Despite dog ownership soaring during the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021, cases of hospital admissions for dog bites actually fell during that period, after rising continuously each year since 2007-2019.
But there were still 7,443 hospital admissions for dog bites in 2020-21, with children aged 0-14 year olds accounting for 32% of victims.
Hospitals record dog bite admissions under a code called ‘W54’ which means ‘bitten or struck by a dog’ but this tells us nothing about the breeds involved. It also only measures bites that are bad enough to result in a trip to hospital, so less serious bites, which make up the majority, aren’t recorded.
NHS figures also only track trends in dog bites to humans. Cases of dogs biting other dogs, cats or livestock aren’t covered by these statistics.
So are there any better ways of finding out if some breeds of dogs are more likely to bite than others?
Dog bites and third party pet insurance claims
We can get some insight into dog bites by breed by looking at how many third-party liability pet insurance claims are made for each breed, but there are some huge caveats.
First, as with the hospital dog bite data, only the most serious incidents are likely to be recorded here. In this case, because someone has pursued legal action against the owner of the dog. This means that larger, more powerful dogs are over-represented in this data, simply because they have the size and strength to cause more serious damage to animals, people or property.
Second, third party claims don’t just record bites and certainly not just dog bites to humans.
Third party claims against dog owners might involve:
Bites to humans
Fights between dogs
Bites or attacks on cats or livestock
Damage to property, for example a dog running in the road and causing a car to swerve and crash
We examined all third party claims we received between July 2018 and March 2022 and found that 22% were for dog-on-dog bite claims while 29% were for dog-on-human bite claims. A small amount of claims (3%) were for bites or attacks on other animals like chickens or sheep.
The other 46% were for all sorts of things like people being knocked over by dogs by or tripping over them, road traffic accidents, or even tearing clothing, but didn't specifically mention biting.
In the 12-month period up to 28 March 2022, the dog breeds with the highest ration of third party claims to the number of that breed insured were:
Dogue de Bordeaux
Because larger, more powerful breeds have more potential for damage it’s not surprising that they are more likely to be involved in third-party insurance claims. But it’s far too simple to say they’re the breeds most likely to bite or fight.
More realistically, they’re likely to simply be the breeds who have come out on top through their sheer size and strength where there has been a dog fight incident.
It reinforces that a great deal of responsibility comes with owning a larger dog, or breeds like Lurchers, Vizlas or Greyhounds with a very high instinct to chase cats and other animals.
But as only 54% of claims are for bites to humans or animals it doesn’t really tell us which breeds are most likely to attack. Especially when it comes to bites to humans, which account for less than a third of third-party claims.
Are some breeds more likely to bite humans?
According to a large 2019 study in America, ‘Dog bite injuries to the face: is there a risk with breed ownership?’ the breeds with the highest percentage of bites are:
Although the study was a detailed meta-analysis of a number of smaller studies, it’s still hard to interpret for the UK.
First, the greatest percentage of bites were by unknown breeds, so that tells us nothing except that many dog bite victims can’t identify the dog that attacked them. It’s the same for ‘mixed’ – there are no clues about the size or shape of dog involved.
Second, the top named ‘breed’ on the list isn’t a breed at all in the UK. Pit Bulls are considered a ‘type’ identified by certain characteristics and they are banned in the UK under the Dangerous Dogs Act. That means you’re pretty unlikely to be bitten by one here as it’s illegal to own, breed or sell one unless it’s exempt – in which case it would be muzzled at all times in public.
What is interesting about this study is that there are some smaller breeds and typical family dogs showing up that you wouldn’t usually associate with biting – Terriers, Cocker Spaniels, Retrievers, Collies and Shih Tzus.
Why do some dogs bite?
If all this data shows one thing it’s that any dog is capable of biting in the right circumstances and the NHS figures and US study show us that children are some of the most common victims.
The US study covers bites to the face and who is typically ‘face-to-face height’ with these dogs? Children.
That could be why so many family-friendly breeds like Retrievers, Shi Tzus and Collies are on the list - they are just encountered by children in their own home more often.
Dogs usually only bite as a reaction to feeling scared or threatened. That might be because:
They are in pain and trying to protect themselves
They are trying to protect a resource, like a treat, toy or food bowl
They have been startled
They think they are being attacked
Children can have unpredictable sounds and movements that can startle or scare dogs and they might not understand not to interfere with their food and toys. They could even accidentally cause a dog pain by pulling fur, ears or tails.
They are also often eye level with dogs, which some dogs see as a threat. Finally they can be more seriously injured by bites than adults so they’re more likely to show up in hospital statistics.
Most dog bites are preventable by training both your dog and your children to act appropriately. You can also look out for these signs that your dog is stressed and might lash out:
Avoiding eye contact
Lips drawn back
It’s also a good idea to put in some home safety features to keep pets and children safe and happy together.
If you’re feeling worried by signs of aggression or fear in your dog, don’t try to work through it alone. Book a trip to the vet to eliminate any pain or illness that could be the cause and to talk about behavioural issues.
Your pet insurance may even cover the cost. ManyPets insurance can pay out for behavioural treatment if you’ve been referred by your vet.
Why you need public liability insurance
Even if your dog has never bitten anyone, it only takes one snap of the jaw to land you and them in hot water. If your dog injures someone or bites another dog, you’re legally responsible and the victim can claim damages. Depending on the injury, that can run into millions of pounds.
That’s why it’s important to have pet insurance that includes public liability, or third-party, cover. It pays out if your dog causes any harm to the public.
All our dog insurance policies include public liability cover as standard or you can buy a stand-alone liability policy from specialist insurers.
If you join Dogs Trust your membership includes third party liability cover for your dog.