May 20, 2024 - News

Philadelphia police on pace to hit four-year high in dog killings

Illustration of a dog collar with a metal pendant in the shape of an emergency symbol with an exclamation point.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Philadelphia police dog killings are on track to reach a new high since at least 2020, per data obtained by Axios.

Why it matters: A spate of dog attacks in the last two weeks has instilled fear in residents, but animal advocates say the recent spike could be an unfortunate coincidence.

By the numbers: Police shot and killed four dogs in the first five months of 2024 — one fewer than they did in all of 2023, when the department had its highest dog-killing total in recent years.

  • Police couldn't immediately provide dog-killings data before 2020.

Yes, but: Dog bites through the first five months of the year are at 59, well below the 235 reported in 2023 and 355 in 2015, per police data.

  • In the four cases this year where police resorted to deadly force, animal advocates say dogs were either attacking people or other animals.
A column chart that displays the annual reported dog bites in Philadelphia from 2015 to 2024. The number of bites peaked at 355 in 2015, then generally decreased, reaching a low of 146 in 2021. However, a slight increase is observed in 2022 and 2023. As of May 15, there have been 59 bites in 2024.
Data: Philadelphia Police Department; Chart: Axios Visuals

Driving the news: The Mantua community has been on edge this month after footage emerged online of a dog attack in the West Philly neighborhood, where a pack of dogs, including three pit bulls, mauled a man while he was on the ground.

  • In North Philadelphia, an officer shot a pit bull during an attack that killed another dog last week.
  • The officers involved are all on administrative duty pending the outcomes of investigations into the shootings.

Zoom in: Under department policy, officers are allowed to use deadly force on a dog when they reasonably believe they or someone else may be killed or seriously hurt, and "there is no other reasonable means to eliminate the threat."

  • In Mantua, police say the officer tried warding off the dogs with his sirens before resorting to shooting the cane corso to halt the attack.

The big picture: Experts say it's important to understand that the odds of an attack go up in densely populated areas like Philly, which is home to more than 780,000 dogs.

  • While fatal dog shootings are on the rise, the city is on track to record the fewest number of dog bites ever over the same period.

What they're saying: Sarah Barnett of ACCT Philadelphia, the region's largest animal shelter, says that while the attacks are alarming, it's important to look at the greater context.

  • "It's like people getting struck by lightning. It does happen. And when it does happen, it makes the news because it's rare," she says. "Thousands of people walk their dogs every day, and this doesn't happen."

State of play: Animal shelters across the country, including in Philadelphia, have dealt with a surge in dogs coming into their doors post-pandemic.

  • Philadelphia's euthanasia rate doubled last year compared to what it was in 2020 as it dealt with space constraints.
  • Meanwhile, shelters are under increasing pressure to save as many dogs as possible, as some animal advocates push for a universal "no-kill" status at all U.S. shelters.

Zoom in: Barnett tells Axios that has left some shelters feeling pressure to place dogs that have bitten or attacked people or other dogs.

  • Shelter workers evaluate animals to see which ones they believe can be rehabilitated.

Barnett says dogs are like people in that they are shaped by a complex interplay of genetics and environmental surroundings, including trauma from abuse or abandonment, that can cause them to act aggressively in certain situations.

  • Most behavioral triggers can be eliminated or managed with training.

The bottom line: The best way for dog owners and residents to avoid attacks is by remaining vigilant, Barnett says.

  • Since most dogs with aggressive tendencies have had prior close encounters, the public is encouraged to report suspected dangerous dogs to the police or animal control, Barnett says.
  • If someone is getting attacked, call authorities. If you intervene, dogs are sometimes deterred by loud noises or getting sprayed with water.
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