Representative statistical studies have revealed that of all reported animal bites, dogs are responsible for the majority of them.1 In 1995, State Farm Fire and Casualty Company processed more than 11,000 claims for injuries from dog bites. For those claims, the company paid $70 million, but a State Farm spokesperson indicated that the total claims cost of dog bites is about $2 billion annually.2 What is not included in the reports of the costs of these unfortunate events is the emotional trauma to those who own pets and those who are bitten.
From 1979 through 1994, the CDC reported that attacks by dogs resulted in 279 deaths of humans in the United States.3 To further characterize this problem, the CDC also analyzed data from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). This report revealed that most of the DBRFs (Dog-Bite Related Fatalities) occurred among children. During the period from 1979-1996, fatal dog bites occurred in 45 states. In 1986, non-fatal dog bites resulted in about 585,000 injuries that required medical attention and dog bites ranked 12th among the leading causes of nonfatal injury in the US. In 1994, 4.7 million people sustained a dog bite and of these, 800,000 sought medical care for the bite.
A 1988 study reported that 48% of victims are less than 15 years of age, and the typical victim is between 1 and 10 years of age. An additional 15% are between 21 and 30 years old. Studies indicate that most dog-bite victims are bitten on the arms and hands, but about 65% of facial bites are in children less than 10 years of age.4 From the number of bites to the head and neck, it was estimated that a risk of 2 fatalities per 1,000 may be expected.5 Thus it appears that our children are bearing the brunt of our failure to properly educate dog owners and parents.
Some dog owners naively assume a natural affectionate relationship between children and dogs. People with children who obtain a dog may indicate that the dog will be a long-term companion to the child as it grows and even protect the child against outside dangers. Unfortunately, the statistics from a number of different sources support the view that there is probably a greater likelihood that a dog will bite a child in the family than protect it from an external threat. Of the estimated three million dog bites to children that will occur each year, most will involve the family dog or a dog that belongs to someone the family knows. In other words, the problem is with owned dogs, not strays.
The dog bite problem is largely a preventable epidemic.6 One of the most important steps in attempting to reduce the incidence of dog bites is education of the public.7 Because most dog bites involve children, they need to be the focus of targeted intervention. One writer stated that "Children are lead into a false sense of security by stuffed toys, television movies, and cartoons that give animals human characteristics."1 Kids and dogs can be a natural twosome, but when dogs bite, children pay a disproportionate price.2 Experts in this field are frustrated by the absence of coordinated public health initiatives aimed at reducing this very costly public health problem. A study in Pennsylvania found that 46% of schoolchildren had been bitten by a dog by the time they reached grade 12.1
Because the most severe dog bites in children do not occur in the presence of adults, there is an urgent need to teach children how to avoid situations that predispose them to being bitten.5 Unfortunately, there are not enough programs designed specifically for children. To make matters worse, there are not many programs that instruct adults how to teach children about dog bite prevention. Adults are told to tell children how to avoid such dangers, but they may inadvertantly provide poor advice. Unfortunately, children are like adults in that they forget what they have been told; they need to be personally and physically involved in understanding these ever-present dangers. Children need to act out the deterent behavior that prevents dog bites so that when these responses are actually needed in real life situations, the behavior is automatic.
Educational programs need to involve parents as well so that they clearly understand the elements of danger that their children face. This problem is literally "close to home" and can be dealt with before the tragedies occur. Topics of discussion that are relevant to dog bite prevention include pet selection, puppy socialization, responsible pet ownership, treating aggressive dogs, safety around dogs, public health issues, and even model legislation.
When dog attacks occur, owners are often compelled to take action against the dog. This is especially true when dogs bite children and adults are not eye-witnesses to the incidents. Often, the punishment to the dog is inappropriate, has virtually no-lasting effects and may make a recurrence even more likely. A dog may generalize the punishment and associate the anticipation of pain with human contact. Escalated aggression may be the eventual outcome, which further compounds the problem.7 Some dog owners may resort to isolating dogs with bite histories, but this may result in diminished emotional attachment and health care. Routine preventative medical attention is not practiced and when veterinary care is needed, euthanasia is often the choice. Some dog owners will simply abandon their pets in rural areas to avoid the stigma or the hassle associated with euthanasia.