In a recently passed bill, the Hawai‘i state Legislature exaggerates dog-bite injuries by more than thirteen-fold.
SB No. 189 claims that “according to a 2018 study, an average of 4.6 million people in the United States are admitted into the emergency department as a result of a dog bite.” Not only is this absolutely false, it’s easily disproved. We tried to find the source of this statistic, but the bill offered no citations.
After looking into several possibilities for this misinformation, our best guess is that this number erroneously comes from a paper published in a pay-to-play journal in 2019. This paper used NEISS (National Electronic Injury Surveillance System) injury data, which tabulated 4.6 million injuries from all causes treated at about 100 emergency departments (EDs) the agency uses as its sample (Loder, 2019). To reiterate, this number applies to all injuries, not just dog bites. Moreover, it was not the estimate for total injuries, just the raw number from a sample used to estimate the total number.
Dog bites were less than 7% of that number, according to the study.
Another possibility for the number claimed in SB 189 may have been a garbled version of two very-old CDC studies of dog bites (Sacks 1996 and Gilchrist 2008). These studies were the result of telephone health surveys, which included all dog bites reported by the subjects, only a small proportion of which were injurious, with only a small percentage receiving any medical treatment, and no information at all about whether emergency room treatment was sought. The total numbers of dog bites reported in these studies were 4.5 million and 4.7 million respectively, and again, few were injurious.
There is no study which has claimed that there have been 4.6 million dog bites to have been treated in EDs in any year in the US.
Given that, we have to ask if Hawai‘i’s new bill is really keeping its citizens and pets safer. Misinformation such as this should never be a basis for legislation.
Proactive legislation involves carefully reading scientific research and fact-checking. It does not involve skimming studies and presenting misattributed data.
Moreover, misinformation such as this gains legitimacy when put forth by government bodies, like a state legislature. This can have a deep impact on the general relationship between dogs and people, as citing the number of dog bites to be in the millions can create a hysteria around our relationship with dogs — a hysteria that not only affects dog owners in Hawai‘i but dog owners across the country.
This is, of course, because people assume that legislators do their due diligence when it comes to protecting their constituents. It’s sad to see that with SB 189, Hawai‘i lawmakers have fallen short on that front.
Janis Bradley is from the National Canine Research Council. The National Canine Research Council is a nonprofit, canine-behavior-science and policy think tank that aspires to develop a collective expectation that any canine-behavior studies may impact public policy.