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.