Pet Points: Look beyond dog breeds for background on biting and public safety




Like clockwork each summer, children and elderly people become victims of attacks by dogs running at large. Sometimes, people enter a dog’‍s territory and are bitten.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that about 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year. Medical attention is required for 885,000 people; children account for half of those injuries.

These attacks are horrible and can result in death or serious, life-altering wounds. In response, local governments will often enact laws banning certain breeds of dogs. Breed-specific legislation targets potentially aggressive breeds and bars people from owning them. More than 500 such laws have been passed in the majority of states, yet they do little to stop attacks, change human behavior or make the public safer. 

The first problem is using breed to identify an aggressive dog. Municipalities will ban pit bulls even though that is not a specific breed. Dogs by that name are Staffordshire bull terriers, American pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers and bull terriers. I have seen these dogs in my office and most are well-behaved and socialized. 

In today’s world of designer dogs, mixed breeds are common. Outlaw one breed and a mix of that breed and another will show up immediately. Is that dog also banned? In addition, it is nearly impossible for any humane officer, animal control agent or veterinarian to recognize a specific banned breed or mix on sight. And if a municipality bans one breed, there is always another rare aggressive breed that can become popular and be the latest new threat.

The American Kennel Club and other groups such as the American Veterinary Medical Association, Humane Society of the United States and the ASPCA all oppose breed-specific legislation. Proper education on the care and training of dogs is a much better approach.

Any dog that is not treated properly can become aggressive. Environment has much to do with how a dog develops. Isolating a dog that is chained in the yard without socialization is a recipe for disaster. Add some sexual frustration --  a dog that is not spayed or neutered -- and bites are even more likely.The ASPCA states that 70 percent of all dog bite cases involve unneutered males. An non-neutered dog is 2.6 times more likely to bite, and chained or tethered dogs are 2.8 times more likely to bite.

In 2006, 97 percent of fatal dog attacks were by sexually intact animals. Of those attacks, 78 percent of those dogs were not maintained as pets but rather for guarding, image enhancement, fighting or breeding. Reckless owners were cited in 84 percent of dog bite cases.

Proper handling and training are required for any dog and especially for large potentially aggressive breeds. Dogs bred to fight or guard may do just what they are genetically programmed to do.

Pennsylvania has a strict dangerous dog law that protects the public from dogs that have injured someone by providing rules for keeping them aimed at preventing further attacks. Rather than passing unenforceable breed legislation, communities should concentrate on breed-neutral laws and education for the safety of our citizens and especially our children.

Lawrence Gerson is a veterinarian and founder of the Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic. His biweekly column is intended to educate pet owners. Consultation with a veterinarian is necessary to diagnose and treat individual pets. If you have a question you’d like addressed in Pet Points, email petpoints@post-gazette.com. Please include your name and municipality or neighborhood. He will answer veterinary questions in person today from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the PG booth at the Steel City Pet Expo at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown. Admission is free.

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