About CDC Bite Stats

Oct 28th, 2006

Those looking to pass breed-specific legislation (BSL) have often cited Centers for Disease Control dog bite statistics* to supposedly “prove” that particular breeds are inherently vicious, or at least more vicious than other breeds. One report in particular, “Breeds of dogs involved in fatal human attacks in the United States between 1979 and 1998 has been cited frequently because it appears to show “pit bulls” as being responsible for nearly one-third (31.13%) of human fatalities over the twenty year period from 1979-1998. Certainly such eyebrow-raising findings merit closer scrutiny. But as you’ll see, the statistics are largely inaccurate for a multitude of reasons.

The statistics which appear to show a high rate of attacks due to alleged “pit bull-type dogs” are full of inaccuracy simply because any dog that can pass for a “pit bull” will be called a “pit bull” by the media under the guise of if-it-bleeds-it-leads to which the CDC alludes:

“..to the extent that attacks by 1 breed are more newsworthy than those by other breeds, our methods may have resulted in differential ascertainment of fatalities by breed.” (JAVMA, Vol 217, No. 6, September 15, 2000, p. 838).

With the knowledge that the CDC statistics are inaccurate, and the methodology by which the statistics acquired flawed, we can easily begin to poke holes in those arguments which BSL supporters use to make their claims about “pit bulls” as dangerous.

The biggest flaw in CDC statistics, and certainly the one that causes the most grief, is that the “breed” categorized by the CDC as “pit bull-type dog” does not exist.  Nor is “pit bull” a breed recognized by any breed registry.  Housed beneath the catch-all designation “pit bull” are any number of different breeds of dog.  Lump 20-30+ breeds (and their mixes and lookalikes) of dog together as one breed and you will certainly have what looks like a breed problem as relates to dog bites and dog-bite-related fatalities! What you’ll also have is a massive skewing of the statistical data rendering the findings erroneous and misleading.

Worse, a majority of the CDC’s statistics were taken from media reports of dog bites or fatalities which are notorious for being inaccurate, particularly as regards “pit bulls.” And yes, American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, and Staffordshire Bull Terriers are often referred to by the slang term “pit bull,” but were these the actual breeds responsible for the attacks?  Probably not since a slew of other breeds of dog — like Presa Canarios, Cane Corsos, Spanish Alanos, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Bandogs, Dogues Brasileiros, Dogo Argentino, Guatemalan Bull Terriers, American Bulldogs, Boxers, Bull Mastiffs, Bull Terriers, English Bulldogs, and even Labradors, Rottweilers, Akitas, and Chow Chows — have also been labeled “pit bulls.”

The problem with the “pit bull-type dog” category highlights another problem with breed statistics which is that it is quite difficult for the average person (and sometimes even experts) to identify a breed of dog accurately, especially under extreme stress such as occurs during an attack (JAVMA, Vol 217, No. 6, September 15, 2000, p. 838). As such, many victim and bystander reports are specious. For instance, a person could be bitten or killed by a Labrador, and if the victim or witnesses claim it was a Rottweiler then the breed would most likely be reported accordingly. In other words, breed identification is often subjective. With the media reporting a majority of the time on “pit bulls” and Rottweilers, which breeds of dog do you think will be cited as responsible most often by victims of dog bites? The media has worked the idea of “pit bulls” and Rottweilers as vicious into the collective conscious and in turn victims of dog bites often draw on this erroneous media reporting to finger “pit bulls” and Rottweilers as culpable for a majority of dog attacks.

Much like the media, the CDC is also unable to get their reporting correct, but the CDC at least has an excuse: missing population data. In addition to breed misidentification, the CDC statistics are inaccurate because they are not based on “reliable breed-specific population data” (JAVMA, Vol 217, No. 6, September 15, 2000, p. 838). Certainly Rottweilers and “pit bulls” appear more prone to bite since they top the CDC list of most bites, but the probability of them to bite may be the same as any other breed since these dogs could just simply be more popular. The more dogs of a breed you have in existence, the more bites you would have just as a matter of course. However, their propensity to bite would remain unchanged. And as already stated, it is impossible to get accurate population data for “pit bulls” in particular since they are not a breed.

Identification difficulties aside, there are other fundamental problems with the CDC bite statistics. Despite what BSL proponents believe, there are mitigating factors involved with bulldog breed (if these are what is meant by the use of the slang term “pit bull”) dog bites stats:

“…it is imperative to keep in mind that even if breed-specific bite rates could be accurately calculated, they do not factor in owner-related issues. For example, less responsible owners or owners who want to foster aggression in their dogs may be drawn differentially to certain breeds” (JAVMA, Vol 217, No. 6, September 15, 2000, p. 839).

What the CDC means by “owner-related issues,” at least for bulldog breeds, is the tradition of exploitation that they have endured since their inception. Owners of these dogs, particularly now, who use them for “street” dog fighting often torture bulldog breeds to make them vicious (and a lot of times these dogs still won’t fight or turn mean). Worse still is if/when they lose fights, these dogs, who’ve been tortured their whole lives, are often brutally killed. The “lucky” ones find their way to Animal Control where they are usually humanely euthanized. For some of these dogs, that is a best-case scenario.

However, for all breeds there appear to be several overarching factors which affect any dog’s inclination to bite:

“…sex, early experience, socialization and training, health (medical and behavioral), reproductive status, quality of ownership and supervision, and victim behavior” (JAVMA, Vol 217, No. 6, September 15, 2000, p. 839).

But bulldog breeds potentially have all of these factors affecting them in addition to being the most exploited breeds of dog in existence. Still, it is a testament to the quality of the breed that even though many are unsocialized, tortured, and otherwise ill-used, very few are human-aggressive. I hesitate even to include abuse as a factor since even when they are abused most bulldog breeds are incredibly friendly and loving towards humans. You can thank over a hundred years of proper breeding for this trait.

Bulldog breeds have become easy scapegoats for politicians who can’t or won’t face up to the real issues, like gangs and drugs. As such, municipalities have begun passing breed-specific legislation (BSL) but,

“…breed-specific ordinances raise several practical issues. For optimal enforcement, there would need to be an objective method of determining the breed of a particular dog. Pedigree analysis (a potentially time-consuming and complicated effort) combined with DNA testing (also time-consuming and expensive) is the closest to an objective standard for conclusively identifying a dog’s breed. Owners of mixed-breed or unregistered (ie, by a kennel club) dogs have no way of knowing whether their dog is one of the types identified and whether they are required to comply with breed-specific ordinances. Thus, law enforcement personnel have few means for positively determining a dog’s breed and deciding whether owners are in compliance or violation of laws” (JAVMA, Vol 217, No. 6, September 15, 2000, p. 839).

In addition to the difficulty of determining a dog’s breed (and DNA testing for dog breed is a controversial issue with the accuracy of the results in serious doubt), BSL also brings up constitutional issues. Under the 14th amendment, states cannot deprive citizens of their right to life, liberty, or property. Because our pets are our property, we have the right to due process afforded us under the 14th amendment (and under the 5th amendment should the federal government try to pass BSL nationwide). Due Process was incorporated into the constitution to ensure that “no one is deprived of life, liberty, or property arbitrarily and without opportunity to affect the judgment or result. This minimum protection extends to all government proceedings that can result in an individual’s deprivation, whether civil or criminal in nature…”

The 14th amendment also contains what is called an equal protection clause, which provides that, “…no state shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” In terms of BSL, equal protection under the 14th amendment means it is unlawful for states to pass legislation which unfairly deprives some dog owners of their dogs while other citizens, though their dogs too have the potential to bite, are not deprived of their dogs.

The CDC too has pondered the legal ramifications surrounding BSL:

“When a specific breed of dog has been selected for stringent control, 2 constitutional questions concerning dog owners’ fourteenth amendment rights have been raised: first, because all types of dogs may inflict injury to people and property, ordinances addressing only 1 breed of dog are argued to be underinclusive and, therefore, violate owners’ equal protection rights; and second, because identification of a dog’s breed with the certainty necessary to impose sanctions on the dog’s owner is prohibitively difficult, such ordinances have been argued as unconstitutionally vague, and, therefore, violate due process” (JAVMA, Vol 217, No. 6, September 15, 2000, p. 839).

It is our position here at NoPitBullBans.com that it is never legal or within constitutional bounds to pass breed-specific legislation simply because science is unable to prove that bulldog breeds are inherently dangerous. Nor can breed be determined definitively enough to warrant owners’ deprivation of their property (their dogs).

Additionally, BSL has not been statistically proven to work. The CDC concurs:

“Breed-specific legislation does not address the fact that a dog of any breed can become dangerous when bred or trained to be aggressive. From a scientific point of view, we are unaware of any formal evaluation of the effectiveness of breed-specific legislation in preventing fatal or nonfatal dog bites. An alternative to breed-specific legislation is to regulate individual dogs and owners on the basis of their behavior” (JAVMA, Vol 217, No. 6, September 15, 2000 Vet Med Today: Special Report 839-840).

Because BSL is fraught with many fundamental constitutional and logistical issues, it is also much more expensive than dangerous dog (owner) laws which make owners responsible for their dogs’ behavior.

Actually, the CDC offers much more practical and inexpensive ways of curbing dog bites and dog attacks such as proposing and enforcing leash laws, better Animal Control enforcement (which often is simply a matter of needing more personnel), and educating owners about the importance of dog training and socialization. Another key area needing improvement is in free-roaming dog enforcement. Breed-specific legislation does not prevent dog attacks related to free-roaming dogs since the same irresponsible owners who let their dogs free-roam before the breed ban was passed will continue to disregard the law after a ban is passed (JAVMA, Vol 217, No. 6, September 15, 2000, p. 840).

So to recap, what do we really know about “pit bulls” based on the CDC report? We know that it is difficult if not impossible to discern breed with any certainty even for experts. We know that because of the difficulty surrounding breed identification that dog bite statistics and dog-bite related fatalities related to bulldog breeds are greatly skewed. We know that there is no breed of dog called “pit bull” or “pit bull-type dog.” We know there is no scientific evidence that one breed of dog is more vicious than another. We know that breed-specific legislation is expensive, impossible to enforce, and abounding in constitutional issues.

Municipalities pass breed bans — usually as the result of a recent attack — to appear to the public as if they are responsive to what the media posits is a breed problem. As such, specific breeds take the fall for irresponsible owners. Often the media or elected officials cite CDC bite statistics as “proof” of why a breed ban or strictures are needed even though CDC bite statistics have long been debunked (even by the CDC themselves). But the only thing the CDC report proves is that specific breeds are victims of humans overwhelmingly more often than humans are victims of specific breeds.

*See what the recent decision from the Ohio Appeals Court has to say about CDC statistics by clicking here.