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Dogs really can sense fear, media reports

"Adopting an unflappable self-confident swagger could be the best way to avoid a nasty nip," states The Daily Telegraph.

Researchers from the University of Liverpool undertook a survey to find out why some people may be more likely to be bitten by dogs than others.

They say being bitten by a dog is almost 2.5 times more common than the current official figure, which estimates that 7.4 in 1,000 people get bitten by a dog every year in the UK.

People who are nervous, men and owners of several dogs were more likely to be bitten.

This study relied on questionnaires. Although this is a convenient way to collect data, this kind of self-reported information is sometimes unreliable as people may not always remember accurately and may find it difficult to assess their own behaviour or personality.

While the headlines focus on those with a nervous disposition being a particular target for dog attacks, this research provides useful insights into a range of factors affecting the likelihood of being bitten.

Dog bite prevention initiatives could be better targeted at groups that are at risk to limit attacks in the future.

To avoid dog bites, experts advise:

  1. Never leave a young child unsupervised with a dog – regardless of the type of dog and its previous behaviour.
  2. Treat dogs with respect – don't pet them when they're eating or sleeping.
  3. Avoid stroking or petting unfamiliar dogs – when greeting a dog for the first time, let it sniff you before petting it.

Where did the story come from?

This study was carried out by researchers from the University of Liverpool and was funded by the Medical Research Council Population Health Scientist Fellowship.

It was published in the peer reviewed journal of Epidemiology and Community Health on an open access basis, so you can read it for free online.

The UK media's reporting of the study was fairly accurate. The Guardian pointed out that people's emotional stability was self-rated, a point not picked up by other media outlets.

This is an important limitation, as people may not rate their own emotions accurately compared with an assessment by a doctor, for example.

What kind of research was this?

This was a cross-sectional study of households in one part of the UK.

Its aim was to understand how many people owned dogs and how many people had ever been bitten by a dog. This means it used data from one point in time.

This kind of study is good at estimating the number of new cases, and the total number of cases, of a health problem (in this case, dog bites) in the population at one point in time.

But it can't tell us anything about the direction of cause and effect. In other words, what came first: do aggressive dogs or a previous history of dog bites make people anxious around dogs, or do anxious people encourage dogs to be aggressive?

Collecting data at one point in time means you can't know if anything before or after the time of data collection may have affected the results.

What did the research involve?

Researchers contacted 385 households as part of a larger cross-sectional census study conducted between June and August 2015.

Of these, 694 people were interviewed by veterinary students. They asked questions related to people's health, their level of exercise, dog ownership and dog bites.

They also collected demographic information including the person's age, gender and education level.

The researchers used statistical analysis to see what potential risk factors may increase the risk of being bitten by a dog.

As part of this analysis, participants were asked:

  • How many times have you been bitten by a dog?
  • Did the dog bite occur in the last year?
  • How many dogs do you currently own?

Those who owned dogs were asked to list reasons for dog ownership and how often they usually walk the dog.

They were also asked to choose one specific "bite event" (assuming there was more than one) to provide further information on.

They were then asked questions about this specific bite:

  • whether the person knew the dog
  • how old they were at the time of the bite
  • whether they required medical treatment from a doctor or hospital after the bite
  • where they received medical treatment

All respondents were asked to rate their general health on a 5-point scale from poor to excellent. Five personality traits were assessed for all adults using a validated 10-item personality questionnaire.

What were the basic results?

The main results were:

  • A quarter of participants (24.78%, 95% confidence interval [CI] 21 to 28.13) reported having been bitten by a dog in their lifetime.
  • Only a third of the bites described required further medical treatment, and only 0.6% required hospital admission.
  • Incidence of dog bites was 18.7 (11.0 to 31.8) per 1,000 population per year, 2.5 times the current official figure of 7.4 per 1,000 population per year.
  • The odds of men being bitten in their lifetime were 81% higher than for women (95% CI 20% to 71%).
  • People who owned several dogs were 3.3 times more likely (95% CI 1.13 to 9.69) to report having been bitten than people who didn't own a dog.
  • People were most likely to be bitten by a dog they'd never met before the incident (54.7%).
  • Individuals scoring higher in emotional stability had a lower risk of having ever been bitten (OR 0.77, 95% CI 0.66 to 0.9).

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers said the real burden of dog bites is considerably larger than that estimated from hospital records.

As many bites don't require hospital treatment, hospital bite data isn't representative of experiences in the wider population.

Victim personality requires further investigation and potential consideration in the design of bite prevention schemes.

Conclusion

This imaginative piece of research provides some insights into factors that may influence people's risk of being bitten by a dog.

Current dog bite estimates are based on counting those who turn up at hospital for medical treatment.

This research reveals that those figures may significantly underestimate the actual number of dog bites.

The researchers believe that people with a fear of dogs should be targeted for dog bite prevention schemes, and dog owners should be educated on how to control their dogs, especially around those more at risk of bites.

On a lighter note, the number of people requiring hospital admission for dog bites was low, which indicates that severe dog bites are few and far between.

But this study has limitations:

  • The researchers only examined households in one geographical location in England, so the findings may not apply to the wider population.
  • Children under 5, who are thought to be a high-risk group, were excluded from the study.
  • Information relating to dog bites was self-reported and some questions were asked on people's doorsteps, which can lead to recall bias. People are also less likely to provide honest answers when placed under pressure.
  • The information collected was retrospective, which means people may not remember exact details about the dog bite.

Overall, this study helps us understand the kinds of people who might be getting bitten by dogs. But it doesn't offer any solutions about what to do about this or how dog bites can be prevented.

If you, or a child in your care, is bitten by a dog, seek immediate medical attention if the skin has been broken or there's bleeding. Dog bites can become infected.

Visit your GP or nearest urgent care service.

If these services aren't available, go to your local accident and emergency (A&E) department.

Find out more about what to do if you have been bitten by a dog.

Analysis by Bazian 
Edited by NHS Choices