The laws and ordinances surrounding dog bites are complex and multi-pronged

In Sonoma County, when a dog bites someone, it kicks off a two-pronged legal process that exists at a complicated nexus of state law, county ordinance and local jurisdiction. The first prong has to do with rabies control and ensuring the deadly disease, familiar to anyone who read Old Yeller as a kid, doesn’t spread. The second prong has to do with determining if the incident of the bite should trigger the legal process for getting a dog deemed either “potentially dangerous” or “vicious.”

dog bite

When it comes to rabies control, state law mandates that any animal that bites and breaks the skin undergo a 10-day quarantine in isolation.

“Regardless of where it took place, how it happened and/or if the dog is vaccinated, it doesn’t matter. State law says we have to do a 10-day observation period on the dog,” said Kevin Davis, Field Supervisor for Sonoma County Animal Services. “Depending on where it occurs and how it happens, we’ll make a decision here with our officers whether to do a home quarantine; meaning we go out, we meet with the owners, we check their confinement, the vaccines and all that and as long as they have good confinement there we will allow them to do the quarantine there at their house for the 10 days. After the 10 days we go back out verify the dog is healthy and take the dog off quarantine at that time.”

However, Davis said, if the owner is not able to properly quarantine an animal at home, as evidenced by the animal being at large at the time of the bite, or the owner living in an apartment or condo without a yard that would require the animal be walked in order to relieve itself or the owner is homeless, the animal will spend its 10-day quarantine at the shelter at animal services.

“Depending on the circumstance, most of the time its just a 10-day quarantine, because rabies vaccine is not 100% effective, mostly based on the handling of the vaccine,” Davis said. “It could be in a vet’s office where the vaccine heats up or gets too chilled, and it can lose efficacy.”

SCAS serves unincorporated Sonoma County, the city of Santa Rosa and the Town of Windsor, however rabies issues are the one area where it has jurisdiction over the entire county.

“We cannot, by law, go into other jurisdictions except for rabies control. Our department is the designated rabies control for the entire county,” Davis said. “If a bite happens in Cloverdale, which has a contract with Petaluma Animal Services, we are going to do the quarantine only. We’re not going to do the follow-up in terms of a potentially dangerous or vicious designation; the legal case part falls back on the local agency to enforce whatever they are going to enforce. If we went up to Cloverdale and we determined the dog won’t be quarantined at home, it will have to go to the Petaluma Animal Shelter. We do the rabies part and deem where it goes (for the quarantine period). Once quarantine is up its up to them whether release animal or not.”

The only dog bite cases exempt from the 10-day quarantine are police dogs who bite in the line of duty.

Dangerous or Vicious

Parallel to but separate from the rabies control process is the process to determine whether a dog should be deemed either “potentially dangerous” or “vicious.” These two terms have specific legal ramifications.

Davis describes the potentially dangerous designation as “doggy probation.” The designation is for a three-year period, and if there are no additional incidents in that time period, the dogs record will be cleared at the end of that three-year period. However, an additional incident in that three years will then have the dog automatically designated as vicious.

The vicious designation is far more serious, and more often than not leads to the euthanasia of the dog in question. Occasionally a dog deemed vicious is allowed to return home, but under a strict set of monitored conditions, usually imposed by the courts and based in a given jurisdiction’s laws. These conditions can include requirements that the dog be muzzled, leashed and held by a responsible adult over the age of 18 anytime the dog is off its property, that the owner maintains an insurance policy covering any damage the dog might do and that the owner’s property be posted with notices of the dog’s vicious designation. If a dog reoffends once it has gotten this designation, it is euthanized. If the dog doesn’t reoffend, but the owner does not follow the requirements, they are assessed civil penalties of $3,000 to $5,000 per violation.

But how a dog is deemed one of these designations is a bit more complicated, and exists at a confluence of laws and judgments. According to Davis, a dog can be deemed potentially dangerous if it bites someone and the bite is “less than severe” meaning “no sutures or disfiguring lacerations,” or if twice in a 36-month period a dog is at-large, that is lose off the owner’s property, and a citizen “has to take defensive action to prevent themselves from being injured.” This can include things like jumping off a bicycle and placing it between you and the dog, or having to make a run for your car, home or yard.

The vicious designation is for a “severe bite” or a dog that has already been deemed potentially dangerous and reoffends. The vicious designation follows the dog for life, if it is not euthanized as a result, so giving the dog away does not eliminate the conditions of its designation. Any new owners would have to follow the same legal requirements as the owners at the time of the incident.

However, officers and prosecutors will look at the circumstances of each incident. For instance, a dog defending its home or owner will not generally be penalized.

“If someone has committed a willful trespass, is trying to commit great bodily injury on somebody, all games are off at that point,” said Davis. “We aren’t going to seek potentially dangerous or vicious designation at that point. In the case of the dog defending against a burglar, we’re going to do the 10-day quarantine and be done with it.”

Similarly, a dog that bites a person who is breaking up a fight in a dog park or the like, will likely not be investigated.

“One of the assistant city attorneys we work with (in Santa Rosa) says if you’re in a dog park and two dogs get into it, you’re on your own, they aren’t going to do anything,” Davis said. “If you are in a dog park though and somebody comes in with an aggressive dog that immediately comes over and attacks somebody, that’s a different thing. But for the most part, dog parks are going to be a free for all. Because most of the time in a dog park the only time you are going to get bitten is when you are trying to break up a dog fight.”

Another factor for consideration is what the history of the dog and owner is, according to Davis. If a dog has been cited before for being at-large, or the owners have a history of being irresponsible that may factor more into a decision to seek a dangerous or vicious designation at a first bite incident.

Davis stresses though, that the majority of these cases are “victim driven complaints,” and that only on rare occasions will SCAS intervene if there isn’t a victim complaint. One of a few exceptions to that rule however, is when a dog is repeatedly biting a child in the home.

“All hospitals, physicians, school nurses are all required to report all animal bites to us by state law, and we get situations where the same child keeps getting bitten in the household, we keep getting the report, well who is standing up for the child?” asked Davis. “Nobody. So we have removed dogs in certain situations like that. I know one in particular there were two to three bites to the face and head area of the child and the parents weren’t going to do a thing about it, so we went in and removed the dog, because it’s not safe for the child. And, then we’ll get Child Protective Services involved as well.”

However, the final determining factor for the vicious designation is truly the severity of the attack.

“If it’s a severe dog bite, it could be a first time bite, and depending on severity we can ask the court to deem the dog vicious and euthanize. We can seize the dog if we feel it’s a threat to the community we can seize and hold until we go to court under state law and county ordinance,” Davis said.

Dog on Animal Violence

If a dog causes injury to another domestic animal, again the circumstances of the incident come into play, primarily related to if the dog was at-large at the time of the incident.

“(If the animals) live in the same house, the dog was not running loose when it attacked another animal, therefore it does not meet the requirements of being at large or loose from its own property,” said Davis. “It’s like if a cat walks onto your property and your dog kills it, there is no violation there because the animal trespassed onto your property. If they live in same house, it’s a civil situation. There’s nothing we can do, because one of the requirements is, it has to be off the owner’s property when it occurs.”

Similarly, if two leashed dogs get into a fight, it is unlikely there will be a legal penalty. “For instance, two dogs that get into a fight but they are both on leash? Walking by and they get into it and both dogs get injured. Could we potentially designate both dogs? We could, but are we going to? No,” Davis said.

If a dog attacks and injures or kills domestic livestock while at-large, there are now two sets of potential penalties.

“Livestock is still considered domestic animal, if it kills a sheep we can seek a potentially dangerous designation,” Davis said. “But, depending on the circumstances, the history with the owners, the dog, it’s also a misdemeanor via county ordinance and state law for your dog to attack livestock. So we can hit you with both, and we have. We’ll get the misdemeanor charge to the DA’s office and then we’ll go after them through the civil courts to get that dog deemed potentially dangerous.”

If a dog tangles with wildlife, the primary concern is with rabies control.

“If we get a fox, skunk, bat and it gets tangled up with a domestic animal like a dog or a cat, if we have the animal to test, the wild animal will be put down. The only way to tell if an animal has rabies is the brain and brain stem must be removed. Our staff can do that here and we take it to the public health lab here in Sonoma County. If it’s negative, there is no quarantine at all,” Davis said. “If the wild animal is positive, if the (domestic) animal is currently vaccinated, it’s a 30-day quarantine. If it’s not vaccinated it’s a six month quarantine, and we go out monthly and check on those animals to make sure they are still in good health. It’s why the vaccine is so important.” 

Reality Bites

“I think most people think that once it’s reported and they see us coming to the door the first thing they think is that we’re coming to take their dog. And that’s not the case,” said Davis. “Each situation is different and that’s what it comes down to. Do we sometimes have to take the dog? Yeah, but sometimes its just for the 10-day quarantine.

“With both the potentially dangerous and vicious designations, I want to reiterate that most of the time it is complaint driven,” Davis continued. “Unless we see a compelling reason something should be done, we leave it at that, we put them on written notice that it has happened.”

Owners also have the option of making their own decision regarding the fate of their dog post-bite.

“There are two ways we get a dog deemed. We collect evidence, we get written statements from victims and witnesses, photographs, medical stuff from the hospital, vet stuff if it’s a domestic animal,” Davis said. “However, the owner has the opportunity to designate by signing a form we have to avoid going into court. If they don’t want to do it voluntarily, then we have our reports and we file in superior court and the judge hears all the evidence.

“Sometimes you may have someone who says ‘we’ll I’m not sure I want to do anything or cause trouble,’ and then we’ll step in and say ‘no we’ve had four other incidents with this dog, maybe it hasn’t bitten anyone, but it’s charged out at people’ and we’re going to look at it and say no we just need to do something here, we just can’t put the animal back out on the street. But, we do give options.”

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