Moral Panic About Dog Bites in the Medical Literature

The medical literature contains emotive, erroneous information about dogs

Posted Dec 15, 2017

A new paper looks at how the medical literature on dog bites covers dog behaviour – and finds errors and exaggerations.

Arnold Arluke Ph.D., first author of the paper, told me in an email,

“Dog owners would do well to be skeptical when their doctors and other medical professionals start to speculate about dog bite prevention and dog behavior.  This study found that misinformation, exaggeration, and emotion hijack otherwise important injury treatment information when human health care professionals (doctors, nurses, etc.) venture beyond their medical expertise into dog behavior.”

The study analyses 156 papers about injuries from dog bites that were published in the medical literature between 1966 and 2015. The papers were taken from North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and were only included in the study if they contained information beyond the medical arena.

Simon Westhaven/Unsplash
Source: Simon Westhaven/Unsplash

Because health care professionals are not trained in canine behaviour, the authors argued it was likely they would make mistakes in this area. They found four main discursive strategies that, in the phrase used in the title of the paper, are “defaming Rover.”

Many of the papers generalize about breeds, despite the fact there’s no reliable evidence that any particular breed is more likely to bite than another. The target of most of these generalizations is “pit bulls”, even though this is not a breed, but German Shepherds, Rottweilers, Chow Chows, Poodles and mixed breed dogs are also cited in some papers as being a particular problem. Arluke et al point out it is notoriously difficult to collect accurate breed information from reports of dog bites, and 46% of American dogs are not pedigrees. At an extreme, one of the studies they mention generalized about breed despite only 1% of the reports having any information on this, far too low a sample to generalize from.

Catastrophizing, in which negative situations are depicted as even worse than they really are, is another discursive strategy the paper finds in the medical literature. They consider difficulties in relying on self-reports of dog bites which gives a considerably larger number than if only hospital visits due to bites are considered. Based on official figures in the US, they calculate “the percentage of dogs not inflicting an injury for which a person sought medical treatment is greater than 98%.” They also consider the types of language used to describe dog bites, such as “dog attacks” and the wider idea of an “epidemic”, and statements that dog bites are “increasing” or “rising” although (in the US at least) the evidence is to the contrary.

Demonizing occurs when dogs (or certain kinds of dogs) are described as having a “killer instinct” or being “notoriously vicious,” and with the aforementioned use of the word “attack”. The study also says bites may be described as unprovoked when really there is not enough information to make this assessment, and that people may not have recognized behavioural signs of stress in the dog prior to the bite.  

Finally, they also describe a rhetorical device called negative differentiation, which was sometimes used when papers describe dogs as "wild" or "formerly wild", even though dogs are domesticated. This serves to distance dogs from the status of family pets.

Reading through the paper, some of the language used is rather more sensational than would be expected of the medical literature. None of this is to downplay the very real consequences for anyone who has been injured as a result of a dog bite, but nor does it help to exaggerate and stereotype on the basis of inaccurate information.

Despite including literature from many countries, the analysis is American in its approach, relying on data from the CDC’s ICARIS surveys to provide information about dog bites in the US. Hence, the information on trends in dog bites may not generalize to other countries, such as the UK (where official figures show an increase in hospitalizations due to dog bites).

The authors acknowledge that it’s not clear to what extent the medical literature was influenced by societal discourse about dog bites, and to what extent it may have shaped that discourse. Nonetheless the study highlights the difficulties in having sensible discussions about evidence-based ways to prevent dog bites.

“Neither humans nor dogs benefit if we harbor unreasonable expectations of dogs (Perin, 1990), catastrophize about the nature and extent of the injuries that do occur, or demonize dogs as the wild animals they are not,” they write.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that, in the ‘right’ (i.e. wrong) circumstances, any dog can bite.

The paper is open access.


Arluke, A., Cleary, D., Patronek, G., & Bradley, J. (2017). Defaming Rover: Error-Based Latent Rhetoric in the Medical Literature on Dog Bites. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 1-13.