The pandemic puppies are becoming a public health concern.
The latest data from California shows an increased rate of emergency room visits, hospital admissions, and deaths from dog bites, setting new records following the COVID lockdowns. In 2022, there were 48,596 emergency room visits due to dog bites in California, or 125 visits per 100,000 population, representing a 70% increase in visit rate compared to 2005, according to the state’s Department of Access and Healthcare Information.
The rate of hospital admissions has approximately doubled from 2006 to 2022. Although deaths from dog bites are extremely rare, the mortality rate in California increased by around 70% over a similar period, with 28 deaths in the state from 2018 to 2022. Nationally, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bites were the underlying cause of 96 deaths in 2022, while the mortality rate more than doubled from 2005 to 2022.
Even before the pandemic, more and more Americans were welcoming dogs into their homes. The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that households nationwide owned approximately 86 million dogs in 2020, compared to about 62 million in 2001. The pandemic accelerated this trend as millions more people adopted puppies to keep them company during a time of isolation.
But the lockdowns prevented puppies from being socialized, said Elizabeth Stelow, head of the behavior service at UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. For healthy development, puppies need to learn acceptable behavior between their first three and 16 weeks of life, she said.
„These puppies should be exposed to new types of people, new types of animals, new types of places, new types of everything,“ said Stelow. „No one was able to do that. That’s why we constantly see the effects of it right now.“
When poorly socialized puppies grow up, their bites can cause more harm. From 2021 to 2022, the number of emergency room visits due to dog bites in California increased by 12%, marking the highest annual total to date. Although a recent study between 2005 and 2018 did not show a nationwide increase in the number of emergency room visits due to dog bites, several national studies showed an increase in the proportion of emergency room visits due to dog bites during the pandemic.
Another potential explanation is the popularity of breeds that some label as aggressive. Kenneth Phillips, one of the country’s most prominent attorneys specializing in resolving dog bite cases, blames much of the blame on pit bulls, which have become one of the most popular breeds in America. „Every study always comes to the same conclusions, that this dog does the most harm,“ he said.
Some studies show that pit bull bites are often associated with serious injuries, while other studies claim they do not pose a disproportionate threat. Stelow said a well-socialized and trained pit bull is no more dangerous than dogs of other breeds. „Why are pit bulls the No. 1 group responsible for dog bites? Because they make up a large percentage of the dog population in California,“ she said.
Phillips said animal shelters are increasingly under pressure to euthanize fewer dogs, meaning that people end up adopting more aggressive dogs without knowing it. According to the Best Friends Animal Society, the number of shelters where animals are not killed has increased significantly in recent years. However, aggressive dogs that cannot be safely adopted can also be euthanized in emergency shelters. A California law from 2019 requires shelters and rescue groups to disclose a dog’s bite history to anyone adopting it.
A few years ago, a German Shepherd sat outside a garage as postal worker Jacob Studer of Sacramento, California, approached the driveway to make a delivery. The dog crawled toward Studer when its owner called it. Studer said the dog attacked him as he began to lift his mail bag. „The dog jumped up, grabbed my arm, bit my arm, practically ripped my sleeve open, and threw me to the ground,“ he said. „I fell backward and did almost a little somersault.“
Studer was not seriously injured and did not need to go to the hospital. However, he said the dog’s owner decided not to keep it.
State data and a recent study by public health researchers show that in California, children and young adults are the most frequent age groups to visit the emergency room due to dog bites. According to CDC data from 2018 to 2022, children under 5 years old nationwide were more than twice as likely to die from dog bites as people in other age groups.
Randall T. Loder, professor emeritus of orthopedic surgery at the Indiana University School of Medicine, said that the most serious injuries from dog bites often affect the head and neck, making young children particularly vulnerable.
„Younger people do not understand the risks of a dog,“ said Loder, who recently conducted a study on tens of thousands of dog bite injuries. „They are vulnerable.“
His study estimated that the annual health care costs for treating dog bites nationwide were at least $400 million. Dog bites can lead to infections or transmit serious illnesses such as rabies.
In California, serious injuries from dog bites are more common in rural areas. The rate of emergency room visits due to dog bites in counties with fewer than 200,000 residents was nearly 50% higher in 2022. The counties of Modoc, Inyo, Lake, and Siskiyou had the highest rates of emergency room encounters.
Stelow said that dogs in rural areas are often not as socialized as their urban counterparts. Additionally, rural residents tend to have more dogs.
Stelow said owners of aggressive dogs should seek out a veterinarian early, especially one who specializes in animal behavior. She said owners should learn to recognize fears in dogs and understand their body language. For example, fearful dogs may try to flee, fight, get angry and fidget, or freeze.
„The dogs that are already in the situation of biting people,“ Stelow said, „need to seek someone who can deal with the emotional damage that was done and can try to correct it.“
Phillip Reese is a data reporting specialist and associate professor of journalism at California State University-Sacramento.
This article was produced by KFF Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.