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Making Dog Bite Prevention a Community Affair

AVMA task force recommends the formation of community advisory councils that can focus on curbing the incidence of dog bites

AVMA task force recommends the formation of community advisory councils that can focus on curbing the incidence of dog bites

Through reports from veterinarians, trainers, groomers, and kennel operators—as well as through anonymous surveys of the general population or of high-risk populations—efforts can be made to provide a more accurate statistical picture.

If you could gather up everyone bitten by dogs and put them all in the same place each year, you’d have enough people to fill a sizable metropolis: 4.5 million.

And if you could trace the aftermath of even a minor bite, you’d find that it often has a ripple effect in a given community, involving not only the victim and the pet owner but also the neighbors, the local animal care and control agency, nurses, doctors, insurance companies, governing bodies, veterinarians, and police. Dog bite incidents take an untold toll on communities around the country, causing neighborhood rifts, increasing homeowners’ insurance costs, taxing the time and resources of local agencies and medical providers, and undermining the humane rallying cry to make pets part of the family.

From both a humane and economic perspective, a community-wide prevention program is the logical approach toward curtailing the incidence of dog bites. The state of Nevada is a good example; a focus on dog bite prevention there brought the number of bites down by 15 percent. Yet, in spite of the numbers and the fact that a dog bite prevention program just makes sense, communities are hesitant to devote the resources to it, according to a recent report by the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Task Force on Canine Aggression and Human-Canine Interactions.

That’s because many of the costs associated with dog bite injuries are less tangible than those tied to other issues, say the authors of the report, entitled “A community approach to dog bite prevention” (Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Vol. 218, No. 11, June 1, 2001). “This makes it more difficult for community councils to justify the time, effort, and expense necessary to institute a bite reduction program when compared to a new fire truck, street paving, or city park,” noted the task force members.

The phenomenon points to the need to involve an entire community in prevention efforts. And that’s the crux of the argument pitched by the task force, which in itself represents a cross-section of disciplines that all have a vested interest in dog bite prevention: Task force members include veterinarians, a pediatrician, an emergency physician, a veterinary behaviorist, insurance experts, an animal control officer, an HSUS vice president, an epidemiologist representing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and an attorney.

In its report, the task force outlines step-by-step procedures for assessing the problem in an individual community and building a coalition that can address it collectively. Typically, a community already has some sort of program in place, whether it’s through the health department, the animal shelter, the police department, or a similar agency. The AVMA task force recommends identifying such programs to see what needs are already being met; those forming a dog bite prevention program should also examine related “hot button” issues—such as citizen complaints about dog waste—that could help lend weight to arguments for stronger leash laws and other responsible pet guardianship ordinances.

The task force suggests first getting a handle on the level of community interest, identifying potential partners in both the public and private sectors, studying the history of related ordinances and proposed legislation in the area, pinpointing potential obstacles presented by political or breed-specific groups, evaluating existing data sets and statistics before launching into further data collection, and talking with people in dog-bite “hot spots” to learn their views on the problem.

All this background research would be helpful to the formation of an advisory council that’s set up either to provide guidance on a prevention program or to focus on specific bite-related issues. Ideally, the council should have 10 to 12 members and should be maintained by a paid program coordinator who works within the municipal structure, according to the report. Possible council activities include coordinating efforts among organizations, developing action plans, establishing priorities, generating public and legislative support, identifying bite-reporting sources, interpreting data, obtaining resources, and recommending prevention objectives.

Of course, some communities have attempted to prevent dog bite injuries through bans on specific breeds, a measure repeatedly proven to be misdirected and ultimately ineffective. (See “Blame the Breed?” in the May-June 2001 issue of Animal Sheltering.) More appropriate methods for minimizing risk include ordinances requiring animals to be on leash or properly confined to a property; vaccinations that protect pets from rabid wild animals and in turn protect dog-bite victims from contracting rabies; licensing that not only leads to reunions between lost animals and their owners but also allows quick identification in the case of a bite incident; and “post-bite” procedures that include investigation of the incident, quarantine of the animal who has bitten, and evaluation and regulation of potentially “dangerous” dogs.

But to truly be effective, the AVMA report says, communities need to involve other professionals who can support the work of the animal care and control agency. The incidence of dog bites is underreported, with primary sources of data coming usually from animal care and control, law enforcement, and health professionals. But through reports from veterinarians, trainers, groomers, and kennel operators—as well as through anonymous surveys of the general population or of high-risk populations—efforts can be made to provide a more accurate statistical picture.

Partnerships with veterinarians, veterinary technicians, behaviorists, dog trainers, doctors, and nurses can also help with intervention strategies, according to the report. Vets and vet techs have ample opportunities to educate clients about animal behavior and the need for training, while doctors and nurses can make it part of their routines to impart bite-avoidance strategies to patients being treated for dog bites. “Taking advantage of teachable moments should be considered part of curative care,” says the report. “Consulting with a veterinarian may help human health care providers identify subjects they can address during postbite sessions.”

Reporters can also play a role in educating the public; the task force recommends including a reporter on the advisory council and provides guidelines for reaching out to the media on dog-bite related stories. When a dog bite incident or other sensational event is making the headlines, a community coalition or advisory council can have materials and educational advice at the ready for reporters to use and convey to a mass audience.

Helpful appendices at the end of the AVMA task force report provide a model dog and cat control ordinance, recommended data elements for reports of dog bites, model legislation for the identification and regulation of “dangerous” dogs, and suggested reading for professionals.


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