If you don't think dog bites are a big and serious problem, think again.

Eleasha Gall, director of behavior and training at spcaLA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles), interacts with Tux, a one-year-old pit bull, in an effort to promote behavior to avoid dog bites, at Long Beach, Calif., on Wednesday, May 16, 2012. (Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)

Not as gut-wrenching but still nothing to take lightly is the revelation that 17 postal workers were attacked by dogs in Washington, D.C. in fiscal year 2011, according to figures released Thursday by the United States Postal Service (USPS). That places the District 23rd (tied with Jamaica, N.Y., and Milwaukee, Wis.) in the USPS’s list of the top 25 cities for dog bites. (Los Angeles tops the list, with 83 dog bites to postal workers that year.)

And last Wednesday we learned that insurance companies nationwide paid out $479 million in liability claims related to dog bites in 2011.

The USPS is calling attention to dog bites during National Dog Bite Prevention Week, which started Saturday. And the postal service isn’t just concerned about its employees’ safety; it’s teamed up with the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Society for Reconstructive Microsurgery, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Insurance Information Institute and an organization called Prevent the Bite to raise everyone’s dog-bite awareness and offer tips for avoiding getting bit and what to do if a dog does attack.

The news release announcing the campaign cites the CDC’s estimate that 4.7 million Americans a year — more than half of them children — get bit by a dog. CDC data show that between 12 and 20 people die each year after being attacked by dogs. And the Insurance Information Institute notes more than a third of all homeowners insurance liability claims are related to dog bites.

This all hits close to home for me. I’ve always owned dogs and always been aware that even the sweetest of canines can bite or nip if they feel provoked to do so.

My family’s been on the receiving end of that threat: Years ago I wrote about an incident in which my young son asked to pet an acquaintance’s dog that was sitting, leashed, outside a Starbucks, right by its owner’s side. The dog bit my son’s arm, breaking the skin. Turned out there was no record of the dog having been vaccinated for rabies, so it had to be quarantined — , and we had to order a supply of medicine to treat my son immediately should the dog show signs of rabies. Luckily for all involved, the dog and my son were both fine.

But just when the quarantine period ended, our pediatrician called to ask if we would release the medicine for them to administer to another patient — a baby who had been bitten, horribly, in the face.

So, yeah, I think this is an important issue.

Have you or a loved one been bit by a dog? Has your dog bit anyone? Share your stories, please.