I have recently been involved in several discussions regarding the increase in dog bite incidents in both the United States and United Kingdom. These incidents, often termed “attacks”, have been much in the news – particularly in the UK. The increase in dog bite incidents in the UK has received a lot of media attention and has resulted in calls for the banning of “XL Bullies”, which is described as a new breed of huge pitbull terriers. A casual search through social media will show that this subject is a highly emotional one; so much so that any scientific research is taking a backseat to clickbait articles about specific cases of dog “attacks”. I have touched on the issue of biting behavior before Excited Biting / Arousal Biting | The Animal Nerd, but not in the context that we’re seeing today.
To my thinking, this issue involves several related questions requiring answers: Are serious dog bite incidents actually on the rise? Are specific dog breeds prone to violent attacks on humans? If serious dog bites are happening more frequently, what is causing this? Are specific dog breeds prone to violent attacks on humans? And, lastly, what to do about either the rate of biting incidents or the dog breeds in question?
In answer to the first question: The answer appears to be yes. In both the US and the UK, the numbers of reported dog bites have been increasing in recent years. The exact figures for the US in the years since 2019 are unclear – most of the available information on dog bites in the US is found on websites belonging law firms specializing in accidents and injuries – however the best available studies[i] indicates a definite upward trend, particularly in bites involving children.[ii] Statistics in the UK are more definitive on the subject: A BBC study of reports from 37 police agencies[iii] indicated that bite incidents increased by 34 per cent between 2018 and 2022. The British Medical Journal reported a sharp increase in fatalities from dog bites, with a total of 10 reported in 2022[iv].
Regarding whether this increase can be attributed to a specific dog breed, there is no consensus. After excluding articles and reports from websites and organizations with obvious agendas either for or against specific dog breeds, I found that there are peer-reviewed studies that indicate certain bulldog types are more prone to bite people than others[v] and are more likely to inflict serious injuries on humans.[vi] There are also media reports of an increase in serious injuries and deaths resulting from bites or “attacks” from dogs described as “American Bullies” or “XL Bullies”.[vii] However, there are also many studies which conclude that a dog breed, or perceived dog breed, is not an indicator of increased aggression or dangerous behavior[viii], many other environmental factors are involved in canine aggression[ix]and that breed stereotyping ignores the complex factors behind animal behavior.[x] Frankly, the issue of
The issue of whether particular breeds of dogs are to blame for attacks on humans is a highly emotional one and governments have become involved. Breed bans have been put in place in the UK and in many jurisdictions in the US, and some states have enacted legislation prohibiting restrictions on breed ownership. The argument has become polarized, and the available literature is loaded with motivated thinking and mis-used statistics. However, the fact remains that there is no clear indication that any specific breeds of dogs are more likely than others to attack humans. It may simply be that large and powerful dogs are more capable of inflicting serious injuries when they do bite.
So, given that the is an increase in humans being injured or killed by dogs in recent years, and since it appears that a specific dog breed is not the primary cause, what is the reason for this? One factor may be that more people own dogs. During the pandemic, dog ownership surged in both the US[xi] and the UK;[xii] more dogs in homes may simply mean that more people are bitten. However, this seems to be doubtful, as the number of bite incidents per capita increased disproportionately higher than the increase in dog ownership.
It would seem that the pandemic impacted pet ownership in many ways. A survey of UK pet owners indicates that 25 percent of owners had acquired their dogs during the pandemic, and that 39 percent of these were first-time owners and that these new owners were more likely to live in urban locations.[xiii] The increase in first-time dog ownership was also reflected in surveys of animal adopters in the US.[xiv] There was a distinct boom in both the purchase of dogs and the adoption of dogs from shelters. The pandemic-driven demand for pet dogs even created a wave of dog thefts and kidnappings.
This is widely considered to be a contributing factor to the increase in bite incidents. More homes had dogs, often as single pets,[xv] at a time when the world was experiencing a pandemic. The dogs were subject to lockdowns along with their human owners, meaning that they had fewer chances for training, exercise, enrichment and socialization. They were not exposed to the usual number of people, either outside or visitors to their homes. Then, when the pandemic restrictions were lifted and we all went back to work and school, the dogs were suddenly expected to cope with the outside world and unfamiliar people. Even dogs who were part of households before the pandemic were affected: Their world was turned completely disrupted and all of their rules were changed.[xvi] Added to this is the general inexperience and lack of knowledge by dogs’ owners on canine emotions and communications.[xvii] Uneducated and inexperienced dog owners often view their pets through and anthropomorphic lens, misinterpret their dogs’ communication of stress and anxiety. The dogs are simply pushed to the point that a bite occurs, in spite of the dogs’ best efforts to avoid the situation.[xviii]
This would certainly make sense: We shut down our society and our homes, disrupted our world repeatedly for over two years, and then opened it everything up again; leaving our dogs unequipped to cope with the stressors in their lives.[xix] But that really doesn’t seem to be the whole story. The simple truth is that our dogs don’t live in a vacuum and we can’t look at them as individuals. We are their natural habitat and their natural companions, and the pandemic has changed us. We have become more violent, fearful and reactive; and it completely to expected that our dogs become as reactive as their owners.
Since the pandemic, domestic violence has dramatically risen in both the US[xx] and the UK, with forcible sexual violence also sharply increased.[xxi] The number of violent assaults in mass transit systems in both the US and the UK also sharply rose during the pandemic. [xxii] [xxiii] Violence in schools has increased during the pandemic.[xxiv] The FAA reports that incidents of “air rage” sharply increased during the pandemic.[xxv] Perhaps most disturbing, animal cruelty cases have seen a sharp increase during the pandemic years in both the US[xxvi] and the UK[xxvii] [xxviii]. As a whole, our society and our families have been severely stressed during the pandemic. The COVID-19 virus, coupled with lockdowns, isolation, economic uncertainty and the restrictions on our daily lives have resulted in an overall increase in our own reactivity and our propensity to violence.[xxix] Is it surprising that the dogs who live in our homes might also be similarly stressed?
Dogs look to their owners, and to human strangers, for social referencing; that is, they look to us to provide behavioral clues on how to behave towards unfamiliar objects or people.[xxx] They will mirror their owners’ behaviors and attitudes in these encounters.[xxxi] If we have become “fearfully aggressive”, it is only natural that our socially-isolated dogs would also adopt this behavior. We became increasingly defensive and antisocial during the pandemic, and we took our dogs along with us.[xxxii]
It may very well be that the increase in dog bites in recent years is not a separate phenomenon, limited to dogs; but merely one aspect of a far greater societal problem. Instead of a problem with dogs, or breeds of dogs, it seems to be an indicator that we are facing a looming social problem that is much worse and far more dangerous.
[i] Habarth-Morales, T. E., Rios-Diaz, A. J. and Caterson, E. J. (2022). Pandemic Puppies: Man’s Best Friend or Public Health Problem? A Multi-Database Study. Journal of Surgical Research 276 (2022). 203 – 207. doi: 10.1016/j.jss.2022.02.041
[ii] Dixon, C.A. and Mistry, R. D. (2020). Dog Bites in Children Surge During Corona Virus Disease – 2019: A Case for Enhanced Protection. The Journal of Pediatrics 225 (2020) 231 – 232. doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2020.06.071
[iii] Dog Attacks: 34% Increase Recorded by Police in England and Wales. (2023) BBC. Retrieved from Dog attacks: 34% increase recorded by police in England and Wales – BBC News
[iv] Rising Fatalities, Injuries, and NHS Costs: Dog Bites as a Public Health Concern (2023). The BMJ. Retrieved from Rising fatalities, injuries, and NHS costs: dog bites as a public health problem | The BMJ
[v] Salonen, M., Mikkola, S., Niskanen, J. E., Hakanen, E., Sulkama, S., Purrunen, J. and Hannel, L. (2023). Breed, Age and Social Environment are Associated with Personality Traits in Dogs. iScience 26 (106691). doi: 10.1016/j.isci.2023.106691
[vi] Essig, G. F. Jr., Sheehan, C., Rikhi, S., Elmaraghy, C. A. and Christophel, J. J. (2019). Dog Bite Injuries to the Face: Is There a Risk with Breed Ownership? A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis. International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology 117 (2019). 182-188. doi: 10.1016/j.ijporl.2018.11.028.
[vii] Hussian, D. (2023, June 8). EXCLUSIVE – Why more people will die unless the XL Bully is BANNED: Experts warn the American cross breed can kill in 60 seconds and UK deaths will soar as breeders ‘create monsters’ by changing DNA of the animals to give them ‘enhanced muscles’. Daily Mail. Retrieved from American Bully XL: The killer breed behind record number of fatal dog attacks | Daily Mail Online
[viii] Hammond, A., Rowland, T., Mills, D. S. and Pilot, M. (2022) Comparison of Behavioural Tendencies Between “Dangerous Dogs” and Other Domestic Dog Breeds – Evolutionary Context and Practical Implications. Evolutionary Applications 15 (2022). 1806 – 1819. doi: 10.1111/eva.13479
[ix] Casey, R. A., Loftus, B., Bolster, C., Richards, G. A. and Blackwell, E. J. (2013). Human Directed Aggression in Domestic Dogs (Canis Familiaris): Occurrence in Different Contexts and Risk Factors. Journal of Applied Animal Behavior Science 152 (2014). 52 – 63. doi: 10.1016/j.applanim.2013.12.03
[x] Dowd, S. E. (2006). Assessment of Canine Temperament in Relation to Breed Groups. Retrieved from Matrix Canine Research Institution (PDF) Assessment of Canine Temperament in Relation to Breed Groups (researchgate.net)
[xi] Megna, M. (2023, June 21). Pet Ownership Statistics 2023. Forbes Advisor. Retrieved from Pet Ownership Statistics and Facts in 2023 – Forbes Advisor
[xii] Mills, G. (2022). Assessing the Impact of Covid-19 on Pets. VetRecord 191 (1). Retrieved from Assessing the impact of Covid‐19 on pets – Mills – 2022 – Veterinary Record – Wiley Online Library
[xiii] Hooker, R. (2023). PAW 2022 Animal Wellbeing Report. Retrieved from The PAW Report 2022 – PDSA
[xiv] Rover.com (2022). The Year of the Pandemic Pet. Retrieved from https://www.rover.com/blog/pandemic-pet-adoption-boom/
[xv] Megna (2023)
xvi] De Vise, D. (2023, August 14). Blame the Pandemic: Dog Bites are on the Rise. The Hill. Retrieved from Dog bites are on the rise, with pandemic partially to blame (thehill.com)
[xvii] Parkinson, C., Herring, L. and Gould, D. (2023) Public Perceptions of Dangerous Dogs and Dog Risk. Edge Hill University. Retrieved from Dangerous_Dogs_Report.pdf (edgehill.ac.uk)
[xviii] Owczarczak-Garstecka, S. C., Christley, R. and Westgarth, C. (2018). Online Videos Indicate Human and Dog Behavior Preceding Dog Bites and the Context in which Bites Occur. Scientific Reports 8 (7147). doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-25671-7
[xix] DVM 360. (2022, May 31). New Study Shows Increased Levels of Anxiety in Pets Since the Covid-19 Pandemic. Retrieved from New study shows increased levels of anxiety in pets since the COVID-19 pandemic (dvm360.com)
[xx] Statistica (2022). Total Violent Crime Reported in the United States from 1990 to 2021. Retrieved from U.S.: reported violent crime 2021 | Statista
[xxi] Office for National Statistics (2023). Crime in England and Wales: Year Ending March 2023. Retrieved from Crime in England and Wales – Office for National Statistics (ons.gov.uk)
[xxii] Statistica (2022). Number of Crime Events in the Public Transportation Systems in the United States in 2021, by Type. Retrieved from U.S.: number of public transit crime events, by type | Statista
[xxiii] Transport for London (2022). Crime and Anti-Social Behavior Summary. Retrieved from Quarterly Customer Services and Operational Performance Report – Quarter 2 2022/23 – Crime and Anti-Social Behaviour (tfl.gov.uk)
[xxiv] Stanford, L. (2022, July 08). School Crime and Safety: What a Decade of Federal Data Show. Education Week. Retrieved from School Crime and Safety: What a Decade of Federal Data Show (edweek.org)
[xxv] Street, F. (2021, 6 September). Dread at 30,000 Feet: Inside the Increasingly Violent World of US Flight Attendants. CNN Travel. Retrieved from US flight attendants endure increasing violence 30,000 feet in the air | CNN
[xxvi] Roesser, B. (2023, 25 July). Severe Animal Cruelty Cases Rising Post-Pandemic, Say N. Y. SPCA Leaders. Spectrum News 1. Retrieved from Animal cruelty cases rising post-pandemic, say SPCA leaders (spectrumlocalnews.com)
[xxvii] RSPCA (2022, Feb 08). New Figures Reveal an Increase in Dog Cruelty Since Start of the Pandemic. Retrieved from Details | rspca.org.uk
[xxviii] Kingsley, T. (2022, 03 August). Dog Cruelty on the Rise Since Covid Pandemic as RSPCA Gets 10 Reports of Abuse an Hour. The Independent. Retrieved from: Dog cruelty on the rise since Covid pandemic as RSPCA gets 10 calls of abuse per hour | The Independent
[xxix] Khazan, O. (2022, 30 March). Why People are Acting so Weird. The Atlantic. Retrieved from Why People Are Acting So Weird – The Atlantic
[xxx] Merola, I., Prato-Previde, E. and Marshall-Pescini, S. (2012) Dog’s Social Referencing Towards Owners and Strangers. PLos ONE 7 (10). E47653 doi: 10.1371/Journal.pone 0047653
[xxxi] Merola, I., Prato-Previde, E. and Marshall-Pescini, S. (2011). Social Referencing in Dog-Owner Dyads? Animal Cognition 15 (2). 175-185. doi: 10.1007/s.10071-011-0443-0
[xxxii] Cox, D. (2023, 17 July). What the Rise in Dog Attacks Signals About the State of America’s Social Capital. American Enterprise Institute. Retrieved from What the Rise in Dog Attacks Signals About the State of America’s Social Capital | American Enterprise Institute – AEI