A new government report says that between 1993 and 2008, the number of Americans hospitalized for dog bites has nearly doubled -- up to 9,500 from 5,100. And these are not "dog bites" in the sense of an overprotective Chihuahua running down the walkway to bite the mail carrier's ankle; these are not little "nips" being reported, but people being ripped open to the point of needing serious medical attention, carrying an average price tag of $18,200. Or: roughly the price of a college undergrad's student loan burden or a small house in Detroit.
The growing number of hospitalizations cannot be accounted for by canine population growth, and the report's author, Anne Elixhauser, freely admits that she, too, is at a loss to explain it.
And it very well may be impossible to adequately explain this phenomena with our current data set, but we strongly suspect that at least part of the confusion has to do with being stuck in the ideals of an old paradigm.
(please: before I go any further, note again the use of the word ideal. Anybody who's ever owned a pet or worked with animals should understand the difference between ideal and reality)
In the old ideal (let's say... 17 years ago), a potential pet owner would seek out a responsible breeder. They would meet and confer with the breeder, see his or her facilities, meet at least one of the puppy's parents, and interact with the puppy before taking it home. The goal was to get an appropriate pet for the family (size, disposition, needs, etc.), and be able to bond with and shape its behavior from the earliest possible age.
Today's ideals are a bit different. Virtually all the marketing is aimed at adoption, with the old ideal -- the "responsible breeder" -- oftentimes being met with ambivalence, hostility, or even denial that they exist*. The ideal now is to save a dog, perhaps even at the expense of finding one that is the right fit for your family.
It's no longer "This is Fluffy, I bought her from _____."
Instead, it's "This is Fluffy, I rescued/adopted her from _____."
Indeed, the ideals have seen a huge paradigm shift. Remember back when the occasional snooty dog owner would try to impress people with his pooch's pedigree? Didn't think so -- and it's understandable, because it's been a long while since anybody under the age of Yoda harbored such attitudes. Who, nowadays, cares if Fluffy** was sired by Jocko who won five best in shows? Well, who beyond breed enthusiasts***?
But as a society, we do care when we hear how our neighbor rescued her new dog Fluffy from the shelter hours before being euthanized, and we definitely all know somebody who tries to impress others with his pooch's "rescue" status! Admit it: you know (or maybe are) this person! And that's OK, because it's socially acceptable -- even preferable -- nowadays.
So -- what's the point of all this, you ask?
Perhaps this is a politically incorrect or even sacrilegious idea to broach, but could one of the factors in the increased rate of hospitalizing bites be this paradigm shift and the "adopt at any cost" attitude of some of today's shelters and prospective pet owners? Obviously, this is something we suspect -- why else bother typing something that may infuriate and alienate a sizable portion of the population?
But it's also something we think needs to be explored, even if it makes some of us uncomfortable. And this is just the start. For the real fireworks, stay tuned for this weekend's entry on humane relocation and NAIA's 2011 Dog Population Study...
*It's a pretty sure thing you've all heard some variation on the "There's no such thing as a responsible breeder!'" theme before.
**Why is she always Fluffy? I honestly have no idea.
***Hey purebred enthusiasts! How's it going?