Unreported dog bites in children

To best understand this article in the context of the literature on growling, snarling, snapping, and biting behavior (incidence and correlates), please see National Canine Research Council’s complete analysis here.

Beck, A. M., & Jones, B. A. (1985). Unreported dog bites in children. Public Health Reports, 100(3), 315-321.

National Canine Research Council Summary and Analysis:

This paper is included because it is the only direct survey of a large group of children regarding their experience of dog bites. The purpose of this study was to identify possible discrepancies between the number of dog bites among children reported to authorities and the actual incidence. The authors acknowledged the general consensus that more children (and people in general) are bitten by dogs each year than national statistics indicate, and conducted a survey of school children to ascertain the extent of this gap. They did not distinguish between bites of different severity, except with regard to whether medical treatment had been sought. The children in their sample reported bite incidents at a rate much higher than national estimates based on reported bites.

The researchers surveyed 3,256 school children at 28 schools in Pennsylvania in 1981. Bites were reported by children as young as 4 years old (preschool through high school seniors) and required a long memory recall. The survey inquired about the children’s most and least favorite animals and recorded whether or not they had ever been bitten or had been bitten within the last year. If they had experienced a dog bite, they were asked whether or not they received medical treatment. No verification of medical treatment was obtained.

The authors concluded that their findings were “necessarily an underestimate” of the actual dog bite incidence because they instructed the participants to exclude playful “mouthing” bites; however, it is possible that children’s memories were unreliable (common in recollection of minor events over long periods of time even for adults), or that they were not able to reliably assess the difference between a playful and a conflict interaction with a dog. It is, therefore, difficult to assess the reliability of the incident data collected.

In addition to incidence data, the researchers collected information regarding the children’s attitudes toward dogs. No correlation was found between being bitten and liking dogs. The authors stated, “Children appear to accept being bitten by dogs much as they do other accidents such as falling off a bike.” This suggests to us that the bites are not emotionally scarring and may be relatively harmless.

The authors concluded that this response on the part of the children was problematic, representing incidents that urgently need to be taken more seriously and prevented, to “change our perceptions of pet dogs to include the image of a potential biter.” However, the proportion of dog bites reportedly requiring medical attention was very low, and experiencing a dog bite did not negatively impact the children’s attitudes towards dogs. Thus the findings lend equal support to a conclusion indicating the banal nature of such events, rather than of a public health issue needing more attention.

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