United Kingdom

Dog attacks on the rise as hundreds of owners a year face prosecution

Dogs 4 Rescue owner says they’re overwhelmed with dogs

Prosecutions for dangerously out-of-control dogs have increased since the pandemic when demand for the pets soared. The recent series of horrifying attacks reflect the growing trend over the past two decades, during which time annual hospital admissions for dog bites almost tripled. A number of charities view the existing legislation to be inadequate and emphasise proper training to be the best preventative measure.

According to the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), a dog can be regarded as dangerously out of control “on any occasion where it causes fear or apprehension to a person that it may injure them”. In such cases, courts can make an order to control the dog in order to protect the public. 

If an out-of-control dog does attack and injure someone – considered an aggravating factor – its owner could be sentenced to up to five years in prison and the dog may be destroyed.

Figures from the Ministry of Justice show court proceedings were launched in 668 cases against dog owners in England and Wales last year after their out-of-control pets attacked people.

That is a 19 percent increase from 561 prosecutions in 2020 – when Britons were under strict lockdown rules for much of the year – and is similar to the 673 cases pre-pandemic in 2019.

The rise in court proceedings last year may well be a consequence of the surge in pet ownership during the pandemic. According to pet insurance quotes through Go Compare, demand for dogs increased so much that several breeds saw prices rise by more than £1,000.

In 2022, veterinary charity PDSA, estimates that just over half, 52 percent, of UK adults in 2022 have a pet, with 27 percent owning a dog. In total, they claim the country is home to 10.2 million pet dogs.

Prosecutions for dog attacks in the UK increased by 19 percent last year (Image: GETTY)

Malcolm Morley, junior vice president for the British Veterinary Association, said: “Any dog of any size or breed has the capacity to react or behave in an aggressive way, particularly if they haven’t been properly socialised and trained. 

“The COVID-19 lockdowns saw a huge spike in pet ownership, coinciding with severely limited access to training and socialising opportunities for new puppies, some of whom will have been bred without consideration for their welfare. It’s therefore sadly unsurprising that we have seen increased cases of unwanted behaviour, some of which can result in dogs biting people. 

“It’s not too late to turn the situation around and education about responsible dog ownership and understanding canine communication is key to reducing the unfortunate cases of dog bites we see in the headlines.”

Indeed, there have been a host of high-profile incidents involving dogs in recent years. Last November, 10-year-old Jack Lis from Caerphilly in Wales died after being attacked by an eight-stone American bulldog.

This August, a four-year-old boy sustained life-changing injuries to the face and head from a Bull Mastiff while visiting a friend’s house in Liverpool.

Royal Mail reported 1,673 dog attacks on its staff last year – an average of 32 attacks every week across the UK – and has previously suggested this to be one of the single biggest reasons why staff quit.

READ MORE: Channel 5 viewer upset as puppy mauled in savage dog attack

Battersea Dogs and Cats Home

Battersea Dogs and Cats Home celebrated 160 years at Clarence House in July (Image: GETTY)

Dog attacks have risen significantly over the past decade, according to figures published by NHS Digital. The health service recorded 3,079 admissions for the treatment of dog bites in 1999, increasing almost threefold to 8,655 over the past year.

Of these, 614 children under the age of four were bitten. However, those in their fifties were the most likely to have needed treatment last year, the data showing 713 incidents involving people aged 50 to 54 and 704 involving those aged 55 to 59.

In the financial year ending in 2018, dog bite hospital attendance and admissions alone may have cost the NHS £70,827,943, according to a 2021 scientific study.

In the decade up to the introduction of the Dangerous Dog Act in 1991, figures by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show 15 people were killed by dogs. In the 10 years to 2022, there have been at least 32 such deaths.

Battersea Dogs & Cats Home and the RSPCA have criticised the ineffectiveness of the legislation, suggesting its approach of assessing potential danger in dogs by appearance rather than behaviour is flawed.

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Dogo Argentino

Dogo Argentinos are one of the four breeds banned in the UK (Image: GETTY)

As such, although they may not be of the same exact breed, UK law bans the ownership of all dogs that match the characteristics of a Pit Bull Terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino and Fila Brasileiro.

A spokesperson for the Dog’s Trust said: “It is important to remember that the majority of dogs in the UK live happy, peaceful lives with their responsible owners. However, we strongly believe that preventative, breed-neutral legislation is needed to identify and deal with those owners who fail to take appropriate action to control their dogs. 

“Compulsory microchipping helps to improve the traceability of irresponsible dog owners, but more needs to be done. 

“We will continue to look for reform in existing dog control laws until we are satisfied that any new measures are preventative, breed-neutral and effective, and ultimately protect both dogs and people alike.    

“Dogs Trust advocates prevention as the best long-term solution to dog bites. In changing unsafe behaviours around dogs, we believe we can help to prevent bites from occurring in the first place and promote more positive relationships between people and the dogs they share their lives with.”

Although the number of dogs destroyed because of biting incidents is unknown, Crown Prosecution Service guidance states: “There is a statutory presumption for the destruction of a dog following a conviction… unless the Court is satisfied the dog does not constitute a danger to public safety.” 

Of the cases brought before the courts last year, 549 resulted in convictions (up from 451 in 2020 and 532 in 2019) and 558 sentences were handed out (up from 442 in 2020 and 529 in 2019) – including 22 prison sentences and 102 suspended sentences. Other dog owners faced lesser penalties such as fines, community sentences and compensation orders.

The average custodial sentence handed out last year to owners of dogs that attacked people was 10.3 months – down from an average of 14.2 months in 2020 but similar to the 10.4-month average prison sentence in 2019.

Offenders were also hit with an average fine of £340 in 2021, a 42 percent rise on the average fine of £239 in 2020 and the highest average in the last five years. However, average compensation to victims fell by 35 percent from £333 in 2020 to £217 last year.


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