Guest Blog by Ivy Collier
A simple Google News search on the term “dog bite” will bring you 21,700 returns in 0.28 seconds. Some of the headlines read, Police: Baby Mauled By Dog in Union TWP, 10 Ways to Avoid a Dog Bite in 2014, and Dog-Bite Victims Speak Against A Bill to End Breed Discrimination. By the sheer number of Internet returns, coupled with news reports on television and in newspapers, one can argue that public concern around dog bites has grown in recent years.
Although the exact number is not known, it is estimated that 4.5 million people are bitten each year. Close to 334,000 people are treated for dog bite injuries in hospital emergency units, and approximately 466,000 visit their doctor’s office with dog bite injuries annually (Quinlan and Sacks, 1999; Sacks, Kresnow and Houston, 1996; Weiss, Friedman and Coben, 1998). Dog bite fatalities are regarded as uncommon and account for approximately one in 167,000 deaths each year in the US (Bradley, 2006). However, dog bite data may be viewed as incomplete, as it is impossible to take into account the number of people who sustain dog bite related injuries but do not seek professional medical care.
According to Karen Delise, Founder & Director of Research at the National Canine Research Center (NCRC), dog bite reporting for the first half of the 20th century was recorded almost exclusively to track and prevent rabies. She further expounds on this subject by saying that she has notice a “slight shift in the last couple of decades, usually from animal control departments, on the focus of dog bite data collection, but the focus of virtually all health departments is still rabies prevention, and NOT dog bites.”
There is great concern and controversy regarding the reliability of dog bite data collection, as there is no uniform reporting procedure or best practices in place to ensure consistency and quality control of this data, say Don Clary, NCRC Director of Communications & Publications, and NCRC Associate Director of Communications, Janice Bradley. Many dog bite reports are self-reported by the victim to emergency responders, hospitals, animal control officers or via surveys and eye witnesses. This information is later filtered to the media, the Center for Disease Control, and state agencies, among others. This can be problematic, as there are no set criteria for questioning the victim, nor are news reporters and first responders properly trained to identify dog breeds.
While it may not be the intention for anyone to collect or report data incorrectly, it is still a reality that without data collection procedures and best practices in place, data collection will not be reliable, and thus may be interpreted incorrectly. Most peoples’ only connection to dog bites is what they see through media outlets. If the statistics being presented are incorrect or inconsistent, then society will be armed with misinformation that could lead to fear and paranoia.
Another major hazard of inconsistent data collection and interpretation procedures is the impact of breed misidentification. When was the last time you watched a news report and saw a story about a Pit Bull attacking someone? You may have thought to yourself, “How awful, those dogs are dangerous!” But once you saw a picture of the canine culprit, you clearly knew it was not a Pit Bull. If so, you are not alone. A research study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association focused on potentially preventable factors in human dog-bite related fatalities on the basis of data from sources that were deemed verifiable and complete, rather than data from media sources. The data obtained in the study indicated two problems with media characterization of dog breeds: poor reliability and poor accuracy (Patronek, 2013).
Their research attempted to identify all dog bite related fatalities from 2000-2009, and through this process found that breed descriptors in media reports are mostly unknown, or the breeds may have been identified by witnesses that did not have first-hand knowledge of the incident. Findings from this report show that 40% of media and animal control reports misidentified the breeds involved with the dog bite. The study also found that misidentification of pit bull-type dogs is an even bigger problem, as the breed descriptor encompasses multiple breeds and breed mixes (Patronek, 2013). Pit bull types are dogs that tend to have a medium to large muscular build, short fur, a wide muzzle, and boxy head. With such a vague description, one can imagine that these descriptors include numerous breeds and mixes. Some of these breeds contain the American Pit Bull Terrier, pit bull, pit bull terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Bull Mastiff, Shar Pei, Box, Catahoula Leopard Dog, Presa Canario and the Cane Corso, to name a few.
It is essential for dog bite reports to be accurate and complete, as this information is critical for public health issues, dog bite evaluations, community education, dog bite prevention, and public policy review and implementation. This is especially true for Pit Bulls and pit bull types/mixes that are facing controversial breed specific legislation (BSL) across the country.
Dog bites, inaccurate data, and breed misidentification are not single issues. They are not a dog problem or even a Pit Bull problem, but a community problem. These issues and problems are complex and intertwined. Without uniform dog bite reporting or best practices in place, we will continue to rely on inaccurate data and erroneous media reports. This is harmful to humans, dogs, and communities across the country.
Fortunately, some academics, shelters, and community organizations understand the need for reliable data - that dog bites can be prevented and dog breed stigmas can be erased. There are numerous web sites that give advice on how to prevent dog bites, such as the Humane Society of the United States, how to socialize dogs to prevent bites such as Cesar's Way and Dog Aggression- HSUS or Animal Planet, and how to monitor children with dogs from the American Humane Association or Dog Gone Safe. This is a first step in the right direction, and it is my hope that prevention programs will continue to grow. I also trust that as research on this topic continues to flourish, there will be a call to action to help community leaders across the country understand how important accurate data is when reporting dog bites. Dog bite stigma is damaging to multiple breeds and mixes, as misidentification not only causes widespread fear regarding certain breeds, but can urge lawmakers into enacting rash, misinformed decisions on legislation. And that benefits no one.
Ivy is an animal advocate guided by the belief that no animal should be abused or neglected. She currently works for the Ocean Conservancy as a manager in fundraising and has a history of working for wildlife conservation advocacy organizations. Ivy earned her Bachelor of Science in Social Psychology and her Master of Public Affairs focusing on fundraising and nonprofit management. Ivy is an avid volunteer for the Animals and Society Institute and sits on the advisory council for the American Sociological Association, Animals and Society Section. As an independent researcher, her interests focus on animals and society with a specific lens on companion animals and pop culture, canine selfhood, puppy mills, shelter management, and the fur trade.