Dog Bite Fatalities: Breed or Human Problem?

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At petMD, we've has had some long and spirited discussions about dog breeds and human attacks by dogs. Many contributors to the discussion rightly pointed out the lack of reliable data surrounding this issue. Yet the political answer to the situation is always breed specific legislation (BSL). In other words, ban the ownership or restrict the activity of specific breeds alleged to be involved in human attacks. Municipalities persist with this narrow focus despite studies that indicate the ineffectiveness of these programs.

Pug puppy biting finger

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The results of a 10-year study recently reported in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association sheds further light on the complexity of this issue. It identifies preventable factors that are far more significant than breed.

The researchers examined the data from 256 dog bite-related fatalities in the U.S. between the years 2000-2009. They generated the following statistics for factors involved in the fatal attacks:

- In 87% there was an absence of an able-bodied person to intervene
- 45% of the victims were less than 5-years old
- 85% of the victims had only incidental or no familiarity with the dogs
- 84% of the dogs were not neutered
- 77% of the victims had compromised ability (age or other conditions) to interact appropriately with dogs
- 76% of the dogs were kept isolated from regular positive human interactions
- 38% of the dog owners had histories of prior mismanagement of dogs
- 21% of the dog owners had a history of abuse or neglect of dogs
- In 81% of the attacks 4 or more of the above factors were involved
- 31% of the dog breeds differed from media reports
- 40% of the dog breeds differed from both media and animal control reports
- Only 18% of the dogs had validated (DNA) breed identification
- 20 breeds and 2 known mixed breeds were represented in the attacks

These statistics indicate that most of the factors surrounding dog-bite related fatalities are preventable and unrelated to dog breed.

The first statistic shows the obvious lack of supervision in these attacks. Responsible dog and victim parental or caretaker supervision most certainly could have prevented the majority of these deaths.

73% of the dogs were chained or isolated in fenced outdoor areas or indoor areas. Only 15% of the dogs were allowed to roam. Nearly three-quarters of the attacks occurred on the dog owner's property. Restricting access to these areas could prevent many attacks.

Interestingly, 67% of the older victims that were deemed compromised were under the influence of drugs or alcohol, another preventable circumstance. Only five of the victims were compromised due to Alzheimer's, dementia, or uncontrollable seizure disorders.

The reporting errors in this study are also disturbing. Fatal dog attacks are always media sensations and heavily reported. Yet we can only trust that 60% of the reports of breed identification from the media and involved animal control officials are accurate. And unfortunately, it is media reports rather than fact that spur the political decisions that lead to breed specific legislation. Based on this study, 20 breeds and 2 mixed breeds should face legislation rather than the few that are presently targeted.

The ugly truth about this study is that it points to human behavior as the cause of dog attacks on humans. Social responsibility cannot be legislated. Many of these dog owners had histories of animal mismanagement, yet the penalties or consequences were inadequate to change the behavior. It would have been interesting if the study had also looked at previous behaviors and histories of the parents of the young victims.

Whether programs for responsible pet ownership, bite prevention education, or dog related parent supervision education are widely effective has yet to be proven. Certainly breed specific legislation is not the answer. A recent Canadian study showed that there were no significant differences in the number of bite related hospital visits before and after communities adopted breed specific legislation.

Dr. Ken Tudor

"Dog Bite Fatalities: Breed or Human Problem?" originally appeared on

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Unless you have personal experience with a particular breed (my whole life has been in breeding and training personal protection dogs) Dobies, Rottis, Shepherds and my pit bulls have been the the best of any of them - Sounding off from the news and disputed studies just makes you sound stupid - That is more scary than any dog breed - Get in the kennel and get some practical experience or just SHUT UP -

May 14 2014 at 4:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Wow, Rachel, I guess you missed the study by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the US Fish and Wildlife Service that CATS are responsible for the deaths of 1.4 to 3.7 BILLION birds and 6.9 to 20.7 BILLION mammals each year. So, 43,000 animals supposedly killed by pit bulls (and your source?) vs BILLIONS killed by cats. Yeah, I think I'll keep my two pit bulls and keep calling animal control to pick up the feral cats in my neighborhood

May 07 2014 at 7:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dog Diva

When humans who are interested in ownership of a particular breed have that interest because the dogs look tough, they often do things that contribute to that image, rather than learning how to responsibly breed, manage, socialize, and train the dogs. If a puppy of ANY breed isn't properly socialized, the don't develop "acquired bite inhibition" and that's one factor that makes any dog a danger. And, if people train dogs using harsh methods, the dog is likelier to be aggressive (
Research shows that puppy socialization, with positive training, is a strong predictor of fewer bites. THAT is the less polarizing mantra people should focus on if they want to drive real change..
For examples of how this philosophy is making a difference for this much maligned breed, may I suggest that people visit the Facebook page Your Pit Bull and You, or view Urban Dawgs videos on You Tube.

May 07 2014 at 1:33 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

According to some recent data Pit bulls inflict 99% of the total fatal attacks on other animals (43,000); 96% of the fatal attacks on other dogs (11,520); 95% of the fatal attacks on livestock (5,700); 95% of the fatal attacks on small mammals and poultry (16,150); and 94% of the fatal attacks on cats (11,280).

May 06 2014 at 9:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to Rachel's comment

Yes, We all know with pit bull it's the owner..... Well hoe do you know the pit bull next door has a good owner??? Pits cannot be trusted.... they may love their family... Doesn't mean they won't go after your child!!!! Caesar M is wrong about pits!!!! Just check out the Atlanta area

May 06 2014 at 7:43 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to jlpboxer's comment

I live in the Los Angeles area, where it's rare to not see a "Pit Bull-type dog" at least once a day, and they're all over. With every animal, you need to look at the dog and the owner - judging only one of the two 2 won't get you anywhere. The owner could look kind and well-meaning, but if his dog is aggressive and reactive (and he/she doesn't understand how to deal with the dog), then only looking at the owner won't do you any good. On the flip side, the owner can be a violent, sadistic person who only has a dog to guard his property... Nonetheless, some dogs in that situation are still friendly dogs that aren't aggressive and never hurt anyone.

Take a look at Micheal Vick's previous fighting dogs, or a majority of dogs rescued from dog-fights. They underwent the worst possible conditions, if it's all "how they're raised", these dogs should never be able to be okay around people or humans. Instead, people work with them and rehabilitate those that need it. Even fighting dogs, and bait dogs, and beaten and starved and neglected "Pit Bull-type dogs" become family pets. Become dogs that live out the rest of their lives happily and peacefully. Dogs that are just that, DOGS.

It's not how they're raised, and it's not only the owner, it's a combination of the owner and the individual dog together. Millions of dogs live in the country, and there are relatively very very few dog-related instances. As the article points out, those that happen are almost always because of a human's actions.

Overwhelmingly, dogs of any breed are safe. Overwhelmingly, dogs do not bite, and do not kill. Overwhelmingly, those unfortunate incidents where something does happen, are instances which are preventable. Overwhelmingly, FACTS prove that "Pit Bull-type dogs" are safe.

Ceasar Millan is someone whom I do not support and do not trust, so I won't comment on that front...

May 07 2014 at 4:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
James Crosby CBCC-KA

Having personally investigated more dog bite fatalities than anyone in the world, and having done hands-on behavior evaluations of more dogs that have killed humans than anyone else I can point to these causes: 1) Lack of supervision of dogs and kids 2) Inadequate socialization 3) tolerance of bad behavior without remediation long past the crisis point and 4) lack of responsible control and management. All are HUMAN failures and have nothing to do with breed. The only dangerous breed has two legs. Jim Crosby

May 06 2014 at 5:26 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to James Crosby CBCC-KA's comment

Total agreement with your assessment..perhaps the answer is in licencing and testing owners well as dogs. Seriously make education classes mandatory when adopting any dog from a city run shelter would be a start. Some do a pretty good job of weeding out problem owners but many don't

May 20 2014 at 5:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Chef David Edelstein

Being a dog trainer of almost 25 years and having 6 of my own (4 pit bulls, 1 great dane, 1 aussie/ border collie)... I can weigh in that 99% of Dog Bite Fatalities are due to human error, 1% faulty dogs (neurological or psychological issues from birth).

Anyone who claims "breed" is the primary deciding factor in whether a dog is going to kill or not has 0% foundation in their claim and has no experience in animal welfare (ie Lic Veterinary Doctor or Behaviorist, Trainer, Animal Control Officer, or even poop pick up technician.) EVERY "Credible" animal welfare professional will offer that 99% of a dog's behavior is based on the dog's environment/ living conditions (training/structure/enforcement, socialization within their own peer group and with humans of all ages, healthy food/ clean water, Veterinary care, spay/ neutering, ample exercise and constructive stimuli, being included in a pack or family, affection and positive affirmation, no tethering, etc... OR LACK OF.)
These same professionals will also offer that responsible dog ownership begins with research on different breeds PRIOR TO adoption or buying a dog. A 200 lbs 3 year old Mastiff requires alot less exercise and stimuli than a Wheaton Terrier, Breeds with shorter snouts tend to have more respiratory issues than Huskies, etc etc etc.

Even though a dog can not take the stand and testify on its own behalf (and irresponsible owners KNOW IT)... when a dog bite or attack resulting in a fatality occurs, a little bit of research typically reveals incompetence and irresponsible ownership... yet the dog takes the fall for it. The article above mentions quite a few reasons why dogs attack... every one leading back to human error.

If an owner can not solidly commit the next 15 years to the well being and care of a dog, then dont get a dog. Its just that simple.

The majority of dog owners in the world (who coincidentally are doing right by their dog) go the dog's life time with no incidents. Funny how this works out.

May 05 2014 at 3:44 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Chef David Edelstein's comment

thank you someone with a brain finally, i have 2 pits in my life, they were both awesome dogs, my 2nd is with me now, she is wonderfull. We went to the dog park the other day, there were a couple of small agreesive little shitzu type dogs, that attacked her, she didnt even fight back she ran to me. she will not fight. Granted she is box/pitbull mix dog, she is 9 years old with a bum leg, but let me tell you, she is the best dog i have ever had, she is also working on being my service dog. They are great at service animals, she opens doors for me if i am in to much pain, gets me stuff, all that was taught to her in less than a week. They are wonderfull. Blessed be the Pittie's let me tell ya. have a great day.

May 07 2014 at 12:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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