Note: In the column "How Scared Should I Be?" VICE staff writer and generalized anxiety disorder sufferer Mike Pearl seeks to quantify the scariness of everything under the sun. We hope it'll help you to more wisely allocate that most precious of natural resources: your fear.
From time to time, I'll cross the street to avoid a pit bull. One reason for this has nothing to do with pit bulls: Ten years ago, I got attacked by surprise by a different kind of dog, a friendly-looking, but very large, kuvasz. It drew a small amount of blood, but it wasn't serious. Friends' dogs had nipped at my fingers in the past and it left no emotional scars, but that kuvasz really caught me off guard, and it haunts my dreams.
The other thing scaring me is all the tabloid news I read about pit bulls. Over the weekend, the tabloids say a pit bull named Diesel tragically killed an 11-month-old baby. We know the awful stories by heart before we even read them: The dog never so much as barked at the kid before, but one day it just gobbled her up without warning. Then there are the bizarre mixups: a troubled pit bull attacks a woman while she's doing the ice bucket challenge, or kills a man trying to give its owner CPR.
But is it rational to let all that media coverage translate into fear of pit bulls? Short answer: It's frustratingly hard to know, because the information available is surprisingly partisan.
Coleen Lynn, founder of Dogs Bite, which campaigns against pit bulls, could not have been clearer about the danger: "Their speed to explosive aggression is extremely fast, and that's all due to selective breeding for dog fights," she told me. She also called pit bulls "a dog breed that attracts irresponsible people."
Others beg to differ in fundamental ways. "It's not a breed. It's not even a breed group in any recognized registry," Janis Bradley, spokesperson for a group called The National Canine Research Council told me. Her group has very little pit bull-related content on its site, but bloggers have criticized it as an advocacy group for pit bull ownership. "We know nothing really reliable about correlation with aggression and injurious bite incidents with regard to any breed," she added.
Unfortunately for anti-pit bull advocates (and for people like me who like stuff to be simple,) Bradley seems to be right. A peer-reviewed study published by the journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in 2015 said something very similar: "Controlled studies have not identified this breed group as disproportionately dangerous. The pit bull type is particularly ambiguous as a 'breed' encompassing a range of pedigree breeds, informal types and appearances that cannot be reliably identified."
I pressed Bradley to concede that there's a common understanding of what a pit bull is, or at least a look. They tend to have eyes set far apart, almost on the sides. They have sturdy-looking, aerodynamic skulls, and wide mouths "like a lizard," I told her. She apparently knew what I meant, saying "I think of it more like a smile."
Even if scientific accuracy on the matter is nearly impossible to come by, according to Diane Muren, board member at Mid-America Bully Breed Rescue, "if it looks like a pit bull, it's a pit bull." She described a pit bull as a dog with a larger head, very short fur, a muscular build, and a broader chest. She pointed out that "pit bull" is an abbreviation of "American Pit Bull Terrier" which is a breed recognized by the United Kennel Club, but those are stubbier, medium-sized dogs you can picture on a leash at a big snooty dog show.
"Today's breeders have turned them into the bigger, broader dogs they are today by breeding them with mastiffs or Old English Bulldogs, much larger dogs that fall under the Molosser category," Muren said.
So like "pornography" or "hipster," you just have to know it when you see it. Some courts have allowed for a people-know-a-pit-bull-when-they-see-one doctrine while other courts, annoyingly, have not. (These court decisions are tied to the contentious issue of breed-specific legislation.)
The Centers for Disease Control doesn't appear to have covered dog attacks by breed as a public health issue in ages. They did publish a report fifteen years ago, however, and for what it's worth, it came down hard against pit bulls. It found evidence that attacks by "pit bull-type dogs" along with the other trendy, fearsome breed from the 90s, Rottweilers, caused 67 percent of dog bite related fatalities in the US in 1997 and 1998.
But to know how dangerous these types were, the CDC would have had to know just how common pit bulls and Rottweilers were, and the author of the report seems to have no idea. "It is extremely unlikely that they accounted for anywhere near 60 percent of dogs in the United States during that same period," the author writes. Then they go out on a limb: "There appears to be a breed-specific problem with fatalities."
But despite a "breed-specific problem" being tough to nail down due to the aforementioned labeling problem, a blogger named Merritt Clifton tried last year. He pulled her numbers from media reports involving different breeds attacking people. In other words, these were cases where a witness or journalist probably determined whether a dog was a pit bull by eyeballing it. According to his report, pit bulls make up 6 percent of all dogs in Canada and the US, but pit bull attacks were the cause of 52 percent of dog-related deaths from 1982 through 2009, and 68 percent of attacks in general.
Strictly speaking, there might be problems with scientific rigor in this report, including that irritating label-versus-breed thing, and possible over-reporting of pit bull-related incidents. Still, Clifton argues in the report, "even if half of the attacks in the pit bull category were misattributed, or even if the pit bull category was split four ways, attacks by pit bulls and their closest relatives would still outnumber attacks by any other breed."
Other data-gathering on the topic is incomplete. In 2009 there was a very limited study of disfigured children treated for dog bite-related problems at one particular plastic surgery clinic. 51 percent reported being attacked by pit bulls. "Attacks by pit bulls are associated with higher morbidity rates, higher hospital charges, and a higher risk of death than are attacks by other breeds of dogs," the report concluded. In 2008, however, the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science studied aggressive behaviors by giving people a questionnaire. It found that pit bulls were "generally more aggressive toward other dogs," but that there was no evidence for higher rates of aggression toward people.
It seems possible, however, that there's nothing in a pit bull's nature that makes it dangerous, and that abuse turns them into ticking time-bombs of canine fury. It was a possibility Coleen Lynn seemed open to. "Any dog that's long-term shelter-bound could emerge from that with problems," she said, adding, "there's no question that pit bulls have been victimized. We've done that. Michael Vick, and dog fighters for centuries have done that."
Bradley wasn't on board. She claimed that a little bit of love goes a long way toward soothing the erstwhile savage beast. "Dogs are incredibly plastic, and adaptive to humane treatment," she said.
If anything can comfort me, it's that I'm personally at a low risk for dog attacks of any kind. In addition to not owning a pit bull—surely a great start toward not being attacked by one—a 2013 report in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association identified a group of circumstances that make someone more likely to be killed by a dog, one of those circumstances was that 87.1 percent were too weak to put up a reasonable fight, and had no one around to help. I, on the other hand, am an able bodied adult.
But even more comforting than that are the stats that show that even if a dog attacks me, it's probably not the end of the world. The aforementioned 2013 study looked at every fatal dog attack from 2000-2009, and there were only 256, or about 25.6 fatalities per year, and that's out of 4.5 million dog bites per year, according to the CDC. And in a CDC report from 2001, out of the 333,700 patients treated in emergency rooms for dog bites, only 1.8 percent were hospitalized. That means if a dog does attack me, the odds of being seriously injured or killed are almost infinitesimal. For a little contrast, a study in 2014 by the University of Pennsylvania found that approximately one third of gunshots are fatal.
In other words, I'd prefer to avoid a pit bull attack. Who wouldn't? But I'm a fairly large and capable human. I fought off that kuvasz, and I bet I could do something similar to most pit bulls. Even if the pit bull got the better of me in a fight, given the puny odds of my injuries being serious or fatal, I can reason my way toward telling myself I'm worrying about nothing, and I'll be fine—as long as I don't leave any babies near a pit bull.
Besides, unlike other unlikely things that scare me, ignoring my fear in this case comes with an added benefit: Most dogs—even pit bulls—are nice to pet.
Final Verdict: How Scared Should I Be of Pit Bulls?
2/5: Taking Normal Precautions
Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.
Note: A previous version referred to male blogger Merritt Clifton as female.