understand your dog’s characteristics, temperament and needs

The meaning of Strict Liability for Dog owners

According the Animal Matters Amendment Act 1993 (Act 42 of 1993) a court may make certain directions in respect of animal injuries. This means that the owner of the animal that causes the injury to another person, shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a fine or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding two years. This also means the dog owner is legally responsible for the damage (physical property/medical expenses/legal expenses) and the court may make an order regarding the removal, custody, disposal or destruction of the relevant animal.

There’s no requirement that the victim prove fault, negligence or intention however must prove that they did not:

  • Provoke or tease the dog
  • Illegally enter the dog owner’s premises during the attack
  • Know that the dog was dangerous and ignored the risk

Other factors that may deem the dog owner not liable include:

  • If the third party in charge of the dog at the time of the incident failed to prevent the dog attack
  • the dog acted “contrary to its nature”; resulting in the owner not being able to predict or avoid the attack


How to avoid a dog bite?

Prevention is always key, as is the case with a dog attack. It is important when you interact with a dog for the first time that their owner is present. Only encounter the dog without the owner once the owner has granted permission and the dog is familiar with you.

In some cases, you may find yourself encountering a stray dog with no owner or missing owner, in those cases here are some tips on how to prevent an attack:

  • Stay calm, quiet, avoid eye contact or sudden movements
  • Remove any food in your possession
  • Avoid turning your back or running away, rather move slowly in a non-threatening way and try to find a physical barrier between you and the animal

Also be aware that some common breeds are more temperamental and aggressive than others.

Some of the temperamental breeds are:

  • Pitbulls
  • Rottweilers
  • Huskys
  • German Shepards
  • Chow Chow
  • Alaskan Malamutes
  • Wolf Hybrids
  • Saint Bernards
  • Great Danes


What to do if you are bitten/attacked by a dog?

  • Try to get a barrier (bag, chair any object) between the animal and yourself and keep your arms up – covering your head and neck
  • Gain as much distance from the dog after the attack to eliminate being bitten again
  • Assess your injuries and determine whether you have time to collect information on the scene
  • If your injuries are minor, it is vital you collect the following information at the scene
    • Find out who the dog belongs to, what breed dog they are and if the dog has shown aggressive history in the past. If the owner is available, get all their relevant contact details (ID, phone no, address) and enquire about the dog’s vaccination history.
    • If no owner is present, then take down the details of a witness and enquire if anyone knows the owner’s details. If possible take photographs of the dog, your injuries and your surroundings
  • If your injuries are serious, contact a loved one to return to the scene to collect your evidence for you while you seek medical assistance. Once your injuries are treated contact the local animal authorities and report the incident to the police.
  • When you return home after a minor wound, ensure you clean the wound with a disinfectant properly and cover with a clean bandage. If you were bitten by an unknown dog go to the doctor for a tetanus shot and/or antibiotics. Check the wound often for signs of infection, swelling, redness and seek medical attention if these symptoms appear. You should also get immediate healthcare services should you develop a fever or have not had a tetanus shot in more than 5 years.


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Common injuries/diseases caused by a dog bite/attack

Dog bites and attacks vary in severity and type of injury, should you be thinking of taking legal action against the owner it is important that you are able to identify your injury and share your medical records.

Below are the most common injuries experienced by dog attacks/bites:

  • Scar tissue damage: visible damage caused by abrasions, lacerations, Avulsion, punctures, crushing injuries that may lead to broken bones, scarring, nerve and muscle damage
  • Infections, a common infection caused by bacteria carried in dog saliva is MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). It is a staph infection that may cause skin, lung and urinary tract infections in humans and occasionally spread to the bloodstream causing life-threatening infections. Another common bacteria is PasteurellaExternal. These bacteria cause the wound to become painfully red with infection. In most cases the human body can fight off the infection, however people with poor or weakened immune systems may be at risk of further infection with symptoms that include swollen joints, glands and difficulty moving.
  • Rabies, commonly spread by an infected animal through the bite and saliva. This virus is one of the most serious diseases a person can contract from a dog bite. It affects the central nervous system and brain, in some cases may lead to death a few days after infection. It is also important to note that rabies symptoms start appearing a day or two after the incident, however some cases reported infection a year after the attack. Symptoms include, muscle spasms, confusion, sensitivity to light and sounds, speech difficulty, paralysis and tingling of the wound.
  • Tetanus is a bacterial disease that produces a toxin that causes paralysis in human’s.
  • Permanent disabilities and death


Claiming damages for a dog bite/attack wound

If you decide to claim damages from the dog owner it is best to contact a personal injury claims attorney who has experience with dog bite/attack cases.

You will need to prove the following to build your case:

  • The person you are claiming from was the owner of the dog and that the dog was a domesticated animal at the time of the incident
  • The person you are claiming from was negligent
  • The dog must have acted contrary to its nature
  • The dog bit you for no reason
  • The incident caused the injury you are claiming for

The following will also be helpful to your case:

  • Photographic evidence of the injuries
  • Witness statements of the incident
  • Medical report and invoices
  • Police report


You may decide to claim from the dog owner’s insurance if they have liability insurance or may appoint a personal injury lawyer to build and represent your case in court. In most cases the owner will be liable to cover your medical expenses resulting from the attack/bite and any future medical expenses resulting in complications to the injury that may include loss of income, pain and suffering.

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