No one knows how many dog bites occur each year, but the Centers for Disease Control and the American Veterinary Medical Association estimate the number is between 4.5 and 4.7 million. More than 800,000 of the people bitten receive medical attention for dog bites, and most bites happen to children, from dogs the family knows—often their own dog!
That’s tragic. When dog bites occur within families, the human-animal bond is often broken, and the dog is relinquished to a shelter. In many places, when a shelter receives a “known biter,” the dog is automatically euthanized, no matter what the circumstance of the bite.
While dog bites can be painful, disfiguring, and even fatal, the numbers show that statistically, dogs are less dangerous than guns, cars, humans, or forklifts. The number of people who die from dog bites is 14 to 30 annually. Nearly 40,000 people died last year from gun violence, and 37,000 didn’t survive car accidents. Human caretakers are 100 times more dangerous to children than dogs, according to the CDC. And based on figures from the U.S. Census for Fatal Occupational Injuries, you are more likely to be killed by a forklift truck than a dog.
Statistics aside, no one wants to see any dog bite occur. And more important, the vast majority of dog bites are preventable. That’s right; they don’t have to happen. To help reduce the incidence, the AVMA, the U.S. Postal Service, and State Farm Insurance are teaming up to support Dog Bite Prevention Week, April 7 to 13. Here’s what to know.
Why Dogs Bite
We think of dogs who bite as behaving aggressively, but many times bites occur because dogs are afraid, have been startled, or are reacting to a stressful situation. They bite because they feel threatened or cornered.
Dogs also bite to protect their puppies or objects of value to them: a dish with food in it or a favorite toy. They can bite if they are in pain and you touch them in a sore area or if they just don’t feel good.
Which Dogs Bite
For some reason people yearn to know which breeds bite most often. Some insurance companies track this and create what are arguably unfair breed-specific policies based on flawed data. The CDC, AVMA, and national humane organizations agree that this data is inaccurate because breeds are so often misreported or misidentified.
Experts also agree that the breed of dog that attacks isn’t nearly as important as what prompted to bite in the first place. We know why serious dog bites occur, and the answer is not based on breed or reported breed.
How to Prevent Dog Bites
- Since most bites happen to children, never leave a child alone with even the most lovable family pet. When dogs and kids are together, an adult should be present and actively supervising.
- Your dog may have the patience of a saint, but you should not expect her to put up with rambunctious toddlers who are pulling her tail or ears, pushing her, poking her in the eye, or smacking her. At some point, even the most patient and tolerant pet may “fight back” in self-defense. To say that a pet of any species must tolerate this behavior is unfair to the pet.
- Understand what your pet is telling you. Of course, we all know a growl means get away, but young children may not pay attention or understand. And sometimes signs of stress, such as a cat flashing a tail or a dog who yawns repeatedly, may be misunderstood or go unrecognized.
- Never allow children to approach an animal unless an adult is present. That dog in the backyard may seem friendly but you don’t know for sure. Anyone, child or adult, should ask first before petting dogs they don’t know.
- Do not leave dogs alone for long periods in the backyard. Unsupervised dogs may develop undesirable behaviors, such as digging, barking, or trying to attack people or other animals passing by, even if there’s a fence.
- Take pets to see a veterinarian twice annually. A dog or a cat with an ear infection, for example, may bite and the shocked family may not know why. It’s because family members have been stroking his ears, which was previously pleasurable but is now painful.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.