Adult hospital admissions for dog bites tripled in England in the last 20 years as experts warn there is an “urgent need” to address the “growing public health problem”.
A new study by scientists at the University of Liverpool has shown annual hospital admission rates across all ages rose from 6 per 100,000 people in 1998 to 15 per 100,000 people in 2018, equating to more than 8,000 admissions.
The researchers said, the findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports, reveal that dogs bites are “a huge public health issue” and present “just the tip of the iceberg”.
Lead author Dr John Tulloch, an epidemiologist at the University of Liverpool, said: “Despite sustained education and preventative campaigns across large parts of society, the issue of dog bites continues to grow and is a huge public health issue.
“Dogs provide large benefits to society, especially in these difficult times where they can provide great companionship.
“However, working and living with animals can pose an injury risk.
“Our study presents just the tip of the iceberg, as it only includes injuries severe enough to require hospital admission.”
As part of their study, the team looked at the incidence of patients admitted to NHS hospitals in England for dog bites between 1998-2018.
They found that children aged 14 years or under made up around 25% of all admissions, but their incidence remained relatively stable, averaging 14 admissions per 100,000 people a year.
In contrast, the researchers found that rates in adults tripled from 5 to 15 admissions per 100,000 people.
Among them, the biggest increase in hospital admission rates were seen in women between the ages of 35-64, which the team described as “one of the most unexpected findings of our research”.
Dr Tulloch added: “We had very limited information about the context of the bite, and it is therefore very hard to know why there was an increase in this demographic.
“Further research is needed to understand whether behaviours, interaction, or dog ownership patterns differ in this group compared to the general population.”
He said that out of all males, young boys had highest admission rates, while among all females, young girls and middle-aged women had the highest rates.
Dr Tulloch added: “Children are more likely to be bitten on the head than adults, due to differences in height, and this could result in more severe injuries.
“They also may not be able read the warning signs that a dog is uncomfortable in a situation and may be about to bite.
“This is especially true with very young children, who may also not be able to defend themselves or move away as quickly as an adult would.”
The rates were also found to vary between different local authorities, with the highest incidence of bites found in the most deprived neighbourhoods, and rural areas reporting higher admission rates than urban ones.
The City of London had the lowest incidence at just 1 admission per 100,000 people while Knowsley in Merseyside had the highest incidence with 24 admissions per 100,000 people, the experts said.
Healthcare costs to the NHS associated with dog bites also increased, the researchers added, peaking in the financial year 2017/2018 at around £71 million.
This included £25.1 million in hospital admissions and £45.7 million in A&E attendance.
Dog behaviour expert Dr Carri Westgarth, from the University of Liverpool, said: “It is important to remember that any dog can bite regardless of how well you know the dog, and most bites will occur in the owner’s home.
“As we spend even more time with our dogs during lockdown we should ensure that we give dogs their own safe space to be alone, give them plenty of exercise and mental stimulation, and when your dog wants to be left alone – leave them be.
“Dog bites to children can be very severe so ensure that you observe children and dogs closely and intervene when necessary.
“Dogs do not want to bite you, it is a last resort response for them, so watch out for any warning signs of them being uncomfortable in a situation and remove yourselves, or them, from it.”