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A real dog-bites-man story: Study says risk of being bitten by a dog almost three times greater than previously thought

The study is also the first to report an association between personality and dog bites.

In 2015, more than 28,000 people underwent surgery to repair scarring caused by dog bites.

The risk of being bitten by a dog is much greater than currently estimated, although the likelihood that a bite will send a victim to a hospital is low, according to a new study by British researchers.

The study also found that men, dog-owners and people with nervous personalities are more likely to be bitten than other people.

This is the first study to report an association between personality and dog bites.

The findings have public health implications, the study’s authors point out, because the incidence of dog bites appear to be on the rise — in the United States as well as in Great Britain. By better understanding the factors involved in dog attacks, officials may be able to develop more effective — and targeted — efforts to prevent them, the authors add.

The last dog-bite survey conducted by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was in the early 2000s. It found that 4.5 million dog bites occur annually in the U.S. Based on 2008 data, an estimated 316,000 Americans seek emergency care for dog bites each year, including 9,500 who are hospitalized because of the injury. That’s 866 emergency department visits — and 26 hospitalizations — each day.

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Another indicator of the damage caused by dog bites comes from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. In 2015, more than 28,000 people underwent surgery to repair scarring caused by dog bites.

Collecting the information

For the current study, researchers at the University of Liverpool surveyed a representative sample of 694 people living in 385 households in the small town of Cheshire, England, between June and August 2015.

Veterinary students interviewed the participants. In additional to collecting demographic information (such as age, gender and education level), the students asked about the participants’ health, dog ownership and history of dog bites.

Participants who had been bitten were asked to provide more details about one of the incidents, such as whether they knew the dog, whether they required medical treatment for the bite and how old they were at the time of the bite.

Participants were also asked to take a 10-item personality assessment, which measures five basic personality traits (extroversion, conscientiousness, openness to new experiences, agreeableness and emotional stability). The researchers wanted to see if any of those traits were related to the risk of being bitten.

Main results

One fourth of the study’s participants said a dog had bitten them at some time during their lifetime. One third of those bites had been serious enough to require medical attention, but less than 1 percent had led to the victim being admitted to a hospital.

“Although in some sense this is reassuring that many dog bites do not cause significant physical injury,” the researchers write, “it is also known that even relatively minor bites can cause significant distress to the victim; thus they should not be considered unimportant to prevent.”

The annual incidence of dog bites during the 12 months before the survey was 18.7 per 1,000 people, a rate that matches “almost exactly” that reported in studies conducted in the U.S. in the 1990s and 2000s, the researchers point out.

It’s also a rate that almost three times higher than hospital records indicate.

Key risk factors

The researchers were able to extract from the data several factors that were associated with a greater risk of being bitten by a dog.

Men were 1.6 times more likely to have been bitten than women, and dog owners were 3.3 times more likely to have been bitten than people who didn’t own a dog.

In addition, slightly more than half of the respondents (54.7 percent) said the dog that bit them was unknown to them before the incident.

The researchers also identified a possible link between personality and the risk of being bitten. They found that participants who scored lower in emotional stability on the personality test (who had more nervous personalities) were the most likely to report having being bitten by a dog.

The explanation for that finding is unclear, the study’s authors point out. It could be that anxious people instill more aggressiveness in dogs — or that calm people are more likely to own calm dogs (and thus get bitten less).

Limitations and implications

The study comes with several important caveats. It was small and involved people living in only one geographic location. It also relied on information provided by the participants, which may or may not have been accurate.

Still, the study’s findings offer some interesting insights into the kinds of people who might be at greater risk for dog bites.

“This study demonstrates that the most severe dog bites, of highest public health significance, are thankfully a small proportion of overall bites that occur,” the authors write. “However, many more bites occur than present for treatment at a hospital.”

“To better understand dog bites, future research should attempt to explore the circumstances of dog bites, the nature of the injury and victims’ perceptions and impact on them,” they add.

The researchers also hope their study will remind people that the chances of being bitten by a dog you know — including your own family’s pet — are about as high as being bitten by a strange dog. Dog owners need to take precautions, including professional behavioral training for their pet, at the first sign the dog shows aggression toward anybody.

FMI:  The study was published online in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, where it can be read in full.