Dog bite deaths, US, 2000-2009

A recent high profile dog-bite death in the US has refocused discussion on bites and their causes. Co-incidentally, a paper in a recent edition of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (Patronek et al 2013, Co-occurrence of potentially preventable factors in 256 dog bite-related fatalities in the United States (2000-2009)) also addresses this topic.

The authors of the study looked at 256 dog bite fatalities and, primarily using investigation reports from law enforcement agencies, looked at potential preventable factors. This was a pretty intensive effort compared to other studies, involving review of all available documentation and interviews with investigators and animal control officers whenever possible.

Here is a synopsis of some of their interesting results:

  • The overall dog bite fatality rate was approximately 0.087 fatal bites per million person years (or 8.7 fatal bites per 100 million people per year) and 0.38 fatal bites per million dogs. That’s low, but that's small comfort if you’re one of the 0.087.
  • Almost half of the victims were less than 5 years of age, with slightly more males than females.
  • Few victims (6.6%) were the dogs’ owners, and owners were present at the time of the bite in only 4.7% of cases. In 74% of cases, there was no relationship to the dog (i.e. the animal was not owned by the victim, a friend or relative, or some other situation in which the person knew the dog).
  • In slightly over half of the cases, the victim was deemed "unable to interact appropriately," mainly due to young age. In another 22%, the victim was deemed "possibly" unable to interact appropriately, due to being 5-12 years of age, or having cognitive impairment because of age, mental disability, intoxication or seizures.
  • 87% of the time, there was no able-bodied adult present who could have intervened.
  • 58% of the time, only a single dog was involved. However, 87% of infant deaths were from a single dog.
  • 74% of bites occurred on the owner’s property.

Obviously, dog factors get a lot of attention when it comes to fatal attacks. Here are a few:

  • Most dogs were 23-45 kg.
  • 88% were male.
  • 84% of dogs were not spayed or neutered.
  • 38% of the time, the owner or caretaker was aware of prior dangerous behaviour by the dog, or had repeatedly allowed the dog to roam freely.
  • In 21% of cases, there was evidence that the dog had been neglected or abused.
  • Breed reporting, which is important because it’s such a high profile subject, was pretty poor. Media often reported different breed info, and media and animal control reports often differed.

Dog bites cannot be eliminated entirely but they certainly can be reduced. A variety of approaches are needed, including measures directed at dogs, dog owners, the public and authorities. Understanding potentially preventable or modifiable factors (e.g. neutering, supervision, addressing previous aggressive behaviour) is an important step to developing optimal preventive approaches.

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Catherine - January 9, 2014 1:03 PM

"84% of dogs were not spayed or neutered."

I've always had a problem digesting the above pseudo statistic. The dog I have now is an intact male and, of all the dogs I've had, he has the safest, sweetest and most reliable temperament I've ever encountered in a dog. He is almost 6 years old and really is one of those dogs that "you can do anything to and he won't bite." Yet he has those dreaded testicles! Yikes!

Whenever I hear the above "statistic," I have to wonder if perhaps something is missing from it. I think it would be more accurate to say, "not spayed or neutered in which breed?" I truly believe that breed has more to do with it than reproductive status.

Breeds were developed to have certain physical and mental characteristics to enable them to do specific jobs. Some jobs required a certain amount of aggression. Some jobs required a lot of aggression. Some none at all.

I would like to see more actual research done on the above statement concerning the dog's reproductive status as a cause of aggression. And I would like to see breed coupled in with reproductive status when the findings are printed.

If 84 percent of biting dogs are intact, but most of them are from only a handful of dog breeds, then the statistic doesn't really apply to all dogs and should be stated as such.

The late Drs. Leon F. and George D Whitney, in their book, The Complete Book of Dog Care, circa 1985, said on page 187, "The reason for spaying some bitches young is to prevent the bitches of vicious breeds from becoming dangerous as they get older. If they are spayed as puppies, they tend to remain gentle."

The above statement acknowledges that some breeds are indeed more aggressive and dangerous than others, despite what some would have us believe.

My problem with the above "statistic," is that it can be misused by certain groups to force politicians to enact mandatory spay/neuter laws that may not be in the best interests of our pets. One size doesn't fit all. THOROUGH research should be done from impartial researchers and the results published. I think, once that is done, we'll see a truer picture of what's actually going on.

Ruth Steinberger - January 10, 2014 1:28 AM

Excellent article. While spay/neuter mandates will not change everything they reduce the numbers of unwanted litters and in most places one can get an intact permit if having an intact male dog is that important to you. While some dogs may be great intact, and this article does not suggest that one factor alone caused the bites, the fact is that intact male dogs that are not handled responsibly are the greatest danger to others and their propensity for roaming makes them into victims as well.

Catherine - January 10, 2014 11:18 AM

Yes, I do agree, dogs and cats must be handled responsibly and NEVER permitted to roam. EVER.
Anyone who claims to love their pets will keep
them safe and home, taken out on leash, or in a
secured, fenced area and supervised. (Cats,by the way, can be fenced in with special cat fencing. Some can even learn to walk on leash!)

It's not that having an intact male (just for the sake of having an intact male) is all that important to me. It isn't. In fact, I was going to have my current dog neutered when he was six months old, same as I had done with all my previous dogs, but I stumbled upon an article which stated that dogs neutered before they reached full maturity were much more likely to suffer cruciate ligament tears and other orthopedic issues. I asked my veterinarian about this and he told me it was true. He said there was no rush to have it (neutering) done, unless the dog was becoming obnoxious, i.e. - urine marking in the house, mounting, etc. None of those obnoxious behaviors ever developed.

As time went on, I read more studies, (not just the one sided ones that practically equates neutering with Divinity,) and I have to say, based upon what I researched, I will NEVER again castrate a male dog unless it were medically necessary to do so, i.e. - retained testicles, etc.

It's also interesting to note that just recently, my veterinarian told me that, "in retrospect, it was a good decision not to neuter because the current research is that dogs live longer when kept intact." I don't know if he meant both sexes, or just the male. He also added, "but you have to be responsible not to let him create an unwanted litter." And I am. My dogs will never be bred. Not in this world nor the next!

This, of course, debunks all the neutering benefits we hear from those with an agenda, and that is why I am vehemently opposed to mandatory/spay neuter.

My veterinarian does not have an agenda. He is interested in the health and welfare of his patient, in this case, my dog. I am interested in the health and welfare of my dog too and I do believe that neutering him is NOT in his best interests.

When and if the day comes that I believe neutering him will be in his best interests, I'll schedule the surgery in a heartbeat! Trust me, I have absolutely no affinity, whatsoever, to his testicles, and am grateful that he is a long haired breed, if you know what I mean!

Catherine - January 10, 2014 1:51 PM

I would like to address one more issue.

It has been stated above that, " the fact is that intact male dogs that are not handled responsibly are the greatest danger to others and their propensity for roaming makes them into victims as well."

To that, I have to respectfully disagree. I think we are leaving out one, very important aspect in the equation, the very one I mentioned in my very first post and that is BREED.

I realize it is politically incorrect nowadays to speak against spay/neuter and to even whisper that there are breed differences, but I do strongly believe in what I am saying.

Spay/neuter is not the alpha and the omega, and some breeds are just more dangerous than others genetically speaking. Their minds and bodies were molded by man to do a job and sometimes that job meant that some dog breeds needed to be quicker to resort to biting than others, more territorial than others, etc.

Why do police departments use Malinois instead of Smooth Collies? Both are about the same size and build, and both highly intelligent. Breed differences! They exist.

As far as spay/neuter and roaming are concerned, let's not forget that sex is NOT the only reason dogs or cats roam. We know cats like to hunt. Beagles and other hounds will roam to follow an animal's trail. Sled dogs, neutered or not, roam all the time if allowed to, it's in their natures to do so. and some dogs are just plain bored.

Some blame obesity on neutering, but it's the human being with the thumbs who controls how much food goes into the bowl. To blame roaming on not being neutered is the same thing. The dog has no thumbs and can't open the door or gate.

I guess in the end it all comes down to personal choice and responsibility.

I would like to keep the freedom to express my personal choice.

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