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‘Their jaws closed on me’: How spiraling dog attacks became Britain’s unrecognized public health crisis

Even two decades later, Georgia Wood-Lee still vividly remembers the day a dog attacked her. She still has the scars.

He was 20 years old and had just started working in a pub near Wrexham. The landlord had asked him to go upstairs to meet Bruno, the German shepherd who lived there.

As he climbed the steps, the six-stone animal was already on the landing above. He was growling and tugging at the leash the owner was struggling to hold on to.

“I made an immediate decision that it wasn’t a good idea,” Wood-Lee recalls today. “I was turning to go down the stairs when she lunged at me. The speed and power – it’s amazing. Her jaws were locked on my arm before I even realized what was happening.”

In the bloody seconds of panic that followed, the owner and landlady somehow managed to get the animal off him. Wood-Lee staggered down the stairs, his arm punctured and covered in blood. She was so traumatized that she for a time debated giving up her dream career that she had just started: as a veterinary nurse.

“I wasn’t sure I could ever be around dogs like that again,” says the 40-year-old. “It is something very primitive, an animal that attacks you. It stays with you.

That was in 2002. Some 3,395 people were hospitalized for such incidents that year.

By 2018, the latest period for which we have reliable data, that number had ballooned to 8,389. Numbers in the four years since are sketchy, but limited evidence suggests that even accounting for an increase in pet ownership during the pandemic, the upward trend has only become more pronounced.

In short, dog attacks are rapidly increasing across the UK.

Fatal incidents are also following a similar trajectory. In the decade before the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991, 15 people were killed by canines according to the Office for National Statistics. By contract, in the 10 years to 2022, there have been at least 32 such deaths.

The dangers, of course, should not be exaggerated. In a country of 12 million dogs, attacks remain mercifully rare. It goes without saying that the benefits of such pets astronomically outweigh any risks. But neither should the rising rate of incidents be minimized, experts say.

“There may be this tendency to ignore [dog bites] almost like a cartoon,” says Dr. Carri Westgarth, professor of human-animal interaction at the University of Liverpool and author of The Happy Dog Owner. “But the physical and mental effects can be absolutely catastrophic for those involved. The fact that almost 9,000 people are admitted to the hospital each year means that we have to call this by its name, which is an unrecognized public health crisis.”

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As a phenomenon, this surge is causing more than just personal devastation.

Dealing with dog bites cost the NHS just £71 million in the 2017-1 financial year, while thousands of survivors are known to suffer from trauma long after the event. For children, nearly 75 percent of bites are to the head. A small but significant proportion are marked for life. Meanwhile, Royal Mail sees dog attacks as one of the main reasons staff quit. Five of their workers were bitten every day in 2020-21. The consequences for animals aren’t great either: Serious incidents, the RSPCA notes, can lead to the destruction of creatures that are often guilty of no greater crime than being momentarily anxious and reacting instinctively.

However, what exactly is causing this explosion, and how to deal with it, remains controversial.

“To be honest, we’re not sure why this is happening,” says Dr John Tulloch, an epidemiologist and veterinarian also at the University of Liverpool, whose 2021 research paper first highlighted just how significant the increase was. “One of the big questions that comes out of the research is that basically we need to do more to understand how and why more people are being targeted.”

Possible explanations include societal changes (there are now more delivery people, which can lead to more incidents) and the increase in dogs being bought online from often unregulated sources abroad.

More intriguing, perhaps, is that Tulloch believes that the way people interact with animals may have changed in the last two decades, in part as a result of social media.

“These days, we anthropomorphize our relationship with dogs a lot,” he says. “You see people on Twitter or TikTok literally calling them their kids, and I think we’re not necessarily listening to what the dogs are trying to tell us anymore. So, you will see a video of a dog smiling, and that dog is not smiling. He is baring his teeth because he is stressed. And when dogs get stressed, that’s when they bite.”

A quirk of their data shows that while children under the age of nine still account for the largest number of victims, it is attacks on adults that are increasing most significantly. “It may be that we are forgetting what we were taught as children about understanding dogs,” she concludes.

Counterintuitively, perhaps, some experts suggest that the Dangerous Dogs Act itself, introduced after a series of attacks in the 1980s, may be compounding the problem. By blanketly banning four specific breeds (pit bull terriers, Japanese Tosa, Argentine Dogo and Fila Brasileiro), the legislation may have created a general complacency that all other dogs are safe.

“It has the potential to lead the public to think that only those four are dangerous and any other dog is safe,” says Dr. Sam Gains, director of companion animals, science and policy at the RSCPA. “Then the perception arises that any other type of dog is friendly, which leads to situations where people engage in high-risk behavior without realizing that any dog, if stressed or scared, has the potential. to be aggressive.”

It was a point made, bluntly, in a 2019 parliamentary report on the subject. “Some legal breeds can pose as great a risk to public safety as illegal breeds,” he stated. “However, there are no legislative restrictions on their property. This inconsistency undermines the logic of the entire act.”

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The solution, says the RSPCA, is a “total reform and consolidation of the legislation”.

Indeed, he would like to see the ban on the breed lifted altogether, saying there is no statistical evidence that those dogs are more dangerous, and that powers be strengthened for early and targeted intervention where potential problems are identified.

“Right now there are a lot of different laws related to dog control that are confusing and ineffective,” says Gains. “What we want to see is everything under a single dog control law that creates the scope for specialist teams to work on education, prevention and intervention.”

A compulsory dog ​​ownership license could, the charity argues, help fund such measures. Where such a scheme has been implemented in the Canadian city of Calgary, it has been considered successful and has reduced biting rates, says Gains, although others have pointed out that such a financial outlay would hit the poorest hardest.

The government, for its part, has offered no suggestion that it might consider changing the legislation any time soon.

To some extent, however, such a solution perhaps misses a key factor anyway.

“We have this idea that all dog attacks happen because the owners are irresponsible or their victims are at fault in some way,” Westgarth says again. “That misses the point. The thing I hear most from owners when it comes to biting is, ‘But they’ve never done anything like this before!’ Well now they have it.

Something similar, he notes, is often said after fatal attacks. “Sometimes it turns out that the dog has already shown this behavior before,” she says. “But still sometimes, he comes out of nowhere.”

Owner education and legislation must, of course, play a role in reducing attack numbers, he acknowledges, but more creative thinking is also needed.

“Look at the medicine bottles,” says Westgartth, who has been a dog lover all her life despite being bitten on the head as a child. have airbags in cars in case of an accident. Similarly, we need to think about ways we can create a world where we reduce the risk of dog attacks.”

The example, he gives, is of households having external mailboxes and parcel boxes installed as standard in homes to prevent postmen and women from having to enter the gardens. The fenced-in playground, increasingly common anyway, would be another.

“Dogs are such a wonderful part of human life, they provide us with so many benefits,” she says. “But we absolutely must not rule out or downplay the dangers they can bring.”

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