Breed Specific Legislation – Banning Dogs on Sight

In a previous post I discussed the increase in dog bite incidents in recent years Increases in Dog Bites – What to Make of it? | The Animal Nerd.  Today, I’m delving into a related and highly controversial topic, that of Breed Specific Legislation.

Breed-Specific Legislation (BSL) has been defined as “laws that regulate or ban dog breeds that are believed to be dangerous to humans or other animals”.[i] The regulation of dog ownership by breed and the prohibition of certain dog breeds has been a hotly debated issue for several decades in the United States and a considerable number of other countries; primarily in Europe but also in other regions as well.[ii]  In most cases, breeds are restricted based on the belief that certain of them, such as bull terriers, German shepherds and rottweilers, are  prone to violent attacks; while other breeds are restricted for other reasons.  For example, certain regions in China have prohibited dogs that are taller than 35 centimeters, and have specifically banned a wide range of breeds, to include, dalmatians, bearded collies and keeshonds.[iii]

The practice of restricting certain dog breeds began in the 1980s in response to media reporting of people being mauled and based on a growing popular belief that certain dog breeds had been selectively bred for aggressive behavior and were inherently dangerous.[iv]  Over the next two decades, laws and regulations were enacted in countries, states and municipalities, placing varying levels of restriction on certain breeds that were believed to have those characteristics.[v]  These restrictions have ranged from setting requirements for registration and a mandate for liability insurance, to authorizing local authorities to confiscate and euthanize and dogs believed to be from banned breeds.[vi] On the other hand, twenty-two states have prohibited the enactment of BSL to varying extents.[vii] Some insurance companies have gone so far as to deny coverage to households that have certain dog breeds, while others increase the premiums charged to those homeowners and renters.[viii]

The rationale used by governments in imposing restrictions on dog breeds is generally based on a public concern over dog attacks that are reported in the media and on certain beliefs held regarding specific dog breeds.  The problem with media reporting on these cases is that these reports are often rushed and sensationalized, based on low-quality information.  The collection of data related to dog bites is haphazard, without any consistent reporting of the severity and circumstances of bite incidents.[ix] The use of reporting by emergency rooms and police investigations is generally based on third-party information without verification of the dog breed involved in bite incidents.[x]  Further, as found by Arluke et al (2017), articles written by human healthcare professionals tend to use poor quality information, bordering on histrionics, when reporting non-clinical aspects relating to dog bites.  This includes speculation on the behavioral characteristics of dog breeds, “pack mentality”, and breed stereotyping.  Unfortunately, such articles are often cited by civil authorities when drafting BSL.[xi]

The stereotyping of certain dog breeds is a major component of BSL.  For example, the popular myths that “pitbulls” have “locking jaws”, can bite with far more force than other breeds, and will not stop attacking until they have killed their prey are often cited in popular literature.  These myths have also been used as the basis for legal decisions in the United States,[xii]  with court rulings venturing into lurid imaginings of the inherent viciousness, aggressiveness and other dangerous characteristics of pitbull terriers.[xiii]

Beware Of This Dog Pit Bull Terrier Sports Illustrated Cover Photograph ...

Sports Illustrated, July 27, 1987

The biggest single influence on the development of BSL has been the news media treatment of dog breeds.  Beginning in the 1980s, media outlets began reporting lurid accounts of dog attacks.  Magazines and newspapers began publishing articles describing pit bull terriers as “time bombs on legs” and circulating accounts of inner-city drug dealing gangs “brandishing their fierce pit bulls just as they would a switchblade or a gun”, going on to describe pitbull terriers as a breed that “revels in a ‘frenzy of bloodletting,’ and described as ‘lethal weapons’ with ‘steel trap jaws’ and as ‘killer dogs,’ and the new ‘hound of the Baskervilles.’. [xiv]  Sports Illustrated Published an issue with a picture of a snarling pitbull on its cover with the caption “Beware of this Dog”, and an article titled “The Pitbull Friend and Killer”.[xv]  One Denver reporter went so far as to stage dog fights for the purpose of producing a 1990 report titled “Blood Sport”.[xvi]  This media frenzy continued through the 1980s and into the 1990s; in 1987, the phrase “Pit Bull” appeared in more than 850 American newspaper headlines.[xvii]  This media attention, led to a public outcry to ban or regulate pitbulls and other breeds considered dangerous.  And, as indicated above, the exaggerated media accounts of the danger presented by these dogs influenced the language and wording of court decisions and state or municipal legislation.  This is borne out by court findings, such as Toledo v Tellings, in which the appellate court stated “Breed-specific laws were enacted because, in the past, courts and legislatures considered it to be a ‘well-known fact’ that pit bulls are ‘unpredictable,’ ‘vicious’ creatures owned only by ‘drug dealers, dog fighters, gang members,’ or other undesirable members of society.”[xviii]  This has led to accusations that BSL includes elements of racial discrimination and racial profiling of minorities.[xix]

Unfortunately, perhaps inevitably, BSL is based in flawed and inaccurate information.   In spite of media reporting of dangerous dog breeds, numerous studies in Europe, Australia and the United States have found that dogs from restricted breeds are no more likely to inflict bites on humans than those of unrestricted breeds.[xx],[xxi], [xxii], [xxiii], [xxiv] In fact, there is a strong indication that the data regarding bite incidents or aggressive behavior is skewed, as police and medical authorities are more likely to report incidents involving restricted breeds than non-restricted ones.[xxv]

The danger in relying on published statistics related to dog bites is that the information from which the statistics are drawn is largely unreliable.  Early studies conducted by the AVMA used data that was “collected entirely from media reports and those media reports were relied upon as complete and entirely accurate.”[xxvi]  Thus, authorities who rely on published reports to gauge the relative danger of specific dog breeds were reliant on the reporting of people who have no direct knowledge of incidents related to the dogs in question.  And that has not changed significantly since then:  For all intents and purposes, if anyone who reports an incident says that it involved a dog from a restricted breed, that is accepted as gospel by government authorities.  The Centers for Disease Control

Which leads us to the issue of how restricted dogs are identified.  Veterinarians, police, animal shelter workers and private citizens are expected to reliably identify the dogs that are subject to state and/or local restrictions; but are consistently unable to make these visual assessments.  This is particularly so when they are called upon to apply restrictions to mixed-breed dogs.  A 2013 study found that people working in dog-related fields were able to identify the primary breeds of dogs only fifty percent of the time, with very little agreement among respondents.[xxvii]  A 2015 study of animal shelter staff found that they could not reliably identify “pit bulls” and tended to label dogs as pit bulls who were found to be primarily other breeds through DNA analysis.[xxviii]  And a 2014 study of shelter workers in the United States and the United Kingdom found very little consensus in identifying dogs that would be subject to breed restrictions.[xxix] A comprehensive review by the National Canine Research Council concluded that visual identification of dog breeds is “inconsistent and unreliable.”[xxx]  This difficulty in identifying dog breed is compounded by the fact that mixed-breed dogs rarely have much physical resemblance to either of their parents.[xxxi]

The difficulty in identifying restricted dogs in further complicated by the poor definition of these animals.  In the case of “pit bulls”, this is an umbrella term that is used to cover a “type” of dog, which has been defined in various jurisdictions as including Staffordshire terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, the pit bull terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier, American bull terriers, American bulldogs, English bull terriers or any mixed breed parented by one or more of those breeds.  Essentially, a “pit bull” is a dog that someone believes resembles a “pit bull.”  Based only on outward appearance, these dogs are considered dangerous in a number of jurisdictions.

The United Kingdom’s recently enacted “XL Bully Ban” is an example of banning dogs according to their physical “type”.  In response to a public outcry over highly publicized reports of maulings and deaths attributed to dogs that had been marketed and sold as “XL Bullys” or “American XL Bullys”, these dogs have been banned.  However, unlike pitbull bans which specify dogs that belong to specific breeds, the XL Bully ban is imposed on dogs that meet a very subjective physical description, which includes a general description as a “large dog with a muscular body and a blocky head”[xxxii], followed by criteria for height, head shape, body, hindquarters, tail, etc.  and a statement that “A suspected XL Bully breed type does not need to fit the physical description perfectly. If your dog meets the minimum height measurements and a substantial number of these characteristics, it could be considered an XL Bully breed type” and that this definition includes “cross breeds that look more like XL Bully dogs than any other type of dog”.    Based on this law, it is now “illegal to breed, sell, advertise, exchange, gift, abandon or allow these dogs to stray.”[xxxiii] Any people who own a dog that is considered to be an XL Bully are required to have the dog leashed and muzzled when out in public and must obtain a certificate of exemption in order to keep the dog.  This certificate requires that every dog must be neutered, microchipped, and the owners must pay a fee of £92.40 and obtain third-party liability insurance for each dog.  The owner must present the certificate of Exemption whenever asked by a police officer.   Further, all animal shelters or rescue organizations are prohibited from adopting or fostering these dogs, meaning that any of them in shelters at the time of the ban must be euthanized.

As I mentioned earlier, these bans on breeds or “types” of dogs are rationalized by the belief that certain of them are inherently predisposed to aggressiveness and to violent attacks on humans and other dogs.  However, this belief has been repeatedly demonstrated to be false.  Recent studies of aggressive behavior in dogs has shown there is a wide variation of behavior among individuals of each breed and that a dog’s breed is not a predictor of its behavior characteristics.[xxxiv]  The differences between dog breeds are primarily physical characteristics, with little or no inheritable behavior traits;  a dog’s breed is found to be a poor predictor of disposition or behavior.[xxxv]  A study compared the aggressive behaviors of restricted dog breeds with those of golden retrievers, considered to be among the best-natured and gentlest of dog.  This study found no differences between the breeds tested, concluding that “a scientific basis for breed specific lists does not exist.”[xxxvi]

As discussed earlier, the data concerning dog bites and the effect of BSL is weak and generally drawn from questionable sources.  However, the information we have from regions with dog breed restrictions has shown there is little or no difference in the bite cases or dog-related hospitalizations.[xxxvii] The 2018 Denmark study found that restricting breeds and the required use of leashes and muzzles had very little effect on the number and severity of bite injuries.[xxxviii] The implementation of BSL in Missouri was found to have no effect on bite-related cases requiring visits to emergency rooms.[xxxix]  The overall ineffectiveness of BSL is demonstrated in a 2010 analysis of dog bite data, which concluded that it would be necessary to ban 100,000 dogs in order to prevent a single hospitalization due to dog biting.[xl]


Sports Illustrated, December 28, 2008

The XL Bully Ban aside, BSL is slowly losing popularity.  This is due to a recognition that the laws are ineffectual and unfairly target dogs that are not actually dangerous, and to changing perceptions about the dogs that are targeted.  For example, in 2008, twenty-one years after Sports Illustrated’s famous “Beware of This Dog” cover story,[xli] that same magazine published a highly sympathetic cover story about the plight and recovery of the dogs from Michael Vick’s dogfighting ring.[xlii]  As of April, 2023, seventy-three municipalities in the United States had repealed their BSL bans,[xliii] and twenty-two states have enacted laws to ban the implementation of BSL, with some of them going to far as to prohibit insurance companies from restricting dog breeds of policy holders.[xliv]


Among the many organizations that oppose BSL are the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, the National Animal Control Association, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the American Bar Association, the American Kennel Club, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the British Veterinary Association, and other professional organizations with expertise in canine behavior and welfare.  Hopefully, this trend will continue and more dog breed restrictions will be repealed in favor of laws that target irresponsible or criminal dog owners and in public education regarding dogs and animals in general.

[i] NAIC (April 13, 2023).  Retrieved from Breed-Specific Legislation (

[ii] Petolog, retrieved from Full banned dog breeds by countries updated 2023 XL Bully UK (

[iii] PBS Pet Travel, retrieved from

[iv] Weiss (2001).  Retrieved from Breed-Specific Legislation in the United States | Animal Legal & Historical Center (

[v] Alain, J. (2023).  Retrieved from Restricted or Banned Dog Breeds in Each State (

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Wisch, R. (2022).  Retrieved from Overview of States that Prohibit BSL | Animal Legal & Historical Center (

[viii] Leefeldt, E. and Danise, A. (October 3, 2023).  Forbes Advisor.  Dogs Breeds Banned by Home Insurance Companies.  Retrieved from Dog Breeds Banned By Home Insurance Companies – Forbes Advisor

[ix] Patronek, G. J., Slater, M. and Marder, A., (2010).  Use of a Number-Needed-to-Ban Calculation to Illustrate Limitations of Breed-Specific Legislation in Decreasing the Risk of Dog Bite-Related Injury.  Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 237 (7).

[x] AVMA.  Why Breed-Specific Legislation is Not the Answer.  Retrieved from Why breed-specific legislation is not the answer | American Veterinary Medical Association (

[xi] Arluke, A., Cleary, D., Patronek, G. and Bradley, J. (2017).  Defaming Rover:  Error-Based Latent Rhetoric in the Medical Literature on Dog Bites.  Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 21 (3).  doi: 10.1080/10888705.2017.1387550

[xii]  Legislating Dogs.  Retrieved from Appellate Court Decisions Affirming Pit Bulls are Dangerous (

[xiii] Barnett, K.  (2017).  Post-Conviction Remedy for Pit Bulls:  What Today’s Science Tells Us About Breed-Specific Legislation.  Syracuse Law Review 67 (24).

[xiv] Brand, D. (July 27, 1987).  Time Bombs on Legs:  Violence-Prone Owners are Turing Pitbulls into Killers.  Time.

[xv] Swift E. M. (1987).  Sports Illustrated.  Retrieved from

[xvi] UPI (July 23, 1991).  TV Reporter on Trial for Staging Dog Fights.  Retrieved from TV reporter on trial for staging dog fights – UPI Archives

[xvii] Delise, K.  (2007) The Pit Bull Placebo:  The Media, Myths and Politics of Canine Aggression. Anubis

[xviii] Barnett (2017)

[xix] Linder, A. (2018).  The Black Man’s Dog:  The Social Context of Breed Specific Legislation.  Animal Law (25) 51. 51-74

[xx] Cecchi, F., De Toni, G. and Macchioni, F. (2022) A Survey on the Number of Dog-Induced Injuries Inflicted by Pure-Breed and Mixed-Breed Dogs in Italy.  Dog Behavior 7 (3). doi: 10.4454/db.v7i3.143

[xxi] Creedon, N. and O’Suilleabhain, P. S. (2017). Dog Bite Injuries to Humans and the Use of Breed-Specific Legislation:  A comparison of Bites from legislated and non-legislated dog Breeds.  Irish Veterinary Journal 70 (1).  doi:  10.1186/s13620-017-0101-1

[xxii] Wyker, B. and Gupta, M. (2023).  Emergency Department Visits for Dog Bite Injuries in Missouri Municipalities With and Without Breed-Specific Legislation:  A Propensity Score-Matched Analysis.  Research Square 1 (2023).  doi:  10.21203/

[xxiii] Nilson, F., Damsager, J., Lauritson, J. and Bonander, C. (2018).  The Effect of Breed-Specific Dog Legislation on Hospital Treated Dog Bites in Odense, Denmark -A Time Series Intervention Study.  PLOS One.  doi:  10.1371/journal.pone.0208393

[xxiv] Slater, E.(2017)  Deed or Breed?  Evaluating Bite Reports and Breed Specific Legislation in South Australia.  Flinders University.

[xxv] Creedon and O’Suilleabhain (2017)

[xxvi] Delise (2007)

[xxvii] Voith, V. L., Trevejo, R., Dowling-Guyer, S., Chadik, C., Marder, A., Johnson, V. & Irizarry, K. (2013).  Comparison of Visual and DNA Breed Identification of Dogs and Inter-Observer Reliability.  American Journal of Sociological Research 3 (2).  17-29.  doi:  10.5923/j.sociology.20130302.02

[xxviii] Olson, K. R., Levy, J. K., Norby, B., Crandall, M. M., Broadhurst, J. E., Jacks, S., Barton, R. C. & Zimmerman, M. S. (2015).  Inconsistent Identification of Pit Bull-Type Dogs by Shelter Staff.  The Veterinary Journal 206 (2).  197-202, doi:  10.1016/j.tvjl.2015.07.019

[xxix][xxix] Hoffman, C. L., Harrison, N., Wolff, L. and Westgarth, C. (2014).  Is That Dog a Pit Bull?  A Cross-Country Comparison of Perceptions of Shelter Workers Regarding Breed Identification.  Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 17 (4). 322-339 doi:  10.1080/10888705.2014.895904

[xxx] NCRC (2021) Visual Breed Identification.  Retrieved from Visual Breed Identification – National Canine Research Council

[xxxi] Scott, J.P., & Fuller J.L. (1965). Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press

[xxxii] DEFRA (November 22, 2023).  Retrieved from

[xxxiii] Blue Cross.  Retrieved from

[xxxiv] Hammond, A., Rowland, T., Mills, D. S. and Pilot, M. (2022). Comparison of Behaviorl Tendencies Between “Dangerous Dogs” and Other Domestic Dog Breeds – Evolutionary Context and Practical Implications.  Evolutionary Applications 15 (11). 1806 – 1819.  doi: 10.1111/eva.13479

[xxxv] Morrill, K. et al (2022). Ancestry-Inclusive Dog Genomics Challenges Popular Breed Stereotypes.  Science 376 (6592). doi:  10.1126/science.abk0639

[xxxvi] Ott, S. A., Schelka, E., von Gaertner, A. M. and Hackbarth, H. (2008).  Is There a Difference?  Comparison of Golden Retrievers and Dogs Affected by Breed-Specific Legislation Regarding Aggressive Behavior.  Journal of Veterinary Behavior 3 (3).  134-140.  doi:  10..1016/j.jveb.2007.09.009

[xxxvii] O’Suilleabhain, P. (2015). Human Hospitalizations Due to Dog Bites in Ireland, 1998-2013:  Implications for Current Breed Specific Legislation.  The Veterinary Journal 204 (3). doi:  10.1016/j.tvjl.2015.04.021

[xxxviii] Nilson. F. et al

[xxxix] Wyker & Gupta

[xl] Patronek et al.

[xli] Swift, E. M.

[xlii] Gorant, J.  (December 29, 2008).  Sports Illustrated.  Retrieved from

[xliii] NAIC

[xliv] Wisch

Your Dogs and Halloween: Let’s keep them safe.

Halloween is a major event and beloved tradition throughout the United States.  Both kids and adults enjoy dressing in costumes; ranging from simple (sometimes last-minute) disguises to elaborate affairs and celebrating the occasion.  However, we must keep in mind what that evening can be like for our dogs.  This can be a dangerous day and evening for them, on many fronts.

Candy can be highly toxic to your dog. (Source: Photos Public Domain)

First off:  The candy.  If you are giving candy to kids who come trick-or-treating, or if you have trick-or-treaters who bring home bags and buckets full of candy, please take care to keep it away from your dogs and store it in a place the they can’t reach.  Don’t depend on them being well-trained or well-behaved:  Dogs love sweet-tasting treats and candy presents a huge temptation for them.  The fact is, candy is a serious danger to dogs:  Chocolate contains theobromine and caffeine, which are highly toxic to dogs.[1]  Even “healthy” sugar-free candy presents a danger to them as xylitol, a common sweetener used in them, is highly toxic to dogs.[2]

If you take your dog trick-or-treating with you, be very mindful of what he is sniffing or picking up and eating.  The kids going from house-to-house are going to be very excited, and eager to hurry to the next place to get some candy.  They’ll be dropping candy bars and other treats throughout the night.  You need to make sure that your pup isn’t street-snacking on this dropped and forgotten loot.  Also, make sure that your kids understand that candy is very bad for dogs and that they shouldn’t share their candy with your pups.

How would your dog react to this?

And, if you have your dog out with you, be aware of the houses and decorations that you encounter.  Some places will have elaborate, moving decorations, often with light and sound effects.  These are fun, and will add to the pleasure and excitement of the night for you and your kids, but can be terrifying to your dog.  Keep an eye on him throughout the night, and make sure that you keep him well away from anything that is frightening him or causing stress.[3]  If he doesn’t want to approach a house with you and your kids, stay back with him at the street and keep an eye on your kids from a safe distance.

You also have to keep in mind how your dog will react to encountering people in costumes.  If you are out in public, your pup will be encountering very excited children who won’t look and act anything like the people that your dog is used to seeing.   And, given that this is a holiday, the adults may have been partying and the kids are on sugar highs, you can’t depend on them to act responsibly around your dog.  This can cause your dog to act out in fear, resulting in him bolting or biting, depending on the circumstances.   And, if you insist on dressing your dog in a costume, find one that fits him comfortably and doesn’t impede his movements.  Also, select one that doesn’t obstruct his vision – you don’t need him being startled by people approaching him from the side.

Even if you stay home, costumed children may be ringing your doorbell for hours, shouting “Trick or Treat!”.   This is in no way what your dog is accustomed to this happening in his home, and it can very likely freak him out.  Be prepared to keep him in a controlled area, away from the front door.

Putting it simply:  As fun that Halloween is for us, it can be the opposite for your dog.  He doesn’t understand what’s happening and can be either stressed, afraid or over-stimulated.  Be considerate of him and make that night as easy for him as you can.

[1] Dog Chocolate Toxicity Meter (nd).  petMD.  Retrieved from

[2] Paws Off Xylitol; It’s Dangerous for Dogs.  (07/07/2021)  FDA.  Retrieved from

[3] What are the Signs of Fear in Dogs? (04/09/2022).  the Spruce Pets.  Retrieved from

Renting with a dog? What are your rights?

The rental housing market is extremely tight throughout the country. (Image from Freepik)

I recently encountered a very sad and difficult situation involving a dog that had been adopted from our shelter, and returned by its devastated owners.  It turned out that the house they had been renting was sold to a new owner, who decided that their mixed-breed dog resembled a “pitbull” and gave them the choice of giving up the dog or being evicted.  Although the family was heartbroken, they had no choice but to surrender their handsome, happy, well-socialized, 35-pound dog only three weeks after adopting him.

Since the adopters’ lease did not specifically address the issue of their dog, the new owner was well within his rights to discriminate against him.[i]  The Fair Housing Act prohibits landlords from discriminating against human tenants, but their pets are not covered under this law.  The only exception to this is a requirement for landlords to make “reasonable accommodation” for service animals, to include Emotional Support Animals.[ii]

In the U.S., both landlords and tenants are presently under serious pressure, a number of factors are combining into a perfect storm that is creating a shortage of rental homes:  During the pandemic, there was a decrease in new construction and in people relocating to new homes; but as we emerged from the COVID-19 lockdowns there was a surge in the formation of new households.[iii]   Also, the increase in short-term rentals, such as AirBnB, has cut into the availability of family housing units and driven up the cost.[iv]   This has placed renters in a very unfavorable position with regard to finding properties that meet their needs and allow dogs to be kept, and landlords have little incentive to be flexible with prospective tenants.  Indications are that the trend in reduced availability and higher costs may be easing, but there won’t be relief in the short term.[v]

In addition, The insurance industry is putting pressure on landlords to limit their tenants’ dog ownership.  Landlords are required to carry liability insurance on any properties they own, which is intended to cover any injuries to tenants or guests – including dog bites.  Many insurance companies have determined that certain breeds are “dangerous”, meaning that they are more liable to inflict bites that involve insurance claims, and have placed them on a “banned list”.[vi]  If these companies find that a banned dog is being kept on an insured premises, they are able to limit coverage for dog bites or refuse to cover bites altogether, raise the landlord’s premiums, or cancel the insurance policy altogether.[vii][viii]   As a result, many landlords have established breed restrictive policies that match those of their insurance carriers.

So, what can a renter do?

Pitbulls, Akitas, Rottweilers, and other breeds are often banned by munipalities, insurance companies and landlords. (Image from Pixabay)

First off, be knowledgeable about the laws in your state.  Certain states, such as Michigan, Illinois, New York, Nevada and Pennsylvania, prohibit the dog breed restrictions in insurance coverage.[ix]  Other states, such as Florida, have adopted laws that prohibit dog breed or size restrictions in public housing.  But, also be conscious of the fact that, even if your state or municipality places no restrictions on breed ownership, there is nothing to prevent your landlord from doing so.

Second, if your landlord has no restrictions on a dog breed, have that included in the text of your lease.  This way, even if your landlord sells the property, the new owner must honor the terms of the lease until it expires. And be aware that, in a month to month rental, you have no such protections.

Third, be willing to negotiate with your landlord.  If he has reservations about your dog living on his property, offer to have renter’s insurance coverage for both damage to the property and liability coverage for any bites or injuries caused by the dog.  There are several national insurance companies that offer these policies for renters.[x]  It is very possible that the landlord may be amenable to allowing your dog to reside with you if you take on the insurance burden.

Unfortunately, as a renter you have very few rights and little power in this situation.  But these steps can help to overcome a landlord’s reluctance to allow your choice of dog at his property.

[i] American Tenant Screen (2023, January 29).  Landlords can Discriminate Against Dog Breeds.  Retrieved from

[ii] The Humane Society of the United States (nd).  The Fair Housing Act. Retrieved from

[iii] Bahney, A. (2023, March 8).  The US Housing Market is Short 6.5 Million Homes.  CNN.  Retrieved from

[iv] Barron, K., Kung, E. and Proserpio, D., The Effect of Home-Sharing on House Prices and Rents: Evidence from Airbnb (March 4, 2020).  SSRN, doi 10.2130/ssrn.3006832

[v] Helhoski, A. (2023, July 21).  May Rent Report:  Inflated Rent is Poised for Decline.  Nerdwallet.  Retrieved from

[vi] Maughan, J. (2016, November 17) Landlords, Insurance and Dog Breed Restrictions. [Web Log].  Retrieved from

[vii] Hagen K. and Waterworth, K. (2023, August 1).  Understanding Dog Breed Restrictions in Homeowners Insurance.  The Motley Fool.  Retrieved from

[viii] Leefeldt, E. and Danise A. (2023, August 23).  Dog Breeds Banned by Home Insurance Companies.  Forbes Advisor.  Retrieved from

[ix] Sheppard, A. (2023, June 28).  Homeowners Insurance and Dog Breed Restrictions.  FindLaw.  Retrieved from

[x] Hagen and Waterworth (2023)

Increases in Dog Bites – What to Make of it?

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].

from: Pixabay

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 (

 [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] (2022).  The Year of the Pandemic Pet.  Retrieved from

 [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 (

 [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 (

 [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 (

 [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 (

 [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 (

 [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 (

 [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 (

 [xxvii] RSPCA (2022, Feb 08).  New Figures Reveal an Increase in Dog Cruelty Since Start of the Pandemic.  Retrieved from Details |

 [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

Volunteering at a shelter

If you’re reading this, you’re interested in being a volunteer for an animal rescue or shelter.  Which, I can tell you, is a wonderful experience – whether you are helping to care for dogs, cats, birds, farm animals or any other of our fellow creatures.  And, as in all things we do, you will find volunteering rewarding in proportion to the thought and effort that you put into it.  I’ve been volunteering for years at a shelter here in Rhode Island and would like to share some of the things I’ve learned.

First, think about what you want to do and carefully pick the shelter that matches your interests.  Take some time and think about what you’d like to do as a volunteer and then look at the websites for the various shelters and rescue organizations that are near to you.  Research their rules and requirements, and their various volunteer programs.  You may find that some are looking for help in areas that do not match your goals.  You may also find that some have hours set aside for volunteer work that do not line up with your available time.  For example, I know of a wonderful avian shelter that has very specific in-house training requirements for volunteers that may be more than you want to take on.  Or you might find that a shelter has specific time slots for volunteers so that they can maintain a certain number of personnel on site during the day, which may be unworkable for you.  Take your time and look at every shelter that interests you and is within a reasonable distance for you before plunging in.

Second, I suggest that you stay local.  If you want to be active with a shelter organization, you should pick one that is within a relatively easy commute.  Your time is important, and you don’t want to spend your day in your car.  If you’ve decided that you can spend “x” number of hours helping at a shelter each week, you don’t want to add a lot more time to that just driving back and forth.

Third, be flexible.   You might sign up to walk and socialize dogs, care for cats, feed the animals, assist with adoptions or do groundskeeping (a very important and often overlooked function), but you might be asked to do other tasks as well.  Many shelters are dependent upon volunteers for their basic functions; you might have opportunities to help with a fundraising activity, transporting animals, or doing other tasks that help the shelter function.  Remember, you’re there to help.

Fourth, check your ego at the door.  Shelter staffs are underpaid and overworked.  They are busy with essential functions every moment they are at work.  Believe me, they appreciate what you’re doing to help them and the animals, even if they don’t always have the time or energy to say so.  Seeing the animals go home with adopters is your reward.

Fifth, watch and learn.   The more you know about the operations of the shelter, the better you can help the staff to run it and the more assistance you can provide.  If you don’t understand why something it being done, ask.  Keep in mind that a reputable shelter must function within strict state and local regulations regarding almost all of its activities, from animal care to fundraising.  Take all the training that the shelter can offer you, from orientation to advanced care.

Sixth, stay positive.  Shelter staffs are stressed and fatigued, and if you can be a positive presence, it makes their jobs a little easier.  And every day won’t be a good day.  You’re inevitably going to find that the animals’ stories don’t always have a have a happy ending.  And if you find that a particular case is heartbreaking, keep in mind that its even harder on the shelter staff.

Seventh, be good at what you do.  If you are there to clean dog runs or cat cages, to do administrative work or to feed the animals, do it well.  If you are there to do maintenance or groundskeeping, do an excellent job.  Each of these functions is essential to the health and welfare of the animals – which is why you’re there in the first place.

Again, these are just my observations.  You might find that there are aspects of shelter volunteering that I’ve missed, or that I haven’t made a point well enough.  Feel free to comment or add your observations.

The Use of Aversives in Pet Training

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has released a new position statement on the role of aversive training methods in training and behavior modification.

The statement says that aversives are not only ineffective, but are counterproductive.   Positive, rewards-based, training is the most effective method in both animal training and behavior modification.
AVSAB-Humane-Dog-Training-Position-Statement-2021.pdf (

Bird illness – update

Update (August 22, 2021). Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology and the College of Veterinary Medicine have advised that, although the reason for the bird mortality is still undetermined, cases are declining the infection appears to be waning.  State wildlife officials throughout the Midwest and Atlantic seaboard have rescinded their guidance to take down bird feeders. Mysterious Bird Disease – Take Down Your Feeders | The Animal Nerd

Update – although the mysterious illness that is killing songbirds in the mid-Atlantic and mid-west appears to be declining in those states (Zenkevich, 2021), the Hartford Courant is reporting that cases have now been identified in southern New England (Arnott, 2021).  We are still being asked to refrain from putting up bird feeders and bird baths.

Arnott, C. (August 6, 2021).  Bird deaths from mystery illness confirmed in Connecticut; Audubon advises ‘no birdfeeders’.  Hartford Courant.  Retrieved from Bird deaths from mystery illness confirmed in Connecticut; Audubon advises ‘no birdfeeders’ – Hartford Courant

Zenkevich, J. (August 4, 2021).  Reports Of Mysterious Bird Disease Decreasing In Pennsylvania. Retrieved from 

Penny, a story of counterconditioning. Part 3

Our shelter staff found a very experienced foster family to take in Penny and help her acclimate to living in a house.  Two Fridays ago, they picked her up from the shelter and brought her to their home.

The following afternoon, I arrived at the shelter and found Penny back in her run, very happy to see me.  It turns out that Penny had two additional issues that we had not known about:  She was afraid of cars and she refused to use stairs.  The first issue came up as the shelter staff helped her get into the foster family’s car.  The second issue came up when they got to their home, which happens to be a second-floor walkup apartment.  I should note that, for all her anxiety and self-harming tendencies, Penny is a remarkably gentle dog.  When she objects to doing something, she simply freezes in place.

So.  Two steps forward and one step back.  Now we have to add cars and stairs to the list of things that Penny needs to become habituated to using.   I tried the usual methods of getting her to use the shelter staircase, first by luring her with high value treats and later asking her to follow another friendly dog up them.  I was able to get her to go up four steps and she finally put her hind feet on the bottom step, but that was as far as I could get; she would become overly anxious and shut down.  And using this particular staircase became a non-starter when she caught on to the fact that the cats and small animals were housed near the stairs.  There’s no way that treats were going to distract her from those.

Once she began to associate cars with pleasant experiences, she decided that they weren’t so bad.

So I decided to use a different approach to conquering her fear of stairs by getting her to use outdoor stairs in open areas.  Unfortunately, large as our shelter grounds are, there are no stairs outside the building.  We figured that a nearby middle school, which had wide outside steps, would be perfect for this effort; but that would mean getting her in a car.  And we knew that Penny would have to become habituated to using multiple cars and generalize being in them.  So, several of us began an effort to make cars fun and desirable by a combination of high value treats and pleasant experiences in them.  We got her to follow us into cars and then took her on field trips to fun and interesting places, with lots of things to sniff.  Within a few days, she was jumping into cars with minimal encouragement.

Then I started taking her to the middle school and using the stairs.  On the first visit, a couple of days ago, she went up and down a low set of outside steps (four steps) but balked at using a larger one.   We’re continuing to work on that.

We have more work to do with Penny, but she’s come along far enough that the shelter staff believe that she can be adopted out to a family that’s willing to work with her post-adoption.   In the meantime, I’ll keep working with her on her few remaining issues.

Lessons learned: 

First, do not rush.  Get the dog to accept and trust you before attempting to modify her behavior.  If, as far as she is concerned, you’re just a treat bag with an arm, you won’t get results that will transfer to an adoptive family and home.

Second, get the dog familiarized and comfortable in environment in which the behavior modification treatment is taking place.  If she is stressed by being in a new location, you’re not going to get anywhere.  Depending on the dog, this may take several visits.

Third, do not forget the basics.  Penny’s treatment was complicated by the fact that the only skill in her repertoire was “sit”.  This is a great help in leashing her up, but not good for much else.  When you’re trying to get a dog to overcome a fear of performing a certain action, there is no substitute for having a good, solid recall.

Mysterious Bird Disease – Take Down Your Feeders

August 22 Update:   Cornell University is still advising that, although the cause of the illness is still undetermined, cases are declining.  Wildlife authorities in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia, as well as the Audubon Societies in Maryland and Rhode Island, have lifted their advisories regarding bird feeders and bird baths (Nimmo, 2021; Audubon Society of Rhode Island, 2021; Wildlife Center of Virginia, 2021;  WeinGartner, 2021).   We are requested to continue regular cleaning of baths and feeders, using a 10 percent bleach solution.

July 31 Update:  The illness is being reported in some Illinois counties where it had previously not been detected (Smith, 2021).  Reports of infected birds are continuing to decline in Pennsylvania, along with Virginia and Kentucky  (KDKA, 2021).

However, the Audubon Society is advising that the cause of the illness is still unknown.   This is a particularly sensitive time, as many of our bird species will be departing on their annual migrations to Central and South America, and there is great concern that – if this disease is contagious – that it might be spread to native bird populations there.  We will probably be requested to refrain from using our bird feeders and bird baths through the month of August (Gerrity, 2021).

July 30 Update:  News sources in Virginia and Kentucky are reporting sharp declines in reported cases of the illness that’s been affecting the mid-Atlantic and midwest states (INSIDENOVA, 2021; Times-Tribune, 2021).  As yet, the illness has not been reported in New England or west of Illinois.

Although this is encouraging news, the cause of this die-off of wild songbirds still has not been identified and it is still to be determined whether infected birds are contagious.  So wildlife authorities throughout the affected states, and the surrounding states – including New England – are asking that we continue to take down our feeders and bird baths.

July 29 Update: Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology and the College of Veterinary Medicine is reporting that cases of the songbird illness are declining and the mortality rates are decreasing; and that bird populations are stable.

July 28 Update:

The songbird illness continues to take toll on our wild bird population, and is now reported in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.  It has not been reported in New England, or states west of  Illinois, although residents of the surrounding states are being advised to take down their feeders and bird baths as a means of limiting birds congregating and reducing the spread of the disease.

The cause is still unknown, however scientists have eliminated known bird viruses and the bacterium that have caused previous similar outbreaks.  The recent cicada brood hatching also appears to be unrelated to this disease, as it is being found in areas where the cicadas didn’t appear.  At this point, twelve bird species have been found to be affected:  the blue jay, European sterling, grackle, American robin, northern cardinal, house finch, house sparrow, eastern bluebird, willow tit, Carolina chickadee, and mayow tit (Patterson, 2021).

There is some speculation that the illness may be caused by toxins associated with invasive insect species, perhaps in concert with invasive plant species (Abbott, 2021).  However this seems unlikely to be the case, as the illness would probably have been known to exist in the overseas locations where these species are native.  However, the idea that a toxin is somehow involved would seem to explain why the disease mostly affects young birds, which would have been fed high concentrations of local seeds or insects.

July 11, 2021:

In the past few weeks, a new deadly disease has emerged on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, affecting a wide variety of songbirds.   Scientists are still trying to determine the nature of the illness and how it is transmitted, and whether it is a new virus or a fungal infection, but it is causing thousands of deaths across a wide range of unrelated bird species, including robins, blue jays, cardinals, woodpeckers,  and others (Malakoff & Stokeland, 2021).

This infected bird was found in Washington  DC  in May of this year

The symptoms include crusted and inflamed eyes and the neurological symptoms include inability to stand and head tremors.  The birds are unable to fly or feed themselves and eventually die.
The disease was first noted in the Washington DC area in May of this year (USGS, 2021), but rapidly spread to the adjacent states.  It is now appearing in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and is continuing to spread.  Although the nature of the illness is still unknown, based on its rapid spread throughout the eastern and midwestern states, it appears to be highly contagious across a wide range of bird species (Zenkevitch, 2021; ).

We can help to limit the spread of the disease by reducing the number of places where songbirds congregate and are likely to infect each other.  State authorities, even in areas such as the New England states in which the disease has not yet been found, are asking that we take down our bird feeders and bird baths until the disease has subsided, and that they be thoroughly cleaning with a 10 percent bleach solution before being put back in use (RI DEM, 2021; AP, 2021).

This isn’t a lot to ask.  If we’re feeding the birds because we want them to be well fed and we enjoy having them in our lives then, until this disease runs its course, it makes sense for us to encourage them to look for natural sources of food and not congregate in large numbers at a common feeding site.  Our wild bird populations are already under stress from climate change and loss of habitat.  There is no reason for us to add to that by facilitating the spread of a disease.  Lets take down our feeders and bird baths, clean them thoroughly, and wait until we hear that its safe to put the up again.

Abbott, B. (July 27, 2021).  Opinion:  Seeking to Solve Mystery Songbird Illness.  CTPost.  Retrieved from

Associated Press (July 8, 2021).  Residents Told to Stop Filling Feeders to Avert Bird Illness.  Retrieved from

Audubon Society of Rhode Island (August 20, 2021) Bird Feeding Can Resume in Rhode Island.  Retrieved from 

Fisher, F.  (July 27, 2021).  Cornell experts not overly alarmed by mysterious songbird sickness.  Retrieved from

Gerrity, K.  (July 30, 2021) An Update From The Connecticut Audubon Society About Bird Disease.  Patch.  Retrieved from  

INSIDENOVA (July 29, 2021).  Mystery songbird illnesses, deaths improving in Northern Virginia. Retrieved from Mystery songbird illnesses, deaths improving in Northern Virginia | Headlines |

KDKA (July 31, 2021).  Reports Of Illnesses In Songbirds Declining After Mysterious Disease Caused Dozens Of Deaths.  Retrieved from 

Malakoff, D. and Stokeland, E. (Jul 6, 2021).  Songbirds are Mysteriously Dying Across the Eastern U.S.  Scientists are Scrambling to Find Out Why.  Science Magazine.  Retrieved from Songbirds are mysteriously dying across the eastern U.S. Scientists are scrambling to find out why | Science | AAAS (

Nimmo, T. (August 20, 2021). Kentuckians can put bird feeders back outside after mystery illness.  WCPO.  Retrieved from 

Patterson, R. (nd).  Don’t Feed the Birds!  PA.  The Mysterious Death of a Songbird in Japan Sparks and Investigation.  Pennsylvania News Today.  Retrieved from

Rhode Island DEM, Division of Fish and Wildlife (July 8, 2021). Wildlife Health Alert.  Retrieved from

Smith, K. (July, 30, 2021).  First cases of mystery songbird illness seen in suburban wildlife centers.  Daily Herald.  Retrieved from

Times-Tribune (July 29, 2021).  Kentucky Fish and Wildlife provides update about bird illness investigation.  Retrieved from Kentucky Fish and Wildlife provides update about bird illness investigation   | Local News |

USGS (July 2, 2021).  UPDATED Interagency Statement:  USGS and Partners Continue Investigating DC Area Bird Mortality Event.  Retrieved from UPDATED Interagency Statement: USGS and Partners Continue Investigating DC Area Bird Mortality Event

Weingartner, T. (August 20, 2021).  As ‘Mystery’ Bird Illness Continues, Some in Tri-State May Put Bird Feeders Back Out With Precautions.  WVXU.  Retrieved from 

Wildlife Center of Virginia (August 20, 2021).  Update of 2021 Avian Unusual Mortality Event.  Retrieved from

Zenkevich, J. (July 7, 2021).  M ore Than 1,000 cases of Mysterious Bird Disease Reported in Pennsylvania.  WESA.  Retrieved from More than 1,000 Cases of Mysterious Bird Disease Reported In Pennsylvania | 90.5 WESA