The Real Factors in Dog Bite Related Fatalities

In the 1970s and 1980s, my colleagues and I were lecturing and writing about the “dog bite epidemic”. Although I knew that dogs sometimes bit, I preferred to emphasize that most of the time they do not. And what’s more, there are things that can be done to prevent these incidents. Recently, the “epidemic” seems to be lessening. There are fewer reported dogs bites in many cities across the United States than there used to be. For instance, New York City reported about 37,000 dog bites in 1971 and fewer than 5,000 in 2011. Chicago reported about 12,000 in 1978 and about 2000 in 2011.This is good news but dog bites still happen and unfortunately often become big news.

The media is not interested in the people who recover easily from dog bites. Although not common, the people who are severely injured by man’s best friends are the ones we tend to hear about. Unfortunately , although death by dog bite occurs VERY rarely (0.00001% of all dog bites), those that suffer that fate are the ones under the media spotlight.

This media focus can be problematic, as early studies looking at fatal dog bites collected their information directly from media accounts. While the authors recognized the inadequacy of their source of data – one stating that the study probably only identified 72% of the dog bite fatalities over the period of the study – they also acknowledged that there were several factors, both related to the dog and the owner, that could be responsible for a dog biting severely. Unfortunately, it seems that most of the attention to this work has revolved around the breed of dogs involved, leading to its use for passing breed-specific legislation. Even though the authors admitted that the identification of “dog’s breed with certainty” was difficult and that there were “many practical alternatives to breed- specific ordinances exist and hold promise for prevention of dog bites” these caveats were ignored, until now.

A new study investigating fatal dog bites, written by Gary Patronek, VMD PhD and his colleagues, including Amy Marder, VMD, used thorough and unique investigative techniques not used before in dog bite studies has been published. It identifies several factors which co-occurred in dog bite related fatalities during the 10 year period from 2000-2009. Four or more of the factors were present in 80.5% or the cases examined. What’s more, if these factors are controlled by the dog’s owners, serious dog bites can be potentially prevented. The co-occurring factors are:

  • No able-bodied person being present to intervene
  • The victim having no familiar relationship with the dog(s)
  • The dog(s) owner failing to neuter/spay the dog(s)
  • A victim’s compromised ability, whether based on age or physical condition, to manage their interactions with the dog(s)
  • The owner keeping the dog(s) as resident dog(s) rather than as family pet(s) • The owner’s prior mismanagement of the dog(s)
  • The owner’s abuse or neglect of the dog(s)
  • Breed was not one of the factors identified! In 80% of the cases, the breed of the dog could not be reliably or consistently identified.

These findings support the Center for Shelter Dogs’ viewpoint that every dog should be considered an individual, not according to assumed breed or appearance. A dog’s environment, and the way he or she was raised, as this study points out, is an extremely important factor in determining the dog’s behavior. As we always like to say, “Every dog is different”.