Environmental Correlates of Urban Dog Bites: A Spatial Analysis

By Laura Reese

Dear Ace, you came into my lobby, crouched behind my door and stared blankly at the wall, shaking. I could see your pain – I fed you, warmed you and you rewarded me by finally looking into my eyes, and for a moment, we shared your pain. I reached for the phone, thinking that I could find you a better life…. Instead I sent you to your death. Please forgive me. You did not die in vain, nor will you be forgotten. This I promise you. Your last but far from only friend. – Mark, Ace Hardware, Detroit, 11-10-11


In November of 2011, an emaciated pit bull-type dog was found outside of an Ace Hardware store in Detroit.  A concerned citizen called City of Detroit Animal Control (DAC).  The dog, known as “Ace,” quickly became a media cause célèbre and pleas to “Save Ace” and offers of adoption from individuals and rescue groups flooded in.  Yet, Ace was euthanized within the state-mandated four-day holding period for stray dogs, in violation of a court injunction ordering a hold on euthanasia of pit bulls at DAC, even in the face of publicity that spread around the world.  The incident pitted a host of nonprofit rescue groups and licensed animal shelters against the city bureaucracy.  Media coverage highlighted not only the plight of stray and feral dogs in Detroit but also the policies and practices at DAC, the City’s municipal animal shelter.

For those in the animal welfare community like me, Ace was a galvanizing moment.  While I had been volunteering at my local animal shelter for years, the plight of Ace caused me to start thinking about animal welfare more broadly, particularly its connections to other urban issues and processes.  I’ve spent a career conducting research on local economic development, particularly in extremely distressed cities such as Detroit.  I began to see the connections between the economic distress of Detroit and its residents, and a variety of issues related to animals, particularly dogs, in the city.  Animal welfare issues in Detroit generally are exacerbated by several interconnected factors: economic distress, vacancy and abandonment, stray and feral dogs, high risk of dog bites, and strong connections between these factors and crime, particularly involving dog fighting.  The City has high numbers of stray and feral dogs. The economic misfortunes of residents have resulted in relocations, leaving animals homeless and reducing already limited resources for animal healthcare, particularly for spay and neutering services.  The roaming animal problem in particular is exacerbated by foreclosures, vacancies, and structural abandonment leaving habitats for stray and feral animals to shelter and for illegal activities such as dog fighting to be conducted.  Ace was a very visible symbol of the roaming dog problem in Detroit and the city’s inability to address it and led me to think more broadly about local economic distress and the impact on both human and nonhuman animals.

One implication of a large stray and feral dog population is the potential threat to human health in the form of dog bites.  Dog bites are among the top causes of nonfatal injuries in the United States, leading to what has been described as a “dog bite epidemic.” By age 12, more than half the children in the US have experienced a dog bite which can lead to rabies, infections, psychological trauma, disfigurement, and occasionally death.  There are over 40 zoonotic diseases in the United States that can be passed from dogs and cats to humans, either through bites or proximity, including rabies, leptospirosis, ringworm, giardia and other parasites, and tuberculosis.  The psychological consequences of dog bites can be severe, including fear of recreating outdoors or walking to school, PTSD, and phobias about dogs or other animals.  Obviously dog bites and attacks have a very direct impact on urban health but fear of bites from roaming dogs can also have indirect effects on both mental and physical health as residents (particularly children) limit walking in their neighborhoods due to concerns about bites.

Much of the academic research on the causes and correlates of dog bites comes from the fields of veterinary medicine and public health.  The former studies tend to focus on correlates related to the nature of the dog—breed, size, living conditions, sterilization status, sex.  Some of this work has also explored the impacts of human behavior such as neglect, tethering of dogs outdoors, and the fact that many dogs that bite were provoked.  The latter research focuses on the human victims of dog bites which overwhelmingly tend to be children and/or males.  None of the research on dog bite risk has come from an urban policy perspective, particularly one that considers spatial relationships between markers of economic distress and increased bite risk.  The findings in our article raise important issues of spatial injustice in the health risks associated with dog bites.

Residents in poverty, living in neighborhoods with high levels of vacancy and abandonment, have a higher risk of dog bites.  This is the result of a number of factors including the presence of more roaming dogs, under socialized and unsterilized dogs, and more crime associated the dog fighting.  Research has shown strong patterns of environmental injustice in that poorer residents of color are more likely to live in proximity to contaminated sites.  In the same vein and for many of the same reasons, they are also more likely to reside in neighborhoods where dog bites are more likely to occur.

Extant statistical models predicting health risk from dog bites based solely on traits of the victim have relatively weak predictive power. The impact of using incomplete models is that health disparities are not fully understood and preventative policies that focus on education about individual interactions with dogs will be insufficient to address conditions in the urban environment that lead to increased risks for particular individuals. Our research explores the interplay among risk factors for dog bites and contributes to scientific and policy knowledge in its explicit focus on environmental factors—such as vacant and abandoned land and buildings, crime, blight, and the location of urban features such as schools and bus stops—that are not well examined as correlates of dog bites and how these factors work to create disproportionate risks for racial and ethnic minorities and economically disadvantaged populations.

From a public policy perspective, our research shows that efforts to improve public health by decreasing the risk of dog bites must take a multipronged approach because the factors related to bites are complex.  Police must target breeding and dog fighting operations.  The chaining (and hence under-socialization) of dogs in back yards needs to be limited through more stringent enforcement of animal control ordinances.  Licensing and sterilization of dogs need to be facilitated through humane education programs and support for low cost veterinary care.  Children must be taught how to interact with dogs and must be supervised when doing so.  Abandoned buildings need to be removed and the feral dogs living in them need to be caught and delivered to animal control, shelters, and rescues.  The policies, funding, and capacity of these organizations need to be at a level that necessary animal control services can be provided in an effective and humane manner.

These efforts will both reduce the health risks of dog bites to city residents and improve animal welfare more generally.  And, thus, we come full circle back to Ace.  The complexity of the causes of dog bites illustrates why simplistic solutions such as bans on particular breeds of dogs (such as presumed pit bulls) will not reduce the number of dog bites in a city (and indeed research has shown that such bans are not effective because all types of dogs can and do bite).  Because of the tight connections between human and nonhuman animal welfare the types of policies that are most likely to reduce human health risk from bites are also those that will improve conditions for the city’s animals and help ensure that future “Aces” have a better outcome.

Laura Reese is Professor of Urban and Regional Planning and Political Science, and Director of the Global Urban Studies Program, at Michigan State University.

The full article, Environmental Correlates of Urban Dog Bites: A Spatial Analysis, by Joshua Vertalka, Laura A. Reese, Melinda J. Wilkins & Jesenia M. Pizarro, is published in the current issue of JUA (volume 40, issue 3) and is currently available with free access, for a limited time.

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