From 1979 through 1994, attacks by dogs resulted in 279 deaths of humans in the United States. (Sacks JJ, Sattin RW, Bonzo SE. Dog bite-related fatalities from 1979 through 1988. JAMA 1989;262:1489-92; Sacks JJ, Lockwood R, Hornreich J, Sattin RW. Fatal dog attacks, 1989-1994. Pediatrics 1996; 97:891-5.) In the latter study, which covered six years, the researchers made these findings:
- There were 109 bite-related fatalities.
- 57% of the deaths were in children under 10 years of age.
- 81% of the attacks involved an unrestrained dog.
- 22% of the deaths involved an unrestrained dog OFF the owner's property.
- 59% of the deaths involved an unrestrained dog ON the owner's property.
- 18% of the deaths involved a restrained dog ON the owner's property.
- 10% of the dog bite attacks involved sleeping infants.
- The most commonly reported dog breeds involved were pit bulls (24 deaths), followed by Rottweilers (16 deaths), and German shepherds (10 deaths).
The authors pointed out that many breeds are involved in fatal attacks. The death rate from dog bite-related fatalities (18 deaths per year) in the 6-year study period remained relatively constant compared with the prior 10 years. The authors emphasized that "most of the factors contributing to dog bites are related to the level of responsibility exercised by dog owners." They recommended public education about dogs and dog ownership.
The Humane Society of the United States and the Centers for Disease Control did another study of dog bite related fatalities (DBRF's) during 1995-1996. Here are some of their findings:
- At least 25 persons died as the result of dog attacks (11 in 1995 and 14 in 1996). However, the sources used for the study are thought to have underestimated the number of DBRF's by 26%.
- 20 (80%) occurred among children (three were up to one month old, one was aged 5 months, 10 were aged 1-4 years, and six were aged 5-11 years).
- 5 occurred among adults (ages 39, 60, 75, 81, and 86 years).
- Most (18 [72%]) DBRF's occurred among males.
- Of 23 deaths with sufficient information for classification, seven (30%) involved an unrestrained dog off the owner's property, five (22%) involved a restrained dog on the owner's property, and 11 (48%) involved an unrestrained dog on the owner's property.
- Of the 25 deaths, nine (36%) involved one dog, nine (36%) involved two dogs, two (8%) involved three dogs, and five (20%) involved six to 11 dogs.
- All the attacks by unrestrained dogs off the owner's property involved more than one dog.
- Of the three deaths among neonates, all occurred on the dog owner's property and involved one dog and a sleeping child.
- Fatal attacks were reported from 14 states (California [four deaths]; Florida and Pennsylvania [three each]; Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, and South Dakota [two each]; and Connecticut, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, and Washington [one each]).
Despite the fact that researchers generally recommend public education as the most likely cure for the dog bite epidemic, there has been widespread review of existing local and state dangerous-dog laws, including proposals for adoption of breed-specific restrictions to prevent such episodes.
State legislatures have enacted "findings" which establish in court and elsewhere the existence of the dog bite epidemic. For example, the Colorado State Legislature enacted this finding (codified in Colorado Revised Statutes):
18-9-204.5. Unlawful ownership of dangerous dog.
(1) The general assembly hereby finds, determines, and declares that:
(a) Dangerous dogs are a serious and widespread threat to the safety and welfare of citizens throughout the state because of the number and serious nature of attacks by such dogs; and
(b) The regulation and control of dangerous dogs is a matter of statewide concern.
Similarly, the California State Legislature studied dog bites and passed this finding (which is codified as section 31601 of the Food & Agriculture Code):
31601. The Legislature finds and declares all of the following:
(a) Potentially dangerous and vicious dogs have become a serious and widespread threat to the safety and welfare of citizens of this state. In recent years, they have assaulted without provocation and seriously injured numerous individuals, particularly children, and have killed numerous dogs. Many of these attacks have occurred in public places.
(b) The number and severity of these attacks are attributable to the failure of owners to register, confine, and properly control vicious and potentially dangerous dogs.
(c) The necessity for the regulation and control of vicious and potentially dangerous dogs is a statewide problem, requiring statewide regulation, and existing laws are inadequate to deal with the threat to public health and safety posed by vicious and potentially dangerous dogs.
Similar findings can be found elsewhere in the law. For example, the bill that amended section 399 of the California Penal Code (Bill No. AB 1709) contained this:
SEC. 3. This act is an urgency statute necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, or safety within the meaning of Article IV of the Constitution and shall go into immediate effect....
In order to protect the public from the rising incidents of dog maulings across the state it is necessary for this act to take effect immediately as an urgency statute.
Here is another finding from Title 10 of the Los Angeles County Code:
10.37.010 Purpose of this chapter. Within the county of Los Angeles there are potentially dangerous and vicious dogs that have become a serious and widespread threat to the safety and welfare of the citizens of the county which should be abated.