Clamping Down on Dog Owners


Laws that restrict the ownership of certain breeds of dogs but fail to address the actions of their owners are likely to be ineffective in reducing the number of fatal dog attacks, according to a study by federal health officials published in the current issue of the journal Pediatrics.

Dr. Jeffrey J. Sacks, an injury prevention specialist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and his colleagues analyzed data from 109 deaths caused by dog bites that were reported between 1989 and 1994.

Using data compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics and the Humane Society of the United States, Sacks and his team found that while certain breeds of dog--most notably pit bulls, Rottweilers and German shepherds--are more often involved in fatal and nonfatal attacks, the problem is not confined to those animals because many breeds bite.

Fifty-seven percent of Americans killed by dogs were younger than 10. In 11 attacks an infant younger than 4 weeks old was killed while sleeping in a bed or crib.

California, Texas and Illinois had the largest number of fatal attacks, while six states reported no dog-bite deaths. There were more fatalities in the South than in any other region and fewest in the Northeast.

The majority of attacks involved one dog, while 6% involved three to seven. In attacks on children between the ages of 1 and 9, 45% involved an unrestrained dog on the owner's property; 29% occurred when a child wandered too close to a chained dog.

Of 41 fatal attacks in which there was detailed information about the animal, 25 involved a male dog, of which 20 were not neutered. Many dogs involved in fatal attacks had a history of aggression.

Reducing the number of dog bites, the authors note, may require guidance from pediatricians as well as more stringent animal control laws that target "chronically irresponsible dog owners." Dog bites, they write, are a major, largely overlooked public health problem that has received far less attention than playground injuries.

Parents should be instructed by pediatricians to choose a dog carefully and to have it altered to reduce aggressive tendencies. Infants and young children should never be left alone with an animal, regardless of the breed. In addition, parents should be told that aggressive games such as wrestling or getting an animal to "sic" are potentially dangerous.

Children should be taught never to approach a strange dog, never to play with a dog unless supervised by an adult, and to avoid direct eye contact with a dog, which an animal can interpret as provocation.

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