State data indicate local dog attacks on the rise

Jack Encarnacao

Her attacker has been put to death, but Lita Salvucci has a long road ahead of her. The 77-year-old spent eight days in a Boston hospital after a bulldog bit her arms and legs in her Wollaston yard Nov. 8. It could have been worse if a neighbor hadn’t fended off the dog.

Salvucci’s story is increasingly common: The number of dog bites that resulted in emergency room visits were at their highest locally and statewide last year. Statewide, there was a 19.7 percent increase in bites that ended up with the victims admitted to a hospital.

Animal experts are unsure what to make of data that suggest dogs are more aggressive one year over another.

“Dog bites are always a combination of the owner, the one responsible for the dog, the dog and the person being bitten,” said Dr. Amy Marder, director of the Center for Shelter Dogs at the Animal Rescue League of Boston. “And they are different, in almost every case. So it’s hard to make generalizations of why this is a worse year.”

Don Conboy, Quincy’s animal control officer, said last week’s Wollaston attack was one of the worst he’s seen in 12 years on the job. The dog, which had bitten the same woman two weeks earlier, was put to death Thursday.

“This was particularly bad,” he said. “It bit her a few times, and she had to go the hospital. Normally, (the victim) doesn’t have to go to the hospital.”

It was the latest in a series of newsworthy, and particularly vicious, dog bites locally. Two weeks ago, Hingham officials ordered an English mastiff to be put down after it bit two people, including the wife of Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield, at the Hingham Square Gallery.

Also last month, a Shih Tzu puppy was killed by several larger dogs at an animal day care in Stoughton. And in June, Cohasset officials banished a pit bull after it attacked another dog and bit a young girl in the face.

Still, the numbers back up the anecdotal evidence of a surge in dog attacks. Last year’s 602 ER visits in Norfolk County and 579 in Plymouth County were the highest since the state Department of Public Health began collecting the data in 2002. The 24 hospital admissions in Plymouth County was the most in 10 years.

There’s no clear explanation for the jump, although there are theories.

Karen Price, owner of South Paws Doggy Day Care in Pembroke, said an explosion of Internet pet sales in the past three to five years has led to less scrutiny of dogs’ temperament before they are sold.

Price said reputable breeders will study a puppy’s quirks and temperament before matching a family with a dog. But when buying pets on the Internet, Price said, “ignorance is bliss.” She speculates some may sell pets online to hide behavioral issues – and thus get a better price.

“You just pick by a picture, and who knows if you’re even going to get that puppy,” she said. “There’s no way to determine ... their temperament.”

Others say the increase could be tied to the fact that more young dogs are being purchased.

“If they get (dogs) at a very young age, that’s where the biting starts, I think,” said Joanne Mainiero, president of the Weymouth-based Massachusetts Humane Society. “The kids run around the backyard, and the dog starts nipping at the heels. The dog creates the leg as a toy. People get a puppy figuring, ‘How can you go wrong?’

“You can go big-time wrong.”

Jack Encarnacao may be reached at jencarnacao@ledger.com.