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Dog bites: knowing the breed is not enough for predicting and preventing the risk

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News of 08/02/2021

Thousands of dog bites are recorded in France every year. The existing regulations for preventing them are based on the animal's breed or breed type. Following its expert appraisal on the subject, ANSES concluded that this information alone cannot reliably predict the risk of bites. In view of the public health issues associated with dog bites, the Agency is calling for the implementation of a multi-pronged prevention strategy that would include raising awareness among breeders and dog owners of the animals' needs and the training to be provided, strengthening the role of veterinarians, and setting up an observation scheme to collect more information on dog bites. Among these approaches, the Agency specifically recommends strengthening behavioural assessments of dogs. Lastly, ANSES reiterates that all dogs can bite, regardless of their size or breed, and that consequently children and dogs should never be left alone together without adult supervision.

 

Every year in France, thousands of people are bitten by dogs. These bites can have physical, infectious and psychological consequences, resulting in direct or indirect costs to society.

The French Ministry of Agriculture therefore asked ANSES to gain a better understanding of the dangerousness of dogs and assess the relevance of measures for categorising them by breed.

Better protection from the risk of bites requires a combination of several preventive measures

ANSES examined all the factors to be considered for assessing the risk of bites and concluded that this risk cannot be reliably determined solely from the breed or breed type of the dog.

An analysis of the risk factors showed that they relate to both the animal and its interactions with humans: the owners and breeders, the people it occasionally meets, and the circumstances of these encounters. As a result, prevention requires a multi-pronged approach, with the involvement of all stakeholders.

For the Agency, preventing the risk of bites involves first and foremost raising awareness among children and adults, whether or not they own a dog:

  • of a dog's wellbeing, needs and expectations, as well as how to recognise stress signals in the animal such as nose licking, repetitive yawning and looking away;
  • of the fact that all dogs can bite, regardless of their size or breed, and that consequently children and dogs should never be left alone together without active adult supervision.

With dog owners, the veterinarian should take advantage of the first vaccination appointment or the annual check-up to raise awareness of bite risk factors and stress the importance of animal training and positive reinforcement, i.e. ways of training the animal that promote rewards when learning.

Furthermore, ANSES emphasises that it is the responsibility of dog breeders and owners alike to ensure that the dog's living conditions (small flat or large house, possibility of going out regularly or irregularly, presence of small children, etc.) are compatible with its needs in terms of its size, breed, temperament, etc.

To better understand and prevent the circumstances leading to bites, which are currently under-reported (see box), ANSES recommends creating a "bite observatory", which would help supplement the available data, provide input for research, and enable more targeted and appropriate advice on the risk to be formulated. Given the widespread presence of dogs in society, the Agency would welcome contributions to this observatory from professionals in the sector, such as veterinarians and breeders, as well as members of the public.

There are very few data on dog bites in France. According to a 2007 report, around 10,000 bites per year lead to the animal being placed under health monitoring. However, these figures only reflect the bites reported to Departmental Directorates for the Protection of Populations and are in all likelihood underestimated. Professionals (doctors, firefighters, veterinarians, hospital staff, etc.) and private individuals are required to report all dog bites to their local town hall.

Behavioural assessment, a means of prevention that should be reinforced

The Agency believes that following a dog bite or at the specific request of the mayor or prefect, the role of the behavioural assessment by the veterinarian should be strengthened, by increasing the number of veterinarians registered to perform these assessments and by harmonising the training, practices and tools used. The behavioural assessment is a key tool for gaining a better understanding of the risk of a dog biting somebody.

There are currently three grounds for such an assessment: when a dog belongs to a breed or breed type defined in the regulations, after a dog has bitten a person, or following a specific request from the mayor or prefect. The Agency believes that analysing the observatory's results will help determine other situations where behavioural assessments could be performed in order to identify risk situations before they arise.

However, on the basis of its expert appraisal, ANSES stresses that the breed alone cannot be used to predict a dog's aggressiveness. To date, no scientific studies have shown a higher risk of bites from so-called "dangerous" Category 1 and 2 dogs. The United States, the Netherlands and Italy, which had adopted similar categorisations, abandoned them after finding them ineffective in reducing the risk of bites.

The dangerousness of an animal must therefore be assessed individually.

 

Factors to be taken into account when assessing the dangerousness of an animal

  • Factors related to the dog, such as:
    • its breed, temperament and reproductive status (castrated or not), although the analysis of the scientific literature was unable to conclude as to the impact of these criteria in the assessment of dangerousness;
    • its gender, as male dogs are more aggressive than females;
    • its age, adult dogs (1 to 7 years old) present a greater risk than young dogs (less than 1 year old);
    • its development conditions; premature separation from mother and siblings or late contact with humans are associated with a higher bite risk;
    • its wellbeing, whether its needs and expectations are met;
    • its mental and physical health: painful conditions, altered emotional state or behavioural disorders;
    • the ways in which it interacts with humans, i.e.:
      • its relationship with humans,
      • the training received,
      • its emotional and cognitive capacities.
  • Factors related to people exposed to bites:
    • the age, gender and occupation of bite victims: young children, men and occupations involving frequent contact with dogs (veterinarians or nursing staff, animal keepers, dog handlers or trainers) and people using dogs for special purposes such as guarding and defence, are more at risk than others;
    • the place where the bite occurred: most dog bites of young children and adult owners take place on private premises, while most bites of people unknown to the biting dog occur in public places;
    • the dog's living conditions as defined by its owner: training, daily habits (outings, play, etc.) or even the animal's accommodation are under human responsibility and can contribute to the emergence of aggressive behaviour;
    • the ability to communicate with dogs and in particular to detect signs of aggression or threat expressed by the animal: in general, these signs are poorly identified by owners, even experienced ones. Inappropriate signals given by humans under the influence of particular physical or mental conditions (neurological diseases or consumption of substances such as alcohol, medication, etc.) or abrupt behaviour by children, are also often associated with bites.