Dog growling
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?

4. It’s not just the one who gets bitten who suffers. It’s no stretch to say that everyone in the hospital is affected any time a staff member is seriously injured. It’s not the same, but it hits close to home, nonetheless. The emotional toll on others is very real and is not to be discounted.

For example, whenever someone is bitten at our place we hold an informal "what could we have done better?" roundtable discussion. These events invariably reveal stress surrounding the twin issues of blame and guilt, which we try to defuse, but fear is always an undercurrent as well.

Though it’s uncomfortable, I always tell the staff that a healthy dose of fear is a good thing. Still, there’s often an unsettled vibe around the hospital for a few days after any injury. And that’s normal, I think.

5. Don’t forget about the pet owner! In some cases, these are the individuals who suffer most, emotionally speaking. That’s why whenever anything bad happens, we go out of our way to let our client know that:
  • It’s not their pet’s fault (animals will be animals and “intent” is a non-issue)
  • It’s not their fault, either
  • There’s not likely to be any legal liability on their part 
  • There aren’t any hard feelings
We love them all the more for being so helpful (they invariably are, often bringing flowers and other gifts along with wishes for a speedy recovery).
Ultimately, sometimes we’ll lose these clients. They feel so bad about the damage their pet has done. But we try our best to manage their feelings so they don’t have to suffer embarrassment and guilt along with the stress of trying to find a new vet.

So you see, getting bitten has more than just consequences for the body. The mind and soul suffer, too. Everyone’s. In fact, it’s a miracle we all seem to get back to work as quickly as we do. But then, as they say, getting back on the horse immediately is the best way to handle a fall.

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