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Dog attack: the tragic attack that took the life of a six-year-old boy in Canton Zurich in December has focused attention on dog owners and animal control laws.

It can be all too easy to be swayed by emotional arguments, but a recent (2002) study by Ursula Horisberger entitled Hundebisse in der Schweiz: Eine Wissenschaftliche Studie (Dog Bites in Switzerland: A Scientific Study) finds some risk in the time-honoured tradition of the family dog.

In Switzerland this year, about 13,000 people will seek medical treatment for dog bites in hospital or at their doctor's office. That's about 180 attacks for every 100,000 residents.

About 15 per cent of us live with a dog. Horisberger found that in over two-thirds of all cases, the victims of dog bites were children, meaning that their risk of being bitten is twice as high as an adult's.

Half of us know the dog that bites us and, most often, we are working or playing with them when it happens. In 68 per cent of cases we are petting, brushing, washing, lifting, leashing or disciplining them at the time.

Where we are bitten by an unknown dog (and that's 42 per cent of incidents), the bite is usually sudden, involving no prior interaction.

Children are attacked more often in the head, considered generally more dangerous, whereas adults more often suffer injuries to the hands, arms and legs. Injuries to the head and hands often require medical treatment or surgery.

Breeding discontent

Horisberger's study also suggests some basis for a fear of large dogs. According to the statistics, small breeds bite less often than large ones. In addition, small breeds cause fewer serious injuries than large breeds. Interestingly, however, small children (under five years) were bitten equally often by small breeds as by large breeds.

Male dogs caused injuries three times as often as female dogs. Mutts or mongrels caused injuries at a rate equal to purebred animals.

There has also been a lot of discussion about specific dog breeds that are considered more prone to attack. Switzerland's most common breeds--German and Belgian Shepherds, followed by Labrador and Golden Retrievers--caused a majority of injuries.

However, the study found Shepherds and Rottweilers caused a statistically higher number of injuries than their representation in the dog population would suggest, while Retrievers caused statistically fewer.


In December's attack, three dogs fatally injured a six-year-old boy from Oberglatt, near Zurich. The dogs, 15-month-old Pitbull Terriers, were euthanised. Being investigated for negligent manslaughter, were the owner of the flat where the dogs were being kept, as well as the dogs' owner and his girlfriend, who reportedly allowed them to escape.

The Swiss government in January recommended keeping a national register for dog bites. (In keeping with an earlier measure, all dogs must also be micro-chipped by the end of this year.)

The government has also recommended a ban on Pitbulls and tighter restrictions on ownership and breeding of 13 dog breeds.

At press time, a government decision was still pending on whether to adopt those recommendations in whole or in part, but the proposal had been sharply criticised by some cantonal veterinarians for singling out 13 breeds for restrictions. The Swiss Canine Association said tighter restrictions should instead be placed on breeders.

Other critics argue that many dogs are not purebred, or of any clear descent, and generalisation based on breed is flawed and even dangerous.

Common ground

Most are in support of additional proposals for preventive measures and awareness campaigns, which are based on successful protocol imposed in Neuchatel in 2001.

In Neuchatel, where every reported attack is subject to investigation, only one of 16 serious attacks involved a breed on the government's current hit list. Switzerland's most common large dog breeds, Belgian and German Shepherds, are known to bite but are not on that list.

Dog bites are down 30 per cent since Neuchatel's new protocol required any offending dogs to be assessed and, where necessary, leashed, muzzled or euthanised.

Regulations to date

In terms of import and breeding, Swiss legislation on dangerous dogs has been less strict than other European countries'.

In Germany, Britain and the Netherlands, it is illegal to import or breed some types of dogs and in France, it's illegal to buy, sell, import or breed so-called dangerous dogs. In Britain, dogs that 'might be' dangerous must be muzzled.

Laws regulating dog ownership in Switzerland attempt to protect the rights of dog owners, the public at large and the animals themselves. Federal laws have covered the legal and financial responsibility of the dog owner in the event that the animal causes injury or property damage, classifying a dog as a weapon when it is used to injure another person.

According to Dr. Gieri Bolliger of the 'Stiftung fur das Tier im Recht' (Foundation for Animals and the Law), in the event that a dog owner acts maliciously or negligently (not in defense) and allows or causes their dog to inflict grievous injuries, even on an intruder in their home, they may be imprisoned up to ten years, depending on the result of the attack.

If the injuries resulting from the attack are less severe, the dog owner might face a jail sentence of up to three years. Fines are up to SFr 20,000. When the owner's life is threatened, a dog may be used as a means of self-defense until the threat has passed.

There are also animal protection laws, which forbid animals to be trained for aggressiveness, as this is deemed cruel to the animals themselves. Penalties range from fines of up to SFr 20,000 to jail sentences of up to three months.

If a dog causes damage to property as a result of the owner's neglect, the owner is responsible for replacing the monetary value of the property.

Free download

The Swiss Federal Veterinary Office website has prepared a full-colour, 30-page booklet (available in German and French) illustrated in cartoon style, which discusses the best behaviour around dogs.

Owner obligations

Check with your canton. For example, owners in Basel-Stadt and Basel-Land, require a license for owners of certain 'dangerous breeds'. Dogs known to bite, must be muzzled and leashed in public.

Canton Zurich has specifically required this for American Pitbulls, American Staffordshire Terriers, Bullterriers und Staffordshire Bullterriers (and all mixes of these breeds).

All over Switzerland:

* Dogs are to be kept in a manner that is safe for the public, and humane and suitable to them. Violation can result in SFr 20,000 fine and up to three months in jail.

* Dog owners and keepers are to ensure that the animals do not disturb the public by barking or other behaviour. Parties can sue for damages and the court can order the dog removed from the premises.

* Dogs that are ill or in heat, must be kept on a leash at all times. If known to bite they must also be muzzled. Fines of up to several hundred francs vary by canton.

* Dogs may not be set upon a person; a dog that has attacked someone must be restrained by all possible means. Depending on the results of the attack, the owner may be held liable under both criminal and civil codes.

* Dogs suffering from untreatable, painful diseases and dogs deemed dangerous to the public must be put down, and this can be ordered either by a veterinarian or judge in extreme cases.

* Dogs born in Switzerland do not require rabies vaccination because the disease is considered to have been eradicated here, imported dogs may need proof of vaccination at the border.

Booklet and brochure from the SFVO and Horisberger's study:

Legal information: Stiftung for das Tier im Recht:
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Author:Pattison, Margaret
Publication:Swiss News
Geographic Code:4EXSI
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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