Like many stories about dog attacks, the recent description of an aggressive "fight dog" that bit a woman on the thigh and elbow in a Superior parking lot prompted many online comments at Denverpost.com.
"Anyone who owns a mutt from one of these killer breeds should be REQUIRED to have 100k in liability insurance," wrote one person. Another poster seethed about seeing more unleashed pit bulls without muzzles in public places: "I used to only carry a weapon to kill pit bulls in cities, and now the situation is only getting worse. Aggressive dogs should all be put down. Peace, Love, and Golden Retrievers!" Despite the fact that the article states very clearly that police listed the dog "as a mastiff or German shepherd mix," several other comments also mention pit bulls in reference to the attack.
Such assumptions aren't surprising. People often use "pit bull" as a synonym for any dog that is hyper-aggressive and dangerous. In hopes of preventing severe dog attacks, Denver has maintained a controversial twenty-year prohibition on any dog that appears to be more than 50 percent pit bull. In this week's story examining how Denver's pit bull ban has performed over the years, Westword intern Kiernan Maletsky and I spent several months collecting dog bite statistics from Denver and several other metro-area cities with and without breed bans. Click below for some visuals on what we found.
First, we looked at the number of bites recorded by Denver Animal Care and Control going back to 1990, the first full year the breed ban was in effect. (Click charts to enlarge.) Aside from a bump in 2004 when enforcement of the ban was temporarily suspended, reported bites from pit bulls in Denver have stayed relatively static -- around twelve per year. What is notable is the significant drop in dog bites of all breeds, from 1,146 in 1990 to 305 in 2008. Animal control officials attribute this decrease in total bites to increased enforcement of Denver's non-breed specific dog laws and county-wide spaying and neutering efforts.
Some studies on dog bites show pit bulls and Rottweilers as inflicting the most reported bites; others show Golden Retrievers, Labs and Chow Chows as causing the most. But is this because these breeds bite more often or because more of these dogs are represented in a given area? Since there's no reliable doggy census, it's nearly impossible to know if one breed bites more often than another.
Proponents of breed bans, such as Denver Assistant City Attorney Kory Nelson, instead argue that pit bulls are more dangerous because, when they do bite, the injuries they inflict are more serious. So we looked at figures gathered by the Colorado Department of Public and Environment on hospitalization rates for dogs by county. From 1995 to 2006, more people sought medical attention for dog bites in Denver County than anywhere else in the state. Counties without pit bull bans -- Boulder, El Paso and Jefferson -- showed fewer people going to the hospital dog bites.
Are bites from pit bulls more severe?
The Coalition for Living Safely with Dogs, a Colorado group made up of veterinary associations and animal welfare groups, gathered information from animal control divisions across the state. Their report found that the severity of pit bull bites -- 1 being a "bruising" and 5 being a "maul (serious bodily injury)" -- was about the same as bites from breeds such as Australian Cattle Dogs and Akitas, and below breeds such as American Bull Dogs, Dalmatians and Dachshunds.
In late 2005, Aurora joined Denver in banning pit bulls. Here's how their average number of reported dog bites stack up against Broomfield, Boulder and Lakewood, which don't outlaw pit bulls.
Denver has impounded 5,286 dogs under its pit bull ordinance. In 1992, the third full year of the ban, Denver impounded 27 pit bulls. In 2000, the number increased exponentially until its height of 1,011 in 2005, when animal control began to enforce the ordinance after a one-year moratorium. Last year, 354 pit bulls were impounded.
The more pit bull that are impounded, the more pit bulls are euthanized. In 2005 and 2006, Denver put 1,453 pit bulls to death. City staff only had euthanization numbers back to 2002. But by applying the impound/euthanization rate to the previous ten years, we estimate that at least 3,497 pit bulls have been euthanized under Denver's ban.
From investigation to impound to euthanization, it costs the city roughly $256 per dog.
The recent case of a Pomeranian that was banned from Aspen shows that any dog breed can be vicious.
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But which breeds have killed in Colorado? As this list reveals, out of nine reported dog attack fatalities in the state since 1980, pit bulls were responsible for two.
For more information, read the Westword feature story on the pit bull ban, view photos from the city's "pit bull row" and check out a sidebar on how the City of Boulder is dealing with aggressive dogs without banning pit bulls.