This is part one of a four-part series on dog bites.
Did you know that in 2011 there were over 70 million dogs and 310 million humans in the US? With those numbers and the fear many people have concerning children and safety, one would expect that we have an epidemic on our hands! Yet according to the CDC, only 4.7 million people are bitten every year. Yes, that number is way too high, but considering that most bites don’t need any kind of medical attention, it’s not as high as some people might believe. Still according to the CDC, 800,000 people seek medical treatment for bites, and 386,000 seek treatment at an ER. Again, while I believe these numbers are way too high and need to be lowered, in the grand scheme of things, the safety risk really is not that bad.
What about the really ugly stuff? Unfortunately, sometimes dog bites lead to deaths. I have read through many of the reports from recent dog bites, however, and I can tell you that in the majority of these cases there were some serious red flags before the dog did anything at all. However, in 2011, which is the latest year for which there are complete statistics, there were only 31 dog bite related deaths. Compare that to other things we encounter on a daily basis or at least regular enough to be routine: motor vehicles (32,367 deaths), airplanes (401 deaths), fire (2,520 deaths), and our children’s parents/guardians (1,570 deaths due to child abuse and neglect). So our nation’s dogs caused far fewer deaths than the next highest number- airplanes- and far far fewer deaths than the parents and guardians who are supposed to be caring for our nation’s children.
If you look at the statistics for our tri-state area, the results are even more shocking. According to the National Canine Research Council, in the last 48 years there have been only 4 dog bite related deaths in all of the state of Iowa, 15 in all of Wisconsin, and 30 in all of Illinois. In the year 2009 alone, there were 10 deaths in Iowa, 24 in Wisconsin, and 77 in Illinois due to child abuse and neglect. People worry about dogs biting children often (look at the whole dogs in parks uproar going on in Dubuque right now), and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but it’s interesting that the statistics say that maybe we should be more worried about the parents and guardians hurting these kids as opposed to dogs.
60% of bites are directed toward children, and kids under the age of 9 receive the highest rate of bites. Kids 4 and under are most often bitten in the head and neck region, which is of course a reason for concern. Boys are far more likely to be bitten than girls are. (All according to the CDC.) However, according to research from the NCRC, 90% of bites are minor- they don’t require any medical treatment. And the number of people going to the ER for a dog bite is less than 1.1% of all people going to the ER for treatment of injuries of any kind. Less than 2% of dog bite victims need to be hospitalized, compared with about 7% of victims of assault by another person.
Here’s the really great news- we can prevent the vast majority of dog bites, and also the vast majority of dog bite related deaths, because we know what the risk factors are! It’s really not that hard, either! The American Humane Association says the vast majority of fatal dog attacks involve male dogs (almost all of them intact) and a good 1/4 of the attacks involved chained dogs. Two thirds of dog bites occur on or near the victim’s property and most victims know the dog. This means you are far more likely to be bitten by your neighbor’s chained dog (especially if he is an intact male) than by a dog down at the Farmer’s Market (or in a park, if dogs are allowed in parks). Does that mean we should outlaw male dogs, or neuter them all? Obviously not if we want to keep the species around. Many male dogs are just fine with people, and many many male dogs never bite in their entire lives. But obviously something is going on with these male dogs, and I’m betting they are victims too. Let me explain.
According to the NCRC, the vast majority of fatal dog bites involve a resident dog as opposed to a family dog. A family dog is a dog who is fully integrated into the family- this dog lives in the house, eats in the house, exercises with his family, and fully takes part in life with his family. A resident dog simply lives on the premises, but has limited interaction with humans including those he resides with. These dogs include junkyard dogs, outside dogs who rarely see anyone all day, and the so called ‘guard dog’ who may be trained to be ‘mean’ to frighten people off. My guess is that more of these resident dogs are male than female, and especially if they are supposed to be “mean”, they aren’t likely to be neutered. If you have the stomach for it, read some of the case reports handled by the NCRC from past fatalities and see if you can tell whether the dog was a resident or family dog before they tell you. In many cases, what the news reported as a “family dog” who “turned on his owner without warning or provocation” was in fact a resident dog with many warning signs before the bite. Just be sure to have some tissues on hand and a good dog to snuggle with afterward to recover from what you’ll read.
So why do dogs bite at all? Well, they are highly successful animals with a vast history of both scavenging and predation. They may be trained to hunt or naturally have a high prey drive, and they often live and interact with soft fleshy humans who may be ill, infirm, old, young, or make high-pitched squealing sounds like prey animals. Even more important, even though they have the longest known history of domestication and are so very important to us, they are sorely misunderstood animals, and rarely are their cares or feelings listened to or taken into account. Many people living with these animals haven’t the faintest idea what the dogs are trying to tell them. Really, sometimes I marvel that there aren’t MORE bites with all dogs are asked to put up with!
Dogs do far more good than harm. Anyone involved in pet therapy can regale you with tons of stories about the amazing power animals have to heal us. They provide us with love and companionship, with a reason to get out and exercise and socialize, they are highly attentive to us and responsive to social bonds, they enrich and improve countless lives across the nation, and they also decrease things like blood pressure, cholesterol, and even feelings of loneliness.
Some people think the middle ground is to ban large breed dogs, like pitbulls, mastiffs, Dobermans, Rottweilers, German Shepherds, and the like. We can keep the small breed dogs around for the positive things dogs bring us, and because they are safer than the big dogs, they reason. After all, a little dog can’t do much harm even if it does bite. The grisly reality is that Chihuahuas, Dachshunds, Miniature Schnauzers, and Pomeranians have all killed people as well- both adults and children. The reports are documented. So there is no “safe breed”- safety is all about owner management and control, the reproductive status of the dog, and the level of integration of the dog into the family. The first and last ones are in my book the super important ones.
So to prevent dog bites, it’s actually fairly easily. Communities should encourage dogs to be fully integrated with the family, including encouraging families to socialize their dogs. Families need to be taught to listen to their dog’s attempts to communicate (more on this in another post). Children need to supervised around children, and many opportunities need to be provided for positive interactions between children and dogs. Families need to practice humane pet keeping, and kids need to be taught this as well. Dogs need to be well-socialized and properly managed. No one should interact with a chained dog, and families should be encouraged not to chain their dogs. All family members need to keep their eyes open to the possibility of a dog bite. If you don’t believe Fluffy would ever bite, chances are you won’t listen when Fluffy tries to warn you and you may actually force Fluffy to bite to get her point across. Your dog does not let the kids jump all over him to show how much he loves them- he does it because he is an amazing creature putting up with bad behavior while you are refusing to protect him. The reality is that any dog with teeth could bite, but few dogs actually do bite. If you try to see the world from your dog’s eyes, you can better identify any potential annoyances which could eventually trigger a bite.