Pit nutter Adam Goldfarb, who heads up the Pets at Risk program at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), likes to point out to media members as often as possible that one is more likely to be killed by a “bolt of lightning than by a dog“. A Google Search of “lightening kills adam goldfarb” yields numerous results.

Shortly after Goldfarb’s statement was picked up by media sources, a respected member of the human-animal bond community, Dr. Alan M. Beck, wrote a letter that was published in Animal People Sept 09. Beck’s letter addresses many issues including how Goldfarb’s statement minimizes serious and fatal dog attacks.

Dog attack deaths & risk of lightning

In an article in my local newspaper today, a spokesperson for a major humane organization, in an attempt to minimize the risk to the public from dog attacks, is quoted as saying that more people are killed by lightning than dogs.

The National Weather Service said there were 27 lightning deaths as of this date in 2009, 28 in 2008, and 45 in 2007. This reflects the success of efforts to reduce the numbers of deaths from lightning strikes, which have historically killed an average of 73 Americans per year.

The highest number of people ever killed by dogs in one year in the U.S. was 33, in 2007. The average in this decade is more than 20, about double the average of the preceding two decades. Thus the death tolls from lightning and dog attacks are converging.

The humane society spokesperson failed to point out that even though lightning deaths are rare and becoming fewer, we still do whatever we can to minimize the risk, e.g., clearing public swimming pools during electrical storms, suspending golf games, installing lightning rods, and doing public education.

Attention to any public health risk is influenced by severity, the impacted population, and the economic interests of those affected.

Minimizing rabies has a huge veterinary and pharmaceutical establishment supporting it, so we respond to the disease despite its extremely rare occurrence in the U.S.

Minimizing dog attacks has no such economic support, so we minimize their importance by minimizing perception of the occurrence, even though fatal and disfiguring dog attacks are hundreds of times more common in the U.S. than human cases of rabies.

As they say at the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, it is naïve to think disease is simply the presence of a pathogen.

Alan M. Beck, Sc.D. Professor & Director
Center for the Human-Animal Bond
School of Veterinary Medicine
Purdue University