Can Fatal Dog Attacks Be Prevented?

A sobering new report shows such tragic attacks are a multi-factorial problem.

A happy foxhound-beagle cross sits on a chair
Dogs should be part of family life. Photo: V.J. Matthew / Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Cases of humans being killed by dogs are investigated in a new paper by lead author Gary Patronek (Center for Animals and Public Policy, Tufts University).The scientists analyzed dog bite fatalities in the United States from 2000 to 2009, and discovered there are usually multiple contributing factors, many of them preventable.

During this time, there was an average of 25.6 dog bite fatalities per year, equivalent to 0.087 fatal bites per one million people per year. To put this in context, it is much less than the risk of being struck by lightning in the United States, which is estimated at 1 in 775,000 people per year.   

Previous research has relied on media reports, which may not be entirely accurate or provide the full story. In this study, although the scientists used the media to help identify cases of dog bite fatalities, they also searched national death records. Up until 2007, when personal details were removed from the national registry, they were able to match specific cases to media articles. 

The scientists found a total of 256 instances in the ten year period of the study. For almost 70% of these, they spoke to a law enforcement official who had been involved in the investigation. When prosecutions followed, the team kept in touch until the case was finally resolved, even if this took months or years. In some cases they spoke to animal control officials, veterinarians, or the coroner, to ensure accurate information. They then developed a classification system to record whether or not certain features were involved. 

The results are sobering. In 77.4% of cases, the victim was considered unable or potentially unable to safely interact with a dog, whether because they were a child or for another reason, such as a learning disability or dementia. This includes children under the age of 5, who made up 45% of the victims, showing that this group is especially vulnerable. The reason this kind of vulnerability factor is so important is because in 87% of cases there was no one else there who could intervene. 

Just over half of the attacks involved a single dog. Most of the attacks involved a male dog, whether on its own or as part of a multiple-dog attack (with other male or female dogs). The attacking dog(s) had not been spayed/neutered in 84.4% of cases.  

It is interesting that multiple dogs were present in the majority of attacks, even if only one dog was responsible. The authors report ASPCA figures that most homes have only one dog. Although many happy multi-dog homes exist, it could be that the presence of multiple dogs, particularly when they are sexually intact, is sometimes an indicator of mistreatment or neglect. 

Only 15.6% of fatal attacks involved a “family dog”, in other words one that interacted with people on a regular basis. The remainder of the dogs lived on a chain (37.9%), in an isolated area such as a fenced yard (34.9%), or roamed free (15.4%).  In a fairly high number of cases, the owner already knew the dog might be a problem (37.5%), such as due to a previous attack, or was known to have neglected or abused the animal (21.1%).

The Humane Society of the United States estimates that over 200,000 dogs spend their lives tethered  It is not known how many others are kept locked in a kennel or room. Some places are updating animal control laws to outlaw this. For example, a law that restricts the chaining and tethering of dogs passed the Oregon legislature in June 2013. Education is also important to teach owners that dogs should be socialized as puppies and then have ongoing happy interactions with humans throughout their lives, so that they know how to behave around them.

Many municipalities have Breed Specific Legislation, despite the lack of evidence for such an approach, and so the scientists went to great lengths to verify breed and compare media reports. Evidence of breed (e.g. from pedigree documents) was only available for 19 of the dogs in single dog attacks, and for 28 of those in multiple-dog attacks.  Of these, there were 20 different breeds (including known cross-breeds), showing that banning specific breeds is not a solution. 

Media reporting of breed was found to be problematic, including a few cases where multiple dogs of named breeds were said to be responsible for attacks that were actually carried out by single dogs. When more than one media source reported the attack, they mentioned different breeds almost a third of the time. Similarly, when it was possible to compare a media report with animal control, they gave different breeds 40% of the time.

This research suggests that Breed Specific Legislation does not protect people from dog bite fatalities.  At worst, it may even distract people (and financial resources) from the factors that do make a difference: close supervision of children and vulnerable adults, and good animal husbandry practices that involve the dog in family life. Given the prevalence of husbandry-related factors in these incidents, legislations should consider strengthening measures aimed at preventing cruelty and neglect and supporting responsible ownership.

Many risk factors co-occurred. The average was five, with three-quarters having at least four. The scientists say, “the most striking finding was the co-occurrence of multiple factors potentially under the control of dog owners: isolation of dogs from positive family interaction and other human contact; mismanagement of dogs by owners; abuse or neglect of dogs by owners; dogs left unsupervised with a child or vulnerable adult who may be unfamiliar to the dog; and maintenance of dogs in an environment where  they are trapped, neglected, and isolated and have little control over either the environment or choice of behavior.”

This study focussed on fatalities, which are extremely rare, but the CDC estimates that 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs each year, with 885,000 needing medical attention. About half of these bites are to children, who are particularly at risk between the ages of 5 and 9, and more likely to need medical attention if bitten. A 2011 study by Ilana Reisner et al found that, amongst children taken to an emergency department for a dog bite, 70% of those under 7 had been bitten onthe face, while older children were most often bitten on an extremity.  

A recent study by Barbara Morrongiello et al found that manyparents tend to “assume safety” with an unfamiliar dog and, although watchful, may not be close enough to intervene should anything go wrong. However, it seems that parents would welcome education for their children on how to safely interact with dogs, according to research by Cinnamon Dixon et al. This is something that could be incorporated into the elementary school classroom, for example. 

The analysis of dog bite fatalities shows the crucial importance of close supervision of young children and vulnerable adults around dogs, and the need for a better understanding of animal behaviour amongst dog owners, parents, and health professionals. The authors say “the present study findings also have supported recommendations by the AVMA and others regarding the inadvisability of single-factor solutions such as BSL, which may actually divert resources from more effective measures and regulations.” It seems that a new approach to dog bite prevention is needed.

What do you think should be done to reduce the number of dog bites?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Dixon, C., Mahabee-Gittens, E.M., Hart, K.W., & Lindsell, C.J. (2012). Dog bite prevention: An assessment of child knowledge The Journal of Pediatrics, 160, 337-341 DOI: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2011.07.016  
Morrongiello BA, Schwebel DC, Stewart J, Bell M, Davis AL, & Corbett MR (2013). Examining parents' behaviors and supervision of their children in the presence of an unfamiliar dog: does The Blue Dog intervention improve parent practices? Accident; analysis and prevention, 54, 108-13 PMID: 23499982  
Patronek GJ, Sacks JJ, Delise KM, Cleary DV, & Marder AR (2013). Co-occurrence of potentially preventable factors in 256 dog bite-related fatalities in the United States (2000-2009). Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 243 (12), 1726-36 PMID: 24299544  
Reisner IR, Nance ML, Zeller JS, Houseknecht EM, Kassam-Adams N, & Wiebe DJ (2011). Behavioural characteristics associated with dog bites to children presenting to an urban trauma centre. Injury prevention : journal of the International Society for Child and Adolescent Injury Prevention, 17 (5), 348-53 PMID: 21444335

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