The Epidemiology of Dog Bites: An Interview with Dr. Locksley Messam
Dr. Locksley L. Messam is a post-doctoral scholar at the University of California Davis where he researches human-animal interactions, the effects of animals on human health and well-being and epidemiological methodology.
HABRI Central staff interviewed Dr. Messam at Purdue University in conjunction with a talk he was giving about his research.
This interview is abridged.
How did you get started in the field of human animal bond?
I never describe myself as a person who is interested in the human-animal bond. I always say “human-animal interactions”. I think that the field of human-animal interactions encompasses aspects of the human-animal bond. One might say it could be a subset of human-animal bond-related issues or, depending on how you interpret it, the human-animal bond could be a subset of human-animal interactions-related issues. It’s just a personal preference of mine: I usually say “human-animal interactions”. But how did I get interested in the field? I think it has never really been formal. My first introduction to this, and not in a manner that was particularly convincing, was while I was in vet school in Hungary. I remember sitting in the first row listening to a physiology professor speak. Sitting in the first or second row? Because I was studying in Hungarian, I really had to pay attention and he, for some reason, started to speak about how there were elderly persons in Hungarian society, at the twilight of their lives, whose only “friend” was their dog or their cat and that we veterinarians had a role to play in that relationship. I was there sort of rolling my eyes (not obviously of course), saying to myself I really have left Jamaica to come here to study veterinary medicine, not to hear somebody go off on tangents – talking about pets as companions for the elderly. I mean, I am here to learn to cut and to stitch-up and to inject and to diagnose, not for that sort of a thing. That was not what I was interested in. I do recall that this was my first introduction. I have always remembered this experience, especially while I was in the throes of my graduate studies, sometimes having to deal with human animal bond issues, which I found to be out of my comfort zone. Sometimes there were things that, culturally, were very foreign to me. When I became a graduate student in epidemiology some years (after that lecture), I understood that human-animal interactions might provide an explanation for a number of human conditions – zoonotic disease, dog bites, allergies. One way of looking at it is that they are all a function of the way in which we interact with animals. In a sense, it’s a function of whatever bond (or lack thereof) exists with animals. Having learned some epidemiology and always wanting to bridge the gap between human and animal medicine, and to serve in that area, I think that’s how I (finally) came to human-animal interactions. It is really an under-developed area of endeavor especially among epidemiologists.
Today you are going to talk about dog bites, can you elaborate on your work with that?
Well, I have done some work on the sort of the environment, human-animal environment, as well as on some cultural differences in the places which dog bites occur. My dissertation work was on human-animal interactions as a risk factor for dog bites. Such as the environment which provides the context for the interactions that lead to the dog bite. A major question was: whether there were aspects of the environment that humans and dogs live in that could be risk or protective factors, for dog bites? I have also compared risk factors for bites occurring during and outside of the context of play and am currently working on some methodological issues having to do with dog bites. The choice of what we call “control groups” in particular types of epidemiologic studies: These are also called reference groups – groups to which you compare persons who have been bitten. That is an area of interest.
You mentioned methodological issues. Other than control groups, are there any other problems with methodology that you see in the area of dog bite research?
I should say that the choice of control groups is a very big one. There are two other things that come to mind very quickly. The first area is that there are two types of dog bite studies, one that focuses on the agent of the dog bite: the dog. So we can investigate factors that make a dog bite – dog related factors. But there is another type of dog bite study that focuses on the victim or the host of the dog bite. These regard factors that put you at risk of being bitten. It is not always clear in dog bite studies which one is being studied. It is not an argument to suggest that it is necessary to do both all the time, but we need to be very clear about which one we are paying attention to. If we have difficulty in seeing that they might be distinct, you would understand that a dog that might bite you might not bite me. If it bites me it is a biter, but if it doesn’t bite you it suggests that people with my characteristics are at risk for being bitten, but people with your characteristics may not be or be at lower risk for being bitten. It is interesting to understand and make those distinctions because the risk of a dog biting is not necessarily the same as the risk of a person being bitten. The second area, which I think is related, is that, unlike many other injuries for example, when you ride your skate board and get a concussion or you drive and crash your car, dog bites are injuries that involve two independently interacting populations: Two autonomous populations, and it is at the point of interaction that the injury occurs. I think this requires particular methodological issues to deal with adequately.
In your research that you’ve done so far, what do you think are the most significant findings that you have made?
Well one thing that sticks out is that we did a study and investigated bites that occurred during play and bites that occurred outside of the context of play. By during play, I mean when the person said they were playing with the dog. It is important to emphasize that the human was playing with the dog. As to whether the dog was playing or not, might be an entirely different question. There is some research that suggests that we are notoriously inept at recognizing the signs of a dog that is becoming aggressive. For the most part, we found that risk factors for when a person was bitten while not playing with the dog were the same as when they said they were bitten while playing with the dog.
What are some of those risk factors?
Some of them were environmental risk factors, for example if the dog sleeps in the family member’s bedroom, if the dog is allowed in the presence of visitors and strangers in the home, and whether the dog is routinely removed after it growls. Those factors which seemed to increase the risk of biting a human being outside of play also increased the risk of biting a human being, while the human was playing with the dog.
Did you find any factors that were protective against bites?
Interestingly, dogs that were obtained primarily for protection compared to dogs that were obtained primarily for companionship, seemed to have bitten less than those who were kept for companionship. It seems a bit unusual, but I think there could be some explanation for that as well. Imagine that if you get a dog for protection you might take special precautions to ensure that it is not in certain places at certain times. Dogs that are for companionship are more likely to find themselves in situations with humans where they react naturally with aggression.
Did you find any particular breed of dog was more prone to bite?
What I found was that German Shepherds and Shih-Tzus tended to be at a higher risk for biting than Labradors or Rottweilers. That’s what I found in the study I did.
What do you think the biggest issues facing you and your research and your field are?
I would say funding, but I would say also that things are changing. I would say there is also an issue of recognition, which is related to funding. Human-animal interaction is an area that is very multidisciplinary and much of it is not strictly scientific. And so, for some persons in the world of science it is probably not seen as that important: It is not like cancer and it is not like molecular biology. I would say that unless it in some way proves to be an area that affects a person’s life in an obvious and dramatic way, the situation is likely to persist for some time.
Do you have any particular ways that you think would be effective in expressing that importance to people and possibly to people that would fund projects?
I think what needs to be done is to have some well-crafted research that over a period of time helps to demonstrate that the presence of animals in our lives is beneficial in ways that helps society concretely. That’s all you can really hope for. I don’t know if it will ever become as important or as major as infectious diseases or cancers. In fact, I don’t know that it needs to be and I don’t think it’s necessary to try to make it out to be. It just is what it is. But I do think it has a niche that is respectable. My personal take on it is to not make it appear any more important than it should be, but to give it the importance that is due. Now that’s my approach, as to whether that will get me funding or not, I don’t know. I have my doubts.
Now, sort of talking about where the field could go, do you have any future research projects or new areas of interest that you plan on pursuing?
Well, one of them is the issue of interactions that immediately precede a dog bite. On that, very little research has been done. In my view, that is very, very important. Before a dog bite, there are always acts that facilitate the bite occurring. There is always something that has happened. It might be as simple as walking into the room or it might be petting the dog on the head, or it might be putting your hand in the bowl of a dog that is eating. So, there is work to be done on that.
Is there anything else you think is important about your research or for the field that we haven’t asked you about yet?
One thing is that the field of human-animal interactions is a very wide field. There is a lot of talk about ‘one health’ and ‘one medicine’ and I would say that human animal-interactions has not gotten a lot of attention in that context.
About Dr. Locksley L. McV. Messam, DVM, PhD
Originally from Jamaica, Dr. Messam received his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Szent István University, Budapest, Hungary and continued on to earn his DMV from the State University of Milan, Italy. Dr. Messam practiced as a companion animal veterinarian for a few years before coming to the United States to attend graduate school. After earning his PhD in Epidemiology from the University of California Davis, he first did post-doctoral work at the University of California Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, then taught at St. George’s University before returning to the University of California Davis as a post-doctoral scholar in the School of Medicine.