Is it time to ban dogs as household pets?BMJ 2005; 331 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.331.7527.1278 (Published 24 November 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:1278
After tobacco, alcohol, and sports utility vehicles, how long will it be before public health experts get serious about the menace of widespread dog ownership? Despite ongoing research into dog bites and zoonoses, the occasional media outcry about pit bull terrier and rottweiler maulings, and legislation such as the United Kingdom's Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991, pet dogs and their owners have mostly been given a rather long leash. And yet it increasingly seems extraordinary to me—considering all the things that the law prevents us from doing—that it is legal for people to keep a potentially dangerous wild animal in their home. Or even, as many postmen and postwomen have discovered to their cost, in their front gardens.
In 2003 the UK had about 6.5 million dogs, estimates the Pet Food Manufacturers' Association (www.pfma.com/public/petownership_stats.htm), although the abolition of the dog licence under Mrs Thatcher's government in 1987 has hampered the collection of data on ownership. That is roughly one dog for every 10 people. (A crude survey among my BMJ colleagues found that, of 35 who replied to an email question, seven were dog owners, double the proportion in the country as a whole.) The only requirement by law in England and Wales is that dogs must wear a collar in public bearing its owner's name and address, although bylaws allow local authorities to exact penalties for fouling pavements and persistent noise nuisance.
My school debating society in the mid-1970s considered the motion “This house believes that dogs should be banned as household pets.” At the time I thought what an absurd idea—how on earth could anyone ban domestic dog ownership and why ever would they want to? Nor did I feel especially sorry for the proposer and seconder when they lost abysmally and were almost booed out of the debating chamber. Yet now—after having twice narrowly escaped finger amputation by canine and after years of negotiating London's turd smeared streets—it seems that my schoolfellows were way ahead of their time.
The charge sheet against dog ownership is long, but as far as public health is concerned the main problems are the two Fs: fangs and faeces. Dog bites are an important source of injury, particularly among children (JAMA1998;279: 51-3). It is estimated that there are around 200 000 dog bites in the UK each year (www.patient.co.uk/showdoc/23068877/). Although fatalities from dog bites are extremely rare, there is a risk of minor infection with a range of pathogens (New England Journal of Medicine1999;340: 85-92). In countries where rabies is endemic, the risks are much greater. As well as the risk of physical scarring, dog bites can also have psychological consequences (BMJ1991;303: 1512-3).
The Dangerous Dogs Act, a response to several high profile fatal maulings in Britain in the late 1980s, was much derided as unworkable. But I think the problem with the act—which singled out four breeds of fighting dog—is that it did not go far enough. All dogs are potentially dangerous, not just pit bulls and Japanese tosas. Even those cuddly little white Scottie dogs could inflict nasty injuries on a baby or a toddler. A BMJstudy in the early 1990s found that the types of dog most commonly responsible for bites were Staffordshire bull terriers, Jack Russells, medium sized mongrels, and Alsatians, none of which are listed in the act (BMJ 1991;303: 1512-3).
Two of the greatest contributions to public health were the invention of the flush toilet and the construction of sewers, but with dogs we remain always back at square one. Cute Labrador puppies might help sell toilet rolls on UK television, but sadly that's as far as it is ever going to go on the dog and lavatory front. “Responsible” owners clean up their animal's mess. But that just means our parks are now full of special bins containing flimsy plastic bags packed with excrement. And dog mess is not just unpleasant, it is sometimes (when pets are not wormed) a source of toxocariasis, which can lead to blindness in children.
So much for fangs and faeces. Then there is the barking. A friend of mine had his sleep disturbed nearly every night for two years by the yelping of a neighbour's Alsatian. The poor animal was kept on a tiny balcony 24 hours a day. Local environmental health officers wanted to act but could do so only if they witnessed the dog barking. And that took two years of trying, two years of broken sleep, two years of my friend phoning the council's noise patrol service in the small hours and waiting for its officers to visit. This problem is far from unusual. A quick internet search shows that local authorities the world over have policies for handling complaints about canine control.
I am not a dog hater—far from it. Some of my best friends are dogs (and they won't mind me saying so). I would probably even quite like a dog, if the non-defecating, non-barking, non-biting species could be bred. As well as the obvious value of guide dogs and hearing dogs, and other working dogs (police dogs, bomb sniffers, drug sniffers, sheep dogs), dog ownership is apparently good for lowering blood pressure, encouraging exercise, and combating loneliness. Research published by the BMJ has also indicated that dogs can smell out cancer (BMJ 2004;329: 712). Perhaps we should look forward to a time when “man's best friend” is available only on prescription?
The usual rejoinder to complaints about dog behaviour is that it is the owners, and not their pets, that are to blame—which is precisely why dog ownership should be curbed. We need responsible dog owners, people say. Call me dogmatic, but responsible dog ownership is mostly a contradiction in terms—at least in our inner cities.
Perhaps it is still too soon to go as far as those daring speakers at my school debating society urged and ban dogs as household pets. Besides, the coercive approach generally doesn't work. But it is clear that although dog ownership in general is not nearly as dangerous as driving, for example, it still carries plenty of risks. So why do we take dog ownership for granted? Why, instead, don't we introduce a dog ownership test, with a minimum age and a licence?
I have no desire to upset assorted canine lobbies. I merely wish to raise a question that I think anyone who cares about public health, environmental health, and quality of life should be able to engage with dispassionately. Or am I just barking?
See Letters, p 1269
Competing interests TJ has donated money to the charity Hearing Dogs for Deaf People.