Vets and dog lovers are urging that more public attention be focused on aggressive dogs, which often attack children.
Dogs may be man's best friends, but increasingly they are becoming a menace to children and the elderly. "Last year 4.7 million dog bites were reported in the United States, and the No. 1 victim is children," says John Snyder, program director in the companion-animal section of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).
A study by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), published last fall in the Journal of the American Medical Association, put the number of dog-bite victims requiring medical care at 800,000 yearly and the number requiring hospitalization at 6,000. The number of dog bites requiring medical treatment climbed 36 percent between 1986 and 1994.
Children are the most frequent victims of dog bites, and they constitute the population most likely to be seriously injured or killed in canine attacks. Of the 27 Americans who died after being bitten by a dog between January 1997 and December 1998, 19 were younger than age 12, according to HSUS. Of the eight adults killed by dog bites during that same two-year period, most were representatives of another vulnerable age group -- the elderly.
Large, muscular dogs such as rottweilers and pit bulls have been blamed for the majority of fatal dog bites that have occurred during the last two decades. But data from CDC studies show that small dogs such as dachshunds, cocker spaniels and even a Yorkshire terrier have killed humans. In Los Angeles last year, a Pomeranian caused fatal injuries to a 6-week-old baby in her crib. "Bites by Chihuahuas are probably as numerous as bites by German shepherds," says Bonnie Beaver, executive director of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists at Texas A&M University.
Most people are bitten by their own dogs, adds Beaver, a professor in Texas A&M's Department of Small Animal Medicine and Surgery. But there have been cases in which children were killed by packs of strays. In early March, 10-year-old Rodney McAllister of St. Louis was found mauled to death in a park across the street from his home, where he had gone to play basketball. In the two days after his body was found, animal-control officers rounded up 10 stray dogs in and around the park: two chows, a German shepherd, a rottweiler and several mixed breeds. It was not known how many of the dogs were involved in the attack.
Some localities have attempted to deal with the problem by banning specific breeds or types of dogs. But the HSUS, the CDC and many animal-control officials oppose that approach. "A ban on a specific breed might cause people who want a dangerous dog to simply turn to another breed for the same qualities they sought in the original dog," CDC researchers say. "Breed-specific legislation does not address the fact that a dog of any breed can become dangerous when bred or trained to be aggressive."
The American Veterinary Medicine Association and other organizations believe that education is the best form of prevention. The HSUS offers these tips to avoid dog bites:
* Spay or neuter your dog. Canines not spayed or neutered are three times more likely to bite than sterilized ones.
* Never approach a dog you don't know or a dog that is alone without its owner, especially if the dog is confined behind a fence, within a car or on a chain.
* When approached by a dog you don't know, don't run or scream. Stand still with your hands at your sides and do not make direct eye contact with or speak to the dog.
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