If you regularly feel anxious, you might be the perfect candidate for a dog bite.
According to a new study published today (Feb. 1) in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, dog bites in the United Kingdom may be three times more common than official records indicate. One surprising reason for this? People with an emotionally anxious personality appear to be the likeliest recipients of dog bites (and the least likely people to report them), researchers said.
"The only official statistics collected on dog bites in the U.K. are hospital admissions, not even visits to emergency rooms for treatments," lead study author Carri Westgarth, a research fellow at the University of Liverpool's Department of Epidemiology and Population Health, told Live Science in an email. "We have no idea how many people are actually bitten by dogs and how many bites require medical treatment." [What Your Dog's Breed Says About Your Personality]
To obtain a more accurate snapshot of canine-induced damage, Westgarth and her colleagues surveyed nearly 700 people in 385 households in the small town of Cheshire about their dog-bite experience. Veterinary students went door-to-door, conducting brief interviews with Cheshire residents about dog ownership, and then left more detailed questionnaires with the willing participants.
The questionnaires asked any participants who had been bitten by dogs to elaborate on one biting incident, providing information on how old they were at the time of the bite, their relationship to the dog and whether they sought medical attention afterward. Adult respondents also filled out a 10-item personality test, which helped researchers categorize the participants according to the so-called Big Five personality traits (extroversion, conscientiousness, openness to new experiences, agreeableness and emotional stability).
Right away, the researchers found that the rate of dog-bite incidents reported by Cheshire residents greatly exceeded the national average indicated by official hospital records. "Hospital records show the rate of dog bites is 740 per 100,000 [people] of the population, but the survey responses indicate a rate of 1,873 per 100,000 — nearly three times the official figure," the researchers wrote in the study.
When the team started looking at the common factors behind the respondents' reported dog bites, things got a little more interesting. For one, men were nearly twice as likely as women to have been bitten in their lifetimes. About 44 percent of bites occurred in childhood (when participants were younger than 16 years old), and 55 percent of bites were inflicted by dogs that the victim had never met before the incident. "Other research suggests that most bites are from familiar dogs, but this challenges that," Westgarth said.
Most surprising, though, was an apparent link between dog bites and respondents who scored lowest for emotional stability on the personality test. The more emotionally unstable a person was, the more likely they were to have been bitten by a dog.
"Our findings suggest that the less anxious, irritable and depressed a person is, the less likely they are to have been bitten," Westgarth said.
Related: Dog-mauling death: Why dogs turn on their owners
As conducted, the study cannot confirm whether a person's low emotional stability results in a higher likelihood of being bitten, or whether being bitten results in lower emotional stability. Further research is required, Westgarth said — and for her, it's personal.
"Unfortunately, I have been bitten at least five times that I can remember," she said. "Mostly whilst working in rescue kennels, but sadly, I also suffered a bite to the face as a toddler from one of our family dogs — and I still have the scar on my forehead to prove it!"
Originally published on Live Science.