Dog Bite Statistics: Do the Math Before You Freak Out

Oops, this is the one I never finished when I wasn’t feeling well and then we had the upheaval of kids getting out of school for the summer.  Better late than never!

In honor of this year’s National Dog Bite Prevention Week, I’ve got a post for each day!  Dog bites are almost entirely preventable – especially bites to children.  What will YOU do this week to prevent a dog bite?

Let’s start by doing some math. 

The most frequently cited statistics on dog bites come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 1994 phone survey, which was updated in 2001-2003 with similar results.*

Here is a paraphrased statement you’ll find almost everywhere dog bites are discussed:

“There are almost five million dog bites every year and nearly one million require medical attention!!”

Wow, the wording leaves no doubt to the casual reader that this is a huge, dramatic problem.  Fear-mongering is what it is because these slick, oft-quoted statistics make people think things are out of control.

Here’s where the math comes in.  Ready?

  • Approximately 4,500,000 bites per year
  • Approximately 800,000 of those bites require medical attention
  • 800,000 divided by 4,500,000 = .18 (which is 18%)
  • 100% minus 18% = 82%


82% of dog bites require NO medical attention.

Why is this not the leading story?  There can’t be THAT many math-challenged people working in media, can there?

So, now we have 82% of all dog bites requiring, at most, a band aid applied at home.

Isn’t that an entirely different message?

I certainly think so because this math says the overwhelming majority of times that dogs bite, they cause little or no damage.  Do you think that’s because people are so good at pulling away or doing Matrix-style air bending?  I doubt it.  Dogs can bite in a fraction of a second.  It’s how dogs bite that makes the difference.

82% of the time, dogs choose to “pull their punches,” so to speak and use minimal force in their bites.  Not only are they not trying to hurt us in these cases, they are trying not to hurt.

Conclusion:  Most Dog Bites (82%!) Are Coming From “Good Dogs”

Per the statistics, almost by definition that’s true because the dogs used only a small fraction of biting ability, choosing not to injure.  Think about that the next time you hear someone remark, “My dog is so good with the children!”  As discussed in an older post, “Good Dogs Don’t Bite Children, Do They?,” to me, that’s a red flag and I’d exercise caution with my children around that dog and with those children around my dog.

I’d love it if we all started listening to and protecting our “good dogs” — can you imagine the drop in number of dog bites?!!

What About the Other 18% That DO Require Medical Attention?

Get ready — more math…

  • Statistics say about 800,000 people require medical attention for dog bites each year.  In 2001, an estimated 368, 245 chose to go to the emergency room.  368,245 divided by 800,000 = 46%.  So, you could say that more than half of all dog bites requiring medical attention did NOT require a trip to the emergency room.  (If it were a serious bite, wouldn’t YOU go to the emergency room?)
  • In 2008, there were 9,500 hospitalizations following a dog bite.  So, assuming hospitalization followed emergency room admittance, you could say that 97.4% of the people treated in the emergency room for dog bites were treated and released without being admitted (100% – (9,500 divided by 368, 245)).

So, of all the estimated # of dog bites every year, .2% require hospitalization (9,500 divided by 4,500,000), or you could say that 99.8% of dog bites do not require a stay in the hospital.

So What Does This Mean?  No Harm, No Foul?

Of course not!  We can all say blah, blah, blah that it’s not a big deal when it’s a small injury but that all changes when that small injury is to our small child’s face.  It’s scary and unsettling and nothing is ever the same.  In many cases, it means the end of the dog’s life.  Plus, it makes no sense to ignore minor bites and not expect escalation if nothing changes to address the situation.

I don’t want any families having to sort out even very minor bites.  That’s why I’m so focused on prevention (see pretty much every past post and the links on my blogroll).  At the same time, I also want to remind people that a dog bite is not always a “DOG BITE!”  I came home from a consultation one day last year and mentioned that the dog bit me three times.  My husband immediately wanted to see.  Guess what?  There was nothing to see because the dog didn’t bite down hard.

We hear “dog bite” and we see “bloody mauling” in our mind’s eye.  Bite statistics are bandied about whenever there is a serious mauling or a fatality and the serious and non-serious bites get linked in our brains as if they are one and the same.  I think this makes us overreact to minor bites while at the same time neglecting to do our part to prevent those bites in the first place.  Too often, people tell me they will just get a different dog and it will be OK — you know, one of those dogs that don’t bite children.

Here’s what I believe to be true:

    1. Almost all dog bites are coming from “good dogs” — dogs that have been pushed too far, with earlier communication to “Please stop!” or “I’m freaking out over here!” overlooked by humans.  This is my primary area of experience because these are the situations (minimal injury) where people feel it is appropriate to consider training and behavior modification before making a final decision about the dog.
    2. Dog bites that cause serious injury are a whole different thing. You can find much excellent information from the National Canine Research Council, including a state-by-state review of the factors involved in fatalities from dog bites.  It’s important to know what’s different about the situations where dogs bite hard enough to maim or kill in order to have a chance at profiling your own dog and situation.  This isn’t my primary area of expertise but I may write more in a later post to summarize generally accepted factors that make dog experts think, “I’m not surprised,” when they hear the circumstances of a serious bite.
    3. Dog bites are almost entirely preventable through education and awareness and, of course, human willingness to pay attention and exercise good judgment.  Dog bites don’t just happen out of the blue.  This is a problem we can fix!

In the meantime, don’t forget that bite statistics are very squirrelly!  Just because you see an “exact” number reported somewhere doesn’t mean it’s accurate or reliable.   Always understand where your data comes from and DO YOUR MATH before accepting conclusions.  Dog bites ARE a big deal, but not necessarily in the way we usually hear the statistics presented — especially if the presentation makes us feel like there’s nothing we can do about it.

Footnote from above:

* except for an interesting 47% decline in bites to children – particularly for my 0-4 age range of interest.  (Why the decline?  Who knows?  That’s because a phone survey of 9,684 households in the United States is only .009% of the 105,480,101 US households per the US Census Bureau so how can you extrapolate with any predictive accuracy? )

Further Information:

Dogs Bite But Balloons and Slippers are More Dangerous” by Janis Bradley

Dog Bite Fatalities:  The Stories Behind the Statistics” by Karen Delise


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  1. Yes, yes and yes.

    Also, one other bit of math for you.

    There are roughly 78 million owned dogs in this country.

    If we assume that each of the 4.5 million dog bites (I won’t get into how the 4.5 million is an exaggerated number based on a very limited data set) comes from a different dog, then only 6% of dogs are even responsible for any bites at all — thus, 94% never bite, and when they do, it is usually not injury-causing (as you rightly point out).

    This also means that each year .01% of dogs are responsible for a bite that leads to hospitalization — or 99.99% of dogs don’t.

    So what is it that I’m supposed to be afraid of?

  2. ‘Dog bites don’t just happen out of the blue’…well, I have to say that I don’t agree with you there. I have been bitten 3 times.

    1 aged 11, walking home from school minding my own business when a dog came charging out of it’s house and bit me on the arm. It happended so quickly that I didn’t have time to prevent it.
    2. Aged 16 and saying goodbye to my employer standing quietly next to the dog and it bit through both my fingers. Again, I wasnt even aware the dog was next to me.
    3 Aged 24 and walking along the path with a friend, talking and again minding my own business, when a rottweiler on a lead bit my arm. His owner was more shocked than I was.

    Now please tell me that I could have prevented these attacks. I think not!!

    1. Oh, Catherine, I’m sorry to hear of your experiences. Dog bites really stick with you, don’t they, even if the bite is not “life-threatening.” That’s why I don’t want to discount the importance of education and prevention. When I say that dog bites are preventable and don’t come out of the blue, I didn’t mean that the bite victim is at fault or should be solely responsible for prevention. It’s more to point out that owners are often unduly surprised that their dog bit because they missed warning signs or just assumed the dog would never bite. People *think* their dog is “fine,” until hindsight tells them they were wrong. Then, if they look back after learning more about dog body language, the signs seem so clear. I’d like to get people to look earlier and more proactively so the dog can be helped and/or better restrained before anyone is bitten. I’m sorry if my words made you feel criticized and I appreciate you sharing your experiences so I could clarify.

  3. Linking to your articles. Going to try to create an entirely separate section that focuses on bites and prevention, etc. You are simply the best! Sara

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