Do Doctors Need to Report Dog Bites in California?
The Short Answer is Yes - Doctors are Supposed to Report Dog Attacks.
First, a little background here. Medical doctors, including psychiatrists and others including lawyers and priests, owe a duty of confidentiality to those who come in confidence. The idea is to encourage truthfulness because the person revealing secrets will be protected from any bad ramifications. However, because medicine, HIPPA laws, and other needs for doctors to share information learned about public and other dangers, physicians do not have an absolute duty of privilege to keep secrets.
Of special interest, doctors may be required to not keep confidences and secrets in certain cases, such as contagions, discussed below. Doctors in the U.S. and Canada have a special responsibility to their patients (imagine the doctor examining an infant with signs of molestation) and the public as both mandatory and permissive reporters of violence and public dangers.
Mandatory Reports: A mandatory report is one that legally requires a doctor to report public interest dangers. California Teachers and doctors, for example, must report child abuse. California policy requires doctors to report dog bites due to the public risks of Rabies. Duties of a mandatory reporter may include documenting factual evidence, such as dates, times, and places of the dog attack, as well as the diagnosis and prognosis of the professional medical doctor's opinions.
Permissive Reports: Opposite of a mandatory report are permissive reports. Some would say permissive reports are outright unethical. So these reports definitely create ethical dilemmas. And this is because statements to a doctor in this gray area should be confidential unless the patient places them at issue (making a dog bite, or car accident insurance claim, for example - would require your medical bills, treatment records, and chart notes, etc.). None the less, physicians can and do share information they received in confidence when they decide to issue a discretionary, permissive report.
IMPORTANT! First, physicians must not violate their Hippocratic Oath. These doctors must do good and make sure that their patients receive the best possible medical care in a timely matter. And speed is especially needed after a dog bite attack because of the violence in the attack and potential for acute bacterial infections.
But what happens if the dog owner or bite victim disclosed the dog's address and other information when discussing the patient's condition with the doctor?
- What if the patient does not want the bite reported to animal control or the police?
- Or what happens if the victim does not want to make a fuss over the attack?
- Or, what happens if the victim knows the dog or its owner and does not want it reported?
- What happens when both the victim and the owner agree not to tell the authorities?
Well, from the perspective of the doctor, the short answer is that it does not matter. No matter what, physicians must exercise clinical judgment in unclear cases where violence is at issue, or if reporting is legally required. Most of all, analysis of the situation should benefit the patient and contribute to California's public safety.
Sure, the patient can simply play dumb and initially refuse to identify the dog, or where it is kept. But once the patient spills the beans, it's getting written down into the Health Department designee "Report."
Doctors Have A Special Responsibility as "Dog Bite Reporters"?
To recap. Make sure and be careful what you tell a doctor. True, doctors must make sure that their patients receive first aid and are well attended. But doctors are also mandated by California state law to report all cases of a dog attacking a human that requires medical attention in a "Rabies Area." And there are no exceptions. Often this role is filled by the victim or the doctor contacting animal control. In some cases, both parties will make reports on their own.
The Code of Regulations Requires Any Dog Bite in a Rabies Area Be Reported?
According to Section 17 of California Code of Regulations 2606, doctors and anyone designee must immediately report dog bites taking place in a designated County Rabies Areas to a local health officer or their designee. (A designee can be a private non-profit group, or a small city, such as Redlands, could lease health services from a County agency, for example).
What California Counties are Rabies Areas?
In California, a “rabies area” is defined as a county where rabies remains a public health hazard. And the person responsible for declaring what counties are Rabies Areas is Director of the California State Department of Health Services.
The official history is that since 1987, all 58 counties in the Golden State are Rabies Areas as declared by the past and present Directors. (Click here for a list of all 58 Counties).
What Evidence Must a Mandatory Dog Bite Report Contain?
Los Angeles County, along with pretty much every other jurisdiction above, has a similar procedure. First, it remains standard to report dog bite mishaps to the local health official, or health department. And some of these smaller departments tend to use private kennels and other agencies as their designee. And this is common in San Bernardino County, for example.
Ultimately, the report lands in the in-basket of Animal Control agents, and they can be sent via fax or over the world wide web in many designated counties. So it depends on the rules.
A Typical Dog Bite Report Will Include:
- Date, time, and place of the assault.
- The Bite victim's name and relevant contact info.
- Victim's parent or guardian info assuming a minor was bitten.
- Dog owner's contact info, if available.
- Dog's breed and general description.
- Wound site description, such as hand or limb damage, and diagnosis
- Notes on dog bite treatment, such as vaccination injections, the number of stitches used to patch the patient up, etc.
- The contact information of the physician other person reporting the attack.
No matter what, physicians must report any California patient's dog bites as documented in the medical evaluation or treatment regimen. And there is not a requirement that the injury is serious, even if no rabies was present, for example. The physician's hospital report must be immediately transmitted to the Health Department for the local County or City's agents local health officials or their designees.
According to the CDC, mandatory dog bite reporting helps identify and stop the spread of diseases like rabies and tetanus. But ethically, a doctor does not have to report when a dog assaults some other animal. Other than that, the report of any bite must go to the official health official or its designee.
For example, in Sacramento County, the bite must be promptly reported to the Dept of Animal Care as cited on their website. All of these cases in the state of California are clear. The medical professional maintains a special obligation to let the government know. And this allows animal control to record that the dog attacked a person.
And if the dog does so a second time, it will be put down. Furthermore, medical reporting creates a record for potential use in a civil or criminal lawsuit. Documentation is key for both the dog owner and the bite owner-- and doctors should not shirk their responsibility to either.