The number of people admitted to hospital for dog bites reached a record high this year, with almost one in three victims being children under the age of 14, according to NHS statistics. More than 4,500 people were admitted to hospital for treatment in England alone in 2006/07.
The figures a 10 per cent rise in a year and a 50 per cent rise since records were first collected in 1998/99 have sparked fresh calls to improve protection from dangerous dogs.
Dog-related deaths are rare, but scores of children are seriously injured and scarred every week. Nearly 90 people were admitted to hospital for bite injuries every week last year, but this number, say experts, is the tip of the iceberg with up to three times as many victims treated in A&E departments for less serious wounds.
Rajiv Grover, consultant plastic surgeon and secretary of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons said: "This is a serious problem. The 4,574 is almost certainly only a third or a quarter of the actual injuries.
"Plastic surgeons will see the most serious cases, and 80 per cent of my cases have been children. A little girl I treated recently, aged three or four, had horrendous facial injuries, wth parts of her nose and eye lid missing. She'll be left with scars for ever."
The death of one-year-old Archie-Lee Hirst in Wakefield comes almost a year after five-year-old Ellie Lawrenson was killed by her uncle's pit bull terrier in Merseyside on New Year's Day. Her grandmother, who let the dog into the house, was cleared of manslaughter but her uncle, Kiel Simpson, 23, was jailed for owning an illegal dog.
The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 (amended in 1997) was introduced after an outcry about dog attacks. It outlawed four breeds the pit bull, Japanese tosa, dogo Argentino and fila Brasileiro and their cross breeds. They became illegal to own without a certificate of exemption, granted only after the animal was neutered, insured, tattooed with an exemption code and implanted with a transponder.
The maximum fine for a banned dog is 5,000 or six months in prison. Critics, including the RSPCA and the Kennel Club, argue that the Act has not reduced the number of attacks or dealt with irresponsible owners. Since the law was passed at least six children and one adult have died in dog attacks. In 2005 there was 929 prosecutions under the Act in England and Wales.
Kennel Club secretary Caroline Kisko said yesterday: "Because it was a knee-jerk reaction it was poorly drafted. Another hasty decision will do nothing to address the real issues of responsible dog ownership."
Dog experts pointed out yesterday that most attacks are carried out by "legal" pets, but banned dogs are still sold on the internet. "Any dog can be trained to attack, so a breed-specific ban misses the point," said an RSPCA spokeswoman.
Dog ownership numbers have remained stable at nearly 7m for more than a decade but some breeds, such as Staffordshire bull terriers and Rottweilers, have become more popular. Complaints to the police, RSPCA and councils about teenagers with "Staffies" are rising as it becomes the legal "hard dog" of choice. According to Laura Jenkins, director of animal welfare at Battersea dogs' and cats' home, "lonely and scared kids want these dogs to feel safer on the streets.
"Children and dogs can be wonderful but they should never be left alone together, and there always needs to be a responsible adult in charge of training."
Additional reporting by Sadie Gray
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