I have always had dogs at my side as my family always ensured we had numerous pets when we were growing up. As a pet lover and an animal welfare activist I am deeply concerned with how we treat all sentient beings and am committed to improving their treatment. There are, however, violent pets, especially dogs, that need to be contained and regulated properly. I, myself, was recently viciously bitten on my walk home from synagogue by an unprovoked dog that broke lose from its owner.
Recently, a 77-year-old woman was attacked and killed by a dog in Phoenix. The attack highlights many controversies concerning the issue of dog bites and what should be done to prevent them.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, dogs bite about 4.5 million Americans annually, with about 885,000 requiring medical attention, and about 27,000 (in 2012) being serious enough to require reconstructive surgery. Considering that there are more than an estimated 74 million dog pets in this country, it is only a small percentage of dogs that are aggressive, but the numbers are nevertheless significant.
While people may fear the risk of rabies from these bites, this is not a common risk. Fortunately, contrary to popular perceptions, the “mad dog” with rabies is much more myth than reality. Today, raccoons, skunks, foxes, and bats are much more likely to have rabies, and are much more likely to spread it to cats that are allowed to roam freely by their owners. In 2008, for example, 294 cats and 75 dogs were reported with rabies, and in 2009, 300 cats had rabies versus 81 dogs. In addition, dog lovers may point out that virtually no research exists on how many people are bitten by cats annually, perhaps because deaths by cat attack do not happen, but nevertheless, in addition to a greater risk for rabies, cat bites are more likely to result in infection and the need for medical attention, and anecdotally, many people have encountered aggressive cat behavior that involved biting.
The specific dog breed, however, is a more controversial topic. In the Phoenix attack, the dog was identified as a pit bull, which has garnered much publicity for its tendency to bite without letting go, causing very serious injuries. Those who want to ban pit pulls claim that in 2012 there were 38 dog attacks that resulted in fatalities. Pit bulls were responsible for 23 (61 percent) of these and Rottweilers were second, with 3 fatalities. From 2005-2012, 251 Americans were killed by dogs, with pit bulls killing 151 and Rottweilers 32, together comprising nearly three-fourths of all fatalities. In response, military housing units and more than 700 cities, counties, and even states have adopted “breed-specific” legislation to control or ban pit bulls (although Rottweilers, mastiffs, terriers, German Shepherds, and Dalmatians have been targeted at times as well).
The American Humane Society and ASPCA, on the other hand, dispute these statistics and oppose breed-specific laws. They claim that among 238 documented fatalities due to dog attacks, a minimum of 25 dog breeds were responsible. They also note that there are no studies documenting with what frequency each dog breed and mixed breed bite humans. In addition, they believe that many studies of dog bites are flawed because breed estimates are based solely on visual examination. This ignores the number of mixed breed dogs and other breeds, as a 2009 study using DNA testing demonstrated that visual exam alone is an unreliable method of identification. Instead, the ASPCA advocates breed-neutral laws that punish dogs and their owners for behavior.
Breed-specific laws have had mixed results and caused the death of many peaceful pets. For example, Ohio deems all pit bulls as “hostile,” making it difficult for people to keep them, resulting in the euthanizing of many pets. When pit bulls were banned in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in 2005, there was a significant increase in total dog bites, especially among Boxers and Labrador Retrievers.
This last example illustrates the terrible contribution that some humans have made to dog aggression. In some areas of the world, dog fighting has long been a popular sport, and for this purpose dogs are abused and trained to be unnaturally aggressive in order to kill other dogs for sport. In 2007, Michael Vick, a well-known professional football player, was arrested on his property for raising pit bulls (53 were seized) and staging dog fights. It was documented that dogs that were not aggressive enough after being beaten and trained were killed by shooting, electrocution, drowning, hanging, or being slammed to death on the ground.
The record of rehabilitating such aggressive dogs is mixed. Of the 53 abused dogs seized from Vick’s kennel, 22 have been rehabilitated by the Best Friends Animal Society. Twelve of these were adopted by families, with no apparent incidents of biting through April 2014. Thus, the pit bull breed is not genetically aggressive, and it is possible to rehabilitate some dogs, but certainly not all. However, as the Council Bluffs example shows, even if breeds such as pit bulls are banned, other breeds will be chosen by unscrupulous dog fight promoters.
While there is disagreement on how aggressive certain breeds can become, there is a consensus on how to avoid dog bites based on data:
- Dogs should be spayed or neutered, since it has been estimated that more than 90 percent of dog bites involve male dogs that had not been neutered. Female dogs should also be spayed, as if they are not they will attract male dogs that are likely to become aggressive.
- People are more likely to be bitten if they own more than one dog.
- Dogs that have shown aggression before are more likely to eventually bite people.
- To reiterate, many advocate breed-neutral laws that punish dogs and their owners based on established criteria of ethical treatment of animals.
In the Phoenix case, there was more than one dog in the household, and the dog had expressed aggressive behavior in the past. In addition, the incident occurred around feeding time, when competition and aggression would likely occur. Finally, the victim had a heart condition that may have ultimately been the cause of death. This does not excuse the dog or its owner for the attack; unfortunately, people were unaware of the warning signs.
The rabbis have been aware that violent dogs are one of the notorious potential causes of damage that we must be sure to regulate. There is actually a Jewish law against owning a dangerous dog (Bava Kamma 79a). One who does own a dangerous dog, however, must keep it tied in metal chains at all times (Shulchan Aruch, CM 409:3). Even if they are no longer expected to physically harm visitors, they must be chained lest they cause stress-related damage such as a heart attack or miscarriage (Shabbat 63a). There are consequences when one’s pet harms another.
Most dogs are incredibly gentle and loving. They can be the best pets imaginable and can help to foster empathy in children. There are however cautions that must be taken around those pets with violent experiences and temperaments. One should not be permitted to own a dangerous dog today, and if a dog acts violently there should be very strict laws regulating its freedom. Most commonly, however, dogs are dangerous because of the cruel abuse they have undergone. There are, of course, far more dogs that are abused than there are dogs that harm but the problems are interrelated. All children should go through sensitivity training teaching how to treat an animal (not to scare or harm them in any way). We must be sure that all animals are treated humanely for their sake and for ours. It is to be more proactive in our education system.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of five books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”