VOICES: Hawai‘i dog-bite law contains error

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.

  1. Harve Morgan July 14, 2021 2:31 am Reply

    The NCRC is devoted to the pit bull. It is not a government agency, it is not a research group. Any research is bought and paid for to promote the pit bull breed. In other words, you can’t believe anything coming from this deceptive group. They are biased to say the least. That’s about the only good thing you can say about them.

  2. Julie Wall July 14, 2021 4:29 am Reply

    Our laws tend to favor dangerous dog owners. It’s about time Hawaii strengthened their laws when dogs bite. If your dog bites, you should have to be held accountable for the first bite. This is what this bill does. Amends to strict liability. “Removes the requirement to prove that a dog has bitten a person on at least two separate occasions prior to bringing legal action against a dog’s owner to determine whether conditions of treatment or confinement have changed so as to remove the danger the dog poses to other persons.”

    There are (13) states remaining where if you are mauled by a dog, you cannot sue the owner for damages if it’s the first (1st) offense by the dog. It’s called the one-free-bite rule. Does that sound fair to you?

    1. RGLadder37 July 14, 2021 11:33 pm Reply

      Are you saying that the other 37 states that they can go after the dog owner on the first bite ? Which states are they?

  3. james July 14, 2021 8:01 am Reply

    OK, let’s assume the dog bite data is way overblown. Who cares? People whose dogs bite someone should be held accountable. It’s called personal responsibility. Here is the law since you didn’t bother to recite it:

    Hawaii dog bite law enforces the “one bite rule”.

    The one bite rule in Hawaii states that “The owner or harborer of an animal, if the animal proximately causes either personal or property damage to any person, shall be liable in damages to the person injured regardless of the animal owner’s or harborer’s lack of scienter of the vicious or dangerous propensities of the animal.” HRS 663-9. In other words, an owner or holder of a dog is liable for the dog biting you even if the owner or holder has no knowledge of the chances of the dog biting someone.

    However, the owner or holder generally won’t be liable if (1) you were trespassing, (2) the dog bit you because it was “teased, tormented, or otherwise abused without the negligence, direction, or involvement of the owner or harborer,” or (3) the dog was defending itself or another.

    It’s a good law. Make sure you have homeowners or renters insurance that covers you if your dog bites someone and be a responsible pet owner.

  4. LMat July 14, 2021 12:26 pm Reply

    I had to look up what SB189 said about dog bites.
    Basically, it “Removes the requirement to prove that a dog has bitten a person on at least two separate occasions prior to bringing legal action against a dog’s owner to determine whether conditions of treatment or confinement have changed so as to remove the danger the dog poses to other persons.”
    Hawaii home and property owners, make sure you have a BEWARE OF DOG sign visible on your property!!!

  5. RGLadder37 July 14, 2021 11:48 pm Reply

    I am not a dog owner. But a relative of mine is. He owns a small puppy like fluffy golden type pomarian retriever. Very small pet. But to my understanding these house pets aren’t loyal because we think they are. It is their nature to run away. So they won’t bite because they don’t want to be killed.

  6. Citizen Cane July 16, 2021 12:43 pm Reply

    Ok so what difference does it make whose stats you believe—everybody knows dogs occasionally bite humans. And when it happens no one asks, “am I the 4,000th this year or the 4 millionth?” Or— “am I his first?”
    I think at that point you just want somebody to apologize, and maybe pay for the stitches
    …Now THERE’s a story!

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