Dog Bites: tackling a social menace

Leeds facial surgeon Chris Mannion pictured at Leeds Dental Institute. Picture by Jonathan Gawthorpe
Leeds facial surgeon Chris Mannion pictured at Leeds Dental Institute. Picture by Jonathan Gawthorpe
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With numbers of dog bite injuries rising rapidly across the country in recent years, one Leeds surgeon says we need to do more than just stitch the victims up. Rob Parsons reports.

From his years of experience working as a facial surgeon, Christopher Mannion knows better than most the damage that can be caused by the teeth of a dog.

Picture: PA Wire

Picture: PA Wire

A maxillofacial consultant, based at Leeds General Infirmary, he has seen everything from slight cuts and superficial skin damage to cases where parts of the face have been ripped off.

The high volume of cases the 43-year-old was seeing prompted him to question what happens to his patients once he has “stitched them up” and why, more fundamentally, so many were coming to him in the first place. After “scratching the surface” he found this issue and the context of dog bites and why they happen, wasn’t getting much scientific study.

High profile changes to the law, including longer sentences introduced last year for the owners of “dangerously out of control” dogs, have focused on punishment once an attack has already happened. But research Mr Mannion has carried out, along with vets Kendal Shepherd and Danielle Greenberg, brought him to the conclusion that education, both for young children and the professionals who treat animals, is key.

And with the number of hospital admissions due to dog bites increasing by 550 per cent between 1990 and 2013, he says finding a solution could mean major savings for the tax-payer. “One of the things I would like to do in Leeds is come on board with other agencies like the police and social services, and come up with a co-ordinated approach to developing an education strategy. Dog owners have an understanding of the signs. There is something called the ladder of aggression. If you can spot the signs you can hopefully try and avoid an issue,” he says.

Christopher Mannion, a maxillofacial surgeon at Leeds General Infirmary.

Realistically we are never going to prevent every single dog bite, but there must be more that can be done than just stitching someone up and moving on to the next case.

“It is just simple things like making sure there is a quiet room for your dog in the house, there are lots of simple messages that can be got across. Particularly with young children, trying to get an education strategy in schools, that is something that has got to be done. Children, when they are young, tend to hug an animal, there is research that shows they have difficulty in appreciating a growl or a snarl as they don’t have that understanding.

“But why shouldn’t children be taught how to actually approach a dog or how to stroke a dog properly? There are things that can be done, like teaching them not to approach a dog when it is eating. There are certain things that have been seen in data that can be addressed.”

What makes this collaboration different is that medics and vets are working more closely together. “It is only through me speaking to my veterinary colleagues that we have been able to piece these things together. We are at a relatively early stage but like a snowball it is beginning to gather pace. We also need to think more about helping the victims of any dog bite injuries, addressing post-traumatic stress and how the victim can have a meaningful relationship with the animal afterwards.”

Recent reports have highlighted an increase in the number of dog attacks and the number of apparently dangerous dogs being seized. Figures last year from the Health and Social Care Information Centre showing a rise in hospital admissions from dog bites also revealed a large disparity between the most and least deprived areas of England and Wales. The rate in West Yorkshire of 21.7 per 100,000 people was among the highest in the country.

The Yorkshire Post reported last year that a dramatic rise in the number of dangerous dogs being seized has prompted the region’s biggest police force to invest in 20 new kennels to cope with demand. West Yorkshire Police took 253 dangerous dogs off the streets in 2014 to be held in kennels while their owners go through the courts, compared to 145 the previous year and just 89 in 2011.

The extra capacity was introduced by the force last year after the Dangerous Dogs Act was amended to cover offences on private property. Previously a dog could only be seized if it was dangerously out of control in public.

But police say numbers of dangerous dogs seized have been increasing since 2007 due to an increased awareness of the problem sparked by high-profile dog attack tragedies.

These include the case of five-year-old Ellie Lawrenson, killed by a pit bull in 2007 after her grandmother let the dog into her house in St Helens. In Leeds, pregnant mother-of-four Emma Bennett, 27, died after she was attacked at her home by her partner’s two pit bull-type dogs in December 2013. Her partner admitted owning dogs prohibited by the Dangerous Dogs Act and was spared a prison sentence last summer.

Mr Mannion, an honorary senior lecturer at the University of Leeds, has met a number of MPs to discuss the issue of dog bite injuries, including the shadow public health minister, and presented his work in the House of Lords.

He wants to make vets more aware of the problem and is involved in teaching undergraduate veterinary medicine students to recognise signs of canine aggression. “In this country a lot of people own dogs. Thirty per cent of households own dogs so it is a major problem and a major cost to the NHS. Until we really started to look at it there had never been a coherent view of dog bite injuries. Realistically we are never going to prevent every single dog bite, but there must be more that can be done than just stitching someone up and moving onto the next case.”

Mr Mannion’s views are backed by the Kennel Club, the UK body which promotes the health and welfare of dogs nationwide, where he spoke this year on the need for preventative measures to reduce the number of incidents and proper investigation into each attack. Bill Lambert, Health and Breeders services manager for the Kennel Club, says current legislation banning certain breeds of dog considered to be inherently dangerous was “fundamentally flawed”.

And he said changes to the law meaning owners can be prosecuted for dangerous dog offences on private property don’t address the issue of why such attacks are happening.

“In the vast majority of cases that come to our attention there are circumstances that build up to it. Dogs can’t express themselves in the way we can, biting is sometimes the only way they can express themselves.

“In the Ellie Lawrence case, a number of reports had been made by the local neighbourhood. If someone had acted at an earlier stage it could have stopped the offence from happening.

“We believe this is a social issue. Dogs are seen in some cultures as status symbols, it is because the owners are often living in poor conditions and they have no status, having these big powerful dogs gives them status.

“Any dog can be trained to be aggressive but the same dog, given a different home and different background, can be a normal, happy family pet.”

CUTTING DOG BITE INJURIES

• A dramatic rise in the number of dangerous dogs being seized has prompted West Yorkshire Police to invest in 20 new kennels to cope with demand.

• The police force took 253 dangerous dogs off the streets in 2014 to be held in kennels while their owners go through the courts, compared to 145 the previous year and just 89 in 2011. It introduced the extra capacity last year after the Dangerous Dogs Act was amended to cover offences on private property.

• In a report on animal welfare published last year, the charity PDSA said that 62 per cent of dog owners had been concerned or frightened by another dog’s behaviour towards people every week, and 30 per cent of pet owners reported being bitten or attacked by a dog.