Dog Bites on the Rise

Muzzled Dog

According to a recent report published by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), in the 15 years between 1993 and 2008, serious dog bites -- bites requiring emergency room visits and/or hospital stays -- increased by a whopping 86 percent.

One of the report authors, Anne Elixhauser, a senior research scientist with AHRQ, points out the increase greatly surpassed population growth, and pet ownership rose only slightly during the same period.

In 2008, over 850 people a day showed up at hospital emergency rooms for treatment of dog bites.

Some additional statistics:

  • Seniors 65 and older and young children under five were the two groups most likely to be hospitalized with a dog bite.
  • People living in rural areas were four times as likely as city dwellers to go to the emergency room with a dog bite.
  • Over 40 percent of those hospitalized developed skin and underlying tissue infection from their bite injuries.
  • 22 percent were bitten on the legs or arms; 11 percent were injured on the head, neck or torso; the remainder had injuries ranging from broken bones to blood poisoning.
  • Nearly 60 percent of those hospitalized with dog bites needed procedures like sutures, wound debridement (removal of unhealthy tissue), or skin grafts.
  • The average cost per patient to treat a dog bite was over $18,000.
Dr. Becker's Comments:

It’s hard to know what to make of a report like this one from the AHRQ when no reasons are offered for why dog bites seem to have increased so dramatically in the past couple of decades.

All we really learn about causes from the report authors is we can rule out two obvious possibilities: population growth and an increase in pet ownership.

There aren’t any new scientific discoveries that I’m aware of for why dogs bite.

So it seems in order to derive value from these rather startling bite statistics, as members of the dog-owning and dog-caretaking community, we need to thoroughly review the time-tested methods for dog bite prevention.

But first let’s take a look at some risk factors for dog bites.

Common Situations in Which Dog Bites Occur

The majority of bites occur in what the dog views as his territory – typically his house and yard. And if a dog is allowed to run around the neighborhood at will (which I do NOT recommend) his territory can grow considerably larger. Dogs are wired to protect their territory, which can result in a bite. So can perceived threatening behavior conducted inside the dog’s territory.

Many people are bitten while passing by a dog’s property, either on foot or on a bike, skateboard, etc. Dogs naturally chase things, and if an unrestrained dog in his front yard perceives a passerby as prey, he’s apt to give chase and bite.

Lots of dog owners are seriously injured trying to break up a fight between two or more dogs. Fights break out between dogs that are strangers, and between dogs in a multi-dog household. Human intervention in a fight can draw the misdirected aggression of one or more of the battling dogs.

Children who aren’t properly trained in how to approach and handle a dog are often bite victims. Kids who don’t know better run up to dogs to give them a hug or a pat. A surprised, startled dog is apt to bite. A child might try to play with a dog’s favorite toy, or interact with a pup that is eating or working on a bone. A child who runs too close past a sleeping dog or a wobbly toddler who falls on top of his pet can wind up with a bite.

10 Common Sense Tips for Preventing Dog Bites

  1. Use good judgment when selecting a family pet. Giving into an impulse when it comes to adopting or buying a dog is almost always a bad idea. Do your homework. And by all means if this is your first dog, or you don’t know what to look for in a dog, talk with a vet, a reputable breeder, or other knowledgeable resource. Learn which dogs would be most likely to thrive in your family situation, and which would be a poor fit.
  2. Make sure your puppy is properly socialized and train your dog to obey basic commands like ‘sit,’ ‘stay,’ ‘no,’ and ‘come.’ Proper socialization is the single most important thing dog owners can do to reduce the risk of winding up with a pet with behavior problems. When your dog consistently obeys your commands, it is much easier to control her in situations where she might be tempted to misbehave.
  3. Make sure your dog gets adequate exercise. Not only is regular, heart-thumping aerobic exercise necessary for physical conditioning, it also provides the mental stimulation every dog needs to be a balanced individual.
  4. Playtime is important, but you should avoid games that are overly exciting to your pup or that pit him against you, like wrestling or tug-of-war. And never put your dog in a situation where he feels teased or threatened.
  5. Always use a leash or similar restraint when you’re out in public with your pet. If your dog typically walks you rather than the reverse, you don’t have control of him. It’s not enough to simply put a leash or harness on a large dog with bad manners.

    You must be able to control him in public. If you can’t, it’s time for formal obedience training. In the meantime, dog walking duties should go to a member of the family who can successfully control your pet in public.

  6. If you allow your dog out alone in a fenced yard, make sure gates are secure and there are no other ‘escape routes’ available. If your pet is a jumper, your fence will need to be higher than she can jump. If she’s a digger or a chewer, you’ll need to take whatever precautions are necessary to insure she isn’t able to tunnel or gnaw her way to freedom.
  7. Take proactive care of your pet’s health. Feed a species-appropriate diet, make sure she is well-exercised, brush her teeth, bathe and groom her regularly, and take her for at least one, preferably two annual wellness visits with a holistic/integrative vet.
  8. Proceed with extreme caution when it comes to vaccinating your pet. Evidence is mounting that vaccines, in particular the rabies vaccine, are contributing to the problem of aggression in some dogs.
  9. The vaccine appears to bring on chronic rabies-like symptoms in affected dogs. Since rabies vaccines are required by law, insist on the 3-year vaccine and avoid the 1-year shot. Never re-vaccinate a dog who has had a reaction to a vaccine. I recommend you ask your holistic vet for the homeopathic rabies vaccine detox Lyssin after each rabies vaccine.

  10. Also discuss with your vet the best time to spay or neuter your dog. Beyond reproductive concerns, intact pets are sometimes more aggressive than animals that have been neutered. I do not recommend you leave a dog with aggressive tendencies intact.
  11. Teach children – yours and any others who come around your dog – how to behave with an animal. Children are by far the most frequent victims of dog bites. They must learn to be both cautious and respectful in the presence of any dog, including their own. And never under any circumstances leave a baby or small child alone with a dog.

More Useful Information

A dog’s behavior from puppy to adulthood isn’t static. As your pet develops physically and socially, her behavior will also change in subtle or not-so-subtle ways. Don’t assume, even if you’ve done a fantastic job socializing and training a young dog, that she is ‘done.’

Ongoing training and proactive behavior modification when a problem might be developing will prevent any blossoming issues of aggressiveness.

If you adopt a dog and especially a puppy during the colder months of the year, he’ll need to be socialized once warm weather arrives to all the sights, sounds and other stimuli of summer.

Oftentimes dogs need a refresher obedience or socialization course between 2-3 years of age. If you aren’t completely pleased with any of your dog’s behaviors, stick with training until her behavior makes you proud.

Dog bites are more prevalent in hot weather. This is probably because more children are outdoors playing with their pets, coupled with dogs becoming irritable and aggressive in the heat.

One USELESS Solution to the Problem

Breed Discrimination Legislation (BDL). In one incredibly misguided effort to cut down on dog bites, a handful of towns in Colorado passed laws banning certain entire breeds.

Not only have these laws been incredibly costly to enforce, they have also resulted in an increase in the incidence of dog bites.

Despite what many people assume or have been led to believe, there is no one ‘most dangerous’ breed of dog. All dogs, from the smallest to the largest and everything in between, can pose a danger under the right circumstances.

According to the AVMA’s Task Force on Canine Aggression and Human-Canine Interactions:

Dog bite statistics are not really statistics, and they do not give an accurate picture of dogs that bite. Invariably the numbers will show that dogs from popular large breeds are a problem. This should be expected, because big dogs can physically do more damage if they do bite, and any popular breed has more individuals that could bite. Dogs from small breeds also bite and are capable of causing severe injury.

There are several reasons why it is not possible to calculate a bite rate for a breed or to compare rates between breeds. First, the breed of the biting dog may not be accurately recorded, and mixed-breed dogs are commonly described as if they were purebreds.

Second, the actual number of bites that occur in a community is not known, especially if they did not result in serious injury.

Third, the number of dogs of a particular breed or combination of breeds in a community is not known, because it is rare for all dogs in a community to be licensed, and existing licensing data is then incomplete. Breed data likely vary between communities, states, or regions, and can even vary between neighborhoods within a community.

For more information about why breed bite statistics are a useless tool, a PDF download is available of the full Task Force report: A community approach to dog bite prevention.

Additional Resources