“What is a dog bite?”: the question seems simple enough. Most of us would describe a dog bite as an incident where a dog deliberately inflicts an injury to a person. However, animal control and public health departments consider any incident in which a dog's tooth or nail breaks a person's skin - regardless of the circumstances or any characterization of the dog's intention - to be an animal exposure that merits their notice.
Based on this definition, animal control and public health departments classify all of the following types of animal exposures as dog bites:
• Nips from playful puppies.
• Scratches from a dog's nail.
• Scrapes from a dog's tooth.
• Accidental bites by dogs.
• Bites from injured or ill dogs receiving assistance or comfort from Good Samaritans (e.g. dogs hit by cars).
• Bites by working K-9 dogs delivered in the performance of police duties.
• Bites delivered to canine professionals such as veterinarians. These may have occurred under extreme duress, such as if the dog was in pain or otherwise unable to control its behavior. (e.g. a vet tech bitten while removing intubation tube from a dog's throat)
Dog Bites and "Statistics"
Dog bite statistics include a range of types of dog bites. The vast majority are not severe enough to warrant a trip to the emergency room. In addition to reporting even the most benign nip, scratch or scrape, dog bite statistics do not provide a complete picture of dog bites. They fail to accurately show which dogs bite, why dogs bite, or describe just how frequently owners irresponsibly allow their dogs to become a problem to people or other animals.
One of the primary functions of animal control agencies is determining whether domestic animals involved in biting incidents have up-to-date rabies vaccinations. This is the primary reason why animal control and public health agencies continue to retain an interest in all animal exposures, regardless of the individual circumstances of individual cases.
Forms used to record an animal exposure, which are often called ‘bite reports’, will usually include space where parties involved or the animal control or health officer can provide a description of the circumstances. Did a dog scratch his owner during a playful romp? Did a dog chase and bite a child riding a bicycle?
Unfortunately, when animal exposures are tallied up, they may be released to the public as simple bite totals. The circumstances of each incident, and any understanding to be gained from them, have been stripped away. In consequence, bite numbers are not an accurate representation of canine aggression. Like the term ‘dog bite’, which is used to describe a wide range of types of animal exposures, ‘canine aggression’ is a general term applied to range of different, specific behaviors.
The following example illustrates the important point that dog bite reports are not necessarily records of canine aggression per se, and also that bite totals obscure the important point that bites originate from different circumstances.
Consider a report containing separate bites inflicted by four dogs assigned the breed descriptor "A". Each bite is actually the culmination of a different dog’s response to the following individual events:
• Dog One (Breed “A”) jumps up and scratches a child with its nail.
• Dog Two (Breed “A”) is hit by a car and critically injured, and bites the hand of a rescuer.
• Dog Three (Breed “A”) chases a child on a bicycle and nips the child's ankle.
• Dog Four (Breed “A”) lunges and inflicts a serious bite to a child's face after the child comes too close to the dog's food bowl.
Even if the breed descriptor, “A”, were accurate in each of the cases above (which recent studies reveal is unlikely), each of the four incidents is distinct, involving canine behaviors that animal experts would not describe in the same terms.
(It is worth pointing out that in two of these incidents, an owner/parent may not have properly supervised the interaction between a child and a dog. In the other two incidents, an owner has allowed his/her dog to roam, failing to control and contain their pet.)
Breed Labeling and Dog Bites
Bite totals become even more misleading when subdivided by breed descriptors. At least half of the dogs in the United States are mixed breed dogs. It is impossible to breed label dogs of unknown history and genetics solely on the basis of their appearance.
Research conducted at two (2) universities has confirmed that attempts to identify visually the breeds in a dog of unknown origin correlate poorly with a DNA analysis of the same dog.[i] Further, different observers, even those with considerable experience with dogs, do not agree with each other. Nevertheless, animal controls and shelter workers continue to assign single breed descriptors to dogs likely to be of mixed breed whose origins are unknown.
Even if visual breed identifications were accurate, dog bite totals still would not provide evidence that some breeds or groups of dogs bit more frequently than others. Breed populations within a given jurisdiction are not known. Therefore, incident rates cannot be calculated with any accuracy. Further, on the basis of samples obtained from veterinary clinics, animal shelters, and dog licensing, we can conclude that the popularity of types of dogs varies from place to place, and changes over time.
The Myth of the Dog Bite Epidemic
The definition of epidemic is: extremely prevalent; widespread, or a rapid spread or increase in the occurrence of something.
The term ‘epidemic’ could have been applied to dog bites in the early 1970’s; however, it is not accurate today.
Late in 1974, a study published in the Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine stated that the number of dog bites reported in New York had increased by 37% between 1965 and 1972. The article was titled, “Dog Bites: An Unrecognized Epidemic.”[ii] The following February, an Associated Press article appeared in newspapers across the country carrying a similar headline: “Dog Bites – Unrecognized Epidemic in the United States.” The AP story reported significant increases in 10 other American cities besides New York.
The irony is that the “epidemic” began to subside almost as quickly as it arose. Researchers in Baltimore, Maryland, one of the cities included in the AP story, reported that new municipal policies had quickly reversed the ‘epidemic’ trend in that city. From a peak total of 6,922 in 1972, by 1976 dog bites declined to 4,760. The decline has continued into the present day. For all of 2011, there were 719 reported dog bites in Baltimore City.[iii]
There is no national system in the United States for tallying reports of dog bites. The often-repeated estimates currently cited to argue that there is still a dog bite "epidemic" derive from two telephone surveys conducted to assess a wide variety of injury risk factors and injuries. The first survey was conducted in 1994. From among the 5,328 persons who responded to this survey, interviewers obtained reports of 186 dog bites participants reported had occurred within the 12 months prior to the interview. (Only 38 of the 186 bitten sought medical attention). The second survey, conducted between July 2001 and February 2003, returned a result showing that dog bites had declined overall, and had declined significantly among children.[iv]
Adding to the confusion, none of the survey-derived estimates are consistent with concurrent reports from public health agencies across the United States. In fact, communities from coast to coast report the good, but less publicized news that contrary to the estimates, actual reports of dog bites to public agencies have decreased dramatically since the 1970’s.
Current reports obtained from public health agencies show that there is one reported dog bite for every 2,000+ New Yorkers and one for every 1,365 Chicagoans. The telephone surveys mentioned above, on the other hand, show one bite for every 68 Americans nationwide (310 million Americans divided by 4.5 million dog bites = 1 bite in every 68 people).
What might account for this discrepancy? The authors of the survey reports themselves underscore that they did not define for survey respondents what they meant by a ‘dog bite’. (This is the primary issue with reporting of dog bites by public health officials, as we describe in the preceding paragraphs.) The respondents were only asked if they had been bitten by a dog - not if they had been injured by a dog.
The survey also reported that only 19% of those who responded that they had been bitten by a dog also said that they sought medical attention. What, then, was the nature of the 81% of incidents for which respondents did not seek medical attention? Two potential answers exist: either the contact with the dog resulted in no identifiable injury, or that injury was negligible.
The Enduring Strength of the Human-Canine Bond
NCRC offers this short report in order to advance a better understanding of how dog bites have been reported over the decades, as well as recognition of the limited and incomplete picture that this dog bite “data” provides.
Americans have hundreds of billions of interactions with dogs on a daily basis. The overwhelming majority of interactions between dogs and people are rewarding for both parties. Of the very small number of interactions that result in human injury, many could have been avoided by supervision of infants and small children around dogs; education of children and adults about safety around dogs; and education of dog owners about dog well-being and their responsibilities for the humane care, custody and control of their dogs.
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[i] Voith, V., Ingram, E., Mitsouras, K., and Irizarry, K. (2009). Comparison of Adoption Agency Identification and DNA Breed Identification of Dogs. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 12(3), 253-262.
Olson, K. R., Levy, J.K, and Norby, B. (2012). [Poster] Pit Bull Identification in Animal Shelters. Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida and Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences at Michigan State University. Retrieved from http://www.maddiesfund.org/Resource_Library/Incorrect_Breed_Identification.html
[ii] Harris, D., Imperato, P.J., and Oken, B. (1974). Dog Bites - - an unrecognized epidemic. Bulletin of the NY Academy of Medicine, 50(9), 981-1000. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1749418/
Baltimore City Public Health Department records. (2006 and 2007). For reported dog bites in the years 2006 and 2007.
Sacks, J.J., Kresnow, M.J., and Houston, B. (1996). Dog bites: how big a problem? Injury Prevention, 2, 52-54. Retrieved from http://injuryprevention.bmj.com/content/2/1/52.full.pdf+html?sid=90ca5552-cab2-4cd2-9ef6-91aa5cc92c46
Gilchrist, J., Sacks, J.J., White, D., and Kresnow, M.J. (2008). Dog bites: still a problem? Injury Prevention, 14, 296-301. Retrieved from http://injuryprevention.bmj.com/content/14/5/296.full?sid=90ca5552-cab2-4cd2-9ef6-91aa5cc92c46
Sources for Graph:
Weller, W.R. (1975, February 6). Dog Bites - Unrecognized Epidemic in the United States. The Miami Herald, pp. 14-A.
New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene. (2012). [Data file]. Provided July 2012 upon request.
Animal Care and Control Team of Philadelphia. (n.d.) [Data file]. Provided May 2012 upon request.
City of Baltimore Animal Control. (2012). [Data file]. Provided May 2012 upon request.
Government of the District of Columbia: Department of Health. (2011). Statistical Report for FY2011. [Data File]. Provided June 2012 upon request.