The number of people hospitalised for dog bites rose by 50 per cent between 1998 and 2013, and the incidence of such cases in Ireland is much higher than in other European countries, a new study shows.
A research paper published in the Veterinary Journal argues current legislation controlling dangerous breeds is not only ineffective in reducing such hospitalisations, but could be making the problem worse.
Report author Páraic Ó Súilleabháin, a doctoral candidate at the School of Psychology at NUI Galway, cites international evidence showing legislation focused on holding owners accountable for the actions of their animals is more successful at reducing serious incidents.
“The introduction of such legislation in Ireland is recommended. An education programme for children is warranted and should adhere to science-based principles,” he adds.
The study shows the number of people hospitalised with dog bites per 100,000 population jumped from 4.65 in 1998, to 5.07 in 2007, and further still to 5.64 in 2013.
This compared to a rate of 1.5 dog bite hospitalisations per 100,000 population in the Netherlands in 2006/2007.
Mr Ó Súilleabháin analysed data relating to dog bites provided by the Healthcare Pricing Office, a statistical branch of the HSE, since the the introduction of the breed-specific Control of Dogs Act Regulations in 1998.
In absolute terms, the number of people hospitalised after being bitten by a dog rose from 172 in 1998 to 259 in 2013 (a rise of 51 per cent). Adjusted for population growth in the same period, the rate of such hospitalisation per 100,000 increased by 21 per cent.
There were a total of 3,164 hospitalisations in the 16-year period examined. Almost half (49 per cent) of them were patients under 10 years of age.
The current regulations target 11 dog breeds thought to pose a greater injury risk to the public than all other breeds.
But Mr Ó Súilleabháin says this approach doesn’t identify potentially dangerous dogs and ignores the fact that any breed is capable of inflicting serious injuries. Fatalities have even been caused by dogs that fall into the “toy breed” categorisation, he notes.
Ms Ó Súilleabháin says international research indicates that the breeds currently regulated in Ireland do not possess higher levels of aggression in comparison to any other domestic breeds.
Studies indicate that “breed legislation can mislead the general public into believing unregulated breeds are less capable of inflicting serious and fatal injuries”, he continues.
“Very serious dog bite hospitalisations are extremely high in Ireland, compared to other countries which use regulations which target potentially dangerous dogs and irresponsible owners.”
The Irish regime is out of step with the advice of the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe which says: “Breed-specific legislation engenders a false and dangerous perception that breeds not included will not show aggression. Aggression is a normal behaviour and can be shown by any dog of any breed, type or mixed breeding.
“Although some countries have adopted breed-specific measures, there is no scientific or statistic evidence to suggest that these effectively reduce the frequency or severity of injuries to people.
“To date, no scientific criteria have been identified by which it can be determined that a dog is dangerous by simply describing its racial or other physical parameters.”
The position is shared by the British Veterinary Association which says it has "long been opposed to any proposal or legislation that singles out particular breeds of dogs rather than targeting individual aggressive dogs.
“The problems caused by dangerous dogs will never be solved until dog owners appreciate that they are responsible for the actions of their animals.”