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Dog Bite Vs Dog Scratch Personal Injury

What are the Legal Differences Between a Dog Bite and a Dog Scratch?

In most instances, dog owners are liable for any personal injury or property damage their pets cause. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that more than 4.7 million people are bitten by dogs annually, resulting in an estimated 800,000 injuries that require medical attention.

More than 50 percent of dog bites occur on the dog owner’s property, and they account for one-third of all homeowners insurance liability claims. According to State Farm, the company paid $132 million as a result of 3,600 dog-related injury claims in 2017. California had the largest number of dog bite claims in 2018, and the highest average cost per claim at $45,543.

When it comes to dog bites, it’s important to know that California is a strict liability state. This means that as long as a dog bite occurred in a public place or lawfully on private property — including the dog owner’s property — the dog owner will be held liable for any injuries. Dog bites may cause serious injuries that will require medical attention. Even in minor cases, dog bites and scratches can sometimes lead to complications given they can carry diseases.

According to California Civil Code Section 3342, a dog owner will be held liable for damages when:

  • A victim’s injuries were caused by a dog bite
  • A victim was bitten in a public place or while lawfully on private property

However, this statute does not apply to any victims who suffered a dog bite while a dog was engaged in police or military work. Also, it is necessary for an injury to be caused by a dog bite, and not by another behavior on the dog’s part.

In cases where the injury was not caused by an actual bite, the standard California negligence rules will be implemented instead. This means that a victim who was not bitten must prove that the dog owner’s negligence was the primary cause of any injuries sustained from the attack.

Characterizing the dog’s action as biting or scratching is essential to determining whether a defendant is liable for the resulting losses and damages.

Dog Bite

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Even the most gentle dog, no matter the breed, can bite if scared, overexcited, or injured. Injuries from a dog bite make up 85 to 90 percent of animal bites in the U.S., and 1 percent of injury-related visits to the emergency room. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, infection occurs in about 10 to 15 percent of dog bites. Cat bites actually carry a much higher risk of infection than dog bites. Dog bites that don’t break the skin, however, are typically not at risk for infection.

There are several levels to determine how serious a bite can be, and these are:

  • Pre-bite (level 1). A dog snaps or air bites but makes no contact with the person.  Dog owners should take this air snap as a sign that they weren’t paying attention to their dog’s earlier signs of displeasure or fear and should get help before this behavior progresses to an actual bite.
  • Near-bite (level 2). A dog snaps and makes tooth contact on skin but there’s no actual puncture. The owners should realize that this type of incident could turn into a real bite down the road.
  • Level 3A. A dog bites once and punctures the skin, but the puncture is shallower than the length of the canine tooth. Despite this bite not being too severe, it is still reportable and the victim should get medical treatment to check for any serious infections. Once a dog has actually bitten at this level (or higher), it will always be considered a liability.
  • Level 3B. A dog bites multiple times, leaving skin punctures shallower than half of the canine’s teeth.
  • Level 4. A dog bites once, with punctures deeper than the length of the canine’s teeth, or the bite produces slashes in both directions from the punctured area, which indicates that the dog bit and shook its head. This type of bite is very serious and is just as serious of a liability to the owners. This type of bite can even kill a child.
  • Level 5. A dog gives multiple bites with deep punctures.
  • Level 6. A dog kills the victim or consumes their flesh.

The most common symptoms of infection from dog bites are redness, pain, swelling, and inflammation at the site of the bite. This will require immediate medical attention. Other symptoms include pus or fluid oozing from the wound, tenderness, loss of sensation in areas near the bite, and fever and night sweats.

Dog Scratch

Given they walk on four feet and dig into different surfaces, a dog’s nail beds are usually very dirty and can harbor bacteria. That’s why if a dog scratches a person, they have a high possibility of infecting them through the broken skin.

Dog scratches may seem harmless to some, however, if the skin is broken, it can lead to serious infections. Puncture wounds actually carry the highest risk of severe infection. The aggrieved individual should treat the scratch by applying pressure to the wound, washing the wound with soap and water, applying antibiotic ointment, and covering the wound with a bandage. The victim should monitor their wound for 72 hours. In case of infection, such as increased heat, redness, swelling, pain, or red streaking on the skin, the victim should seek the attention of a medical professional immediately.

Similar to bites, dog scratches or scrapes that just graze the skin’s surface have a minimal risk of infection. Cuts or lacerations, on the other hand, have a higher risk of infection. If a scratch happens near mucous membranes (eyes or mouth), these can be more critical. Other concerning spots are deep scratches near joints. Wounds that are extremely deep are more prone to infection. Babies, the elderly, and people with decreased immune systems are more likely to develop infections.


California being a strict liability state means that a dog owner cannot escape liability for a dog bite even if they had no idea that their dog would behave aggressively. This, however, doesn’t apply to dog scratches. According to strict liability, a dog owner will be held responsible for any damages resulting from a dog bite, whether the dog had previously bitten someone or not.

If you suffered a dog bite, you only need to prove the bite occurred when you were in a public place or while lawfully on someone’s private property. In such instances, there is no requirement for an aggrieved individual to show the dog owner was negligent or didn’t take reasonable care.

Available Damages

Dog bite victims in California are typically entitled to compensation for their losses. Compensatory damages may include:

  • Emotional Distress
  • Lost Wages
  • Property Loss
  • Medical Bills
  • Physical/Vocational Therapy
  • Psychological Counseling
  • Lost Earning Capacity
  • Pain and Suffering

Further, the surviving family members of anyone who was killed by a dog may be entitled to damages on the decedent’s behalf. Such a claim would be filed as a wrongful death case and would possibly entitle survivors to additional damages.

Though rarely awarded, an aggrieved individual may be able to recover punitive damages in certain cases. Punitive damages are intended to punish a defendant who has engaged in particularly egregious behavior. In order for a dog bite victim to recover punitive damages, they must prove with clear and convincing evidence that the dog owner’s actions were fraudulent or malicious in nature.

California’s statute of limitations on a personal injury — which includes a dog bite accident — case is two years. This means that an injured dog bite victim has two years starting from the initial date of the incident to preserve their rights and file a claim in court.

West Coast Trial Lawyers Is Here to Help

If you have sustained injuries as a result of a dog bite, you have the right to hold the guilty party responsible. A dog bite attorney at West Coast Trial Lawyers can help you recover financial compensation for the losses you have suffered, including medical bills, property damage, lost wages, and pain and suffering.

Call us today at (213) 927-3700 or email [email protected] to schedule a free consultation with our experienced, caring, and compassionate legal team.


If you have been injured in an accident, you can count on the legal team at West Coast Trial Lawyers to fight for your rights every step of the way. Contact us today to schedule your free case evaluation with a personal injury attorney.
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