Fatal Dog Attacks Are On the Rise in the USA

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After a record high number of deaths in 2012, there is no sign of improvement. Dog Bite Law attorney Kenneth Phillips explains why there are more deaths from pets than ever before.

The majority of victims knew the dogs that killed them

Joggers worry, parents worry, insurance companies worry: are dogs making our streets more dangerous with each passing year? Last week a woman was mauled to death by a pack of 4 pit bulls as she went for a run in Little Rock, near Palmdale in Los Angeles County. (LA Daily News, “Dog owner arrested in pit-bull attack that killed jogger near Palmdale, 8 dogs confiscated,” May 9, 2013.) In April, another woman was killed by a pit bull in a Stockton, California, driveway. (Recordnet.com, “Woman mauled to death by pit bull,” April 11, 2013.) From the beginning of 2013 until now, a total of 13 Americans have perished all over the country as a result of dog maulings. (Dogbitelaw.com, home page, “News,” accessed May 13, 2013.) Many wonder whether these killings are becoming more frequent and, if so, why.

“For years, canine homicides have been steadily on the rise,” according to Attorney Kenneth M. Phillips, the author of Dog Bite Law. “In the 1980s and 1990s,” he says, “there were about 17 fatalities in the USA per year, but from 2006 through 2012, there have been more than 30, the peak being 37 in 2012.”

Perhaps the most shocking fact last year, he says, is that the majority of victims knew the dogs that killed them. “Twenty of the victims were the dog owners themselves, or their children, grandchildren, or parents,” Phillips says. His website, dogbitelaw.com, contains summaries of all “canine homicides” from 2006 to the present. (Dogbitelaw.com, “Canine Homicides: July 2006 to present.”)

Why do some dogs bite people? A report by the American Veterinary Medical Association, Task Force on Canine Aggression and Human-Canine Interactions, entitled A Community Approach to Dog Bite Prevention, refers to five factors commonly associated with dog bites:

Breed and "parents" of a particular dog. There are aggressive breeds, and there are aggressive individual dogs that, if mated, can produce aggressive offspring.

Socialization of the dog. In other words, how the dog has been desensitized to stimuli, especially stimuli produced by children. Poor socialization results in less inhibition to bite and engage in other undesirable behavior.

Training of the dog. A dog that has been trained to threaten people is an obvious danger, but so is a dog that has been poorly trained or not trained at all.

Health of the dog. When sick, injured, or in pain, even a friendly dog is more likely to bite.

Behavior of the victim. This includes not just provocation but any behavior that can be misunderstood by a dog, such as a baby rolling over on a bed.

There are other factors that contribute to biting. Tethering, chaining or tying a dog to a stationary object like a tree makes dogs violent. Since 2003, chained dogs have injured or killed at least 450 Americans - the majority being children. (Chained Dog Attack Summaries by PETA.) Male dogs are more aggressive than females, and most of the aggression is by intact males. Male dogs accounted for 70% to 87% of the attacks in one study; 60% were unneutered males. (Readings in Companion Animal Behavior. Victoria L. Voith & Peter Borchelt. (1996. Trenton. Veterinary Learning Systems) pp. 226, 235.)

What kind of dogs do the most killing? In the 8-year period from 2005 to 2012, two dog breeds accounted for 73% of the attacks that resulted in death: pit bulls and rottweilers. (DogsBite.org.) In 2013 there have been 13 fatal dog attacks, all but one of them involving pit bulls. (Dogbitelaw.com, “Overview of breed specific laws,” accessed May 13, 2013.)

Unfortunately 2013 seems to be no better than 2012. Given that 13 Americans have been killed in the first third of the year, the nation might see 40 deaths this year. That prediction assumes, of course, that lawmakers continue to ignore calls for a variety of changes that could take the “bite” out of the dog bite epidemic, such as Attorney Phillips’ 10-step plan for reducing dog bites. (See Dog Bite Law: Preventing Dog Bites.)

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