Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Your best friend?

Due to an unpleasant personal experience, I was motivated to look into a question that a lot of you, I'm sure, prefer not to think about. It turns out that each year, about 4.7 million Americans are bitten by dogs. That statistic is from a CDC survey done in 1996, so with the increased population of humans and dogs since then, the number is probably greater. The linked site says that's 2% of the population, but actually according to my calculations it's closer to 1.5%. Either way, it's a very common experience. I've actually been bitten twice in my life, which based on those numbers, ought to be about average for a person my age.

Most of the resulting injuries are not terribly serious, but 1 out of 6 -- that would be something like 800,000 a year - require medical attention, including 380,000 emergency department visits. On average, 17 Americans per year die from dog attacks -- most of them children.

This is not the biggest public health problem in the world, but it's awfully sad since nowadays, the main reason we keep dogs is for companionship. (These statistics exclude bites by police and guard dogs, who are acting in the line of duty, by the way.) Any dog may bite -- unfortunately it can occasionally happen unpredictably even with dogs who have not previously shown hostile behavior toward humans. But it turns out that a few breeds are responsible for a highly disproportionate share of attacks. Most of these will not surprise you, but a couple might. The ones that look more suitable to Abu Ghraib than your back yard include Akitas, English bulldogs, Bull mastiffs, Chows, Boxers, German Shepherds, Great Danes, Huskies, and the really bad seed -- Rotweilers and Pit Bulls. Wolf hybrids, of course, are on the list, but anybody who would keep a wolf hybrid is completely nuts. As Merritt Clifton, who compiled those statistics writes, ""Pit bulls and Rottweilers are accordingly dogs who not only must be handled with special precautions, but also must be regulated with special requirements appropriate to the risk they may pose to the public and other animals, if they are to be kept at all."

Estimates of the insured losses (mostly liability, I presume) from dog bites range from $1 billion to $2 billion annually. Most attacks happen at home, and most of the victims are family or friends. The linked resources discuss these issues in more detail, but here's what I have to say. If you own a dog, or want to, you need to take this seriously. You need to be well informed about dog behavior, why and when dogs bite, and what to do about it. Don't take it for granted that your dog is always going to be safe around humans, just because you love it.