Last month, the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) published the most comprehensive study of dog bite-related fatalities to be completed since the subject was first studied four decades ago. The study, which applied investigative techniques not used in any similar studies, analyzed 256 dog bite fatalities in the United States from 2000 to 2009, and discovered there are usually multiple contributing factors to fatal dog attacks, most of them preventable.
The researchers determined that some of the factors involved in fatal dog attacks included the absence of someone old enough and physically able to intervene (87%), dogs that were not spayed or neutered (84%), incidental or no relationship of the victim with the dog prior to the attack (85%), children under the age of 5 or others physically or mentally impaired including those under the influence of alcohol or drugs (77%), dogs kept isolated from regular human interactions (resident or “yard” dogs) versus family dogs (76%), owner’s prior mismanagement of dogs (37%) and owner’s history of abuse or neglect of dogs (21%). Four or more of the above noted factors were found to occur in over 85 percent of the cases studied.
It is important to note that up until now, previous research on this issue has relied on media reports, which may not be accurate and/or not provide the full story of the underlying incidents. In the JAVMA study, however, while the researchers used the media to help identify cases of dog bite fatalities, they also searched animal control reports and national death records (up to 2007), and were able to match specific cases to media articles. In doing so, they found that in a significant number of incidents, news stories conflicted with each other and/or with animal control reports, casting doubt on using media reports as a primary or, in many instances, the sole source of data for scientific studies.
In addition, the study found that media reporting of breed was problematic. When more than one media source reported an attack, different breeds of dogs were mentioned almost a third of the time. Similarly, when it was possible to compare a media report with an animal control report, different breeds were mentioned 40% of the time. According to the study, the reported breed of dog could not be reliably identified in more than 80% of the cases, and of the 45 cases where dog breed was accurately identified, twenty different breeds were involved in those incidents.
The research suggests that breed specific legislation does not protect people from dog bites and, at worst, it distracts those in decision-making positions from the factors that do make a difference.
The study supports the long-standing belief that breed specific laws give a community a false sense of security, and emphasizes the belief that animal control laws and programs that develop, encourage and educate on responsible dog ownership practices, are key to preventing dog attacks.