In the area of companion animal activism pit bulls tend to get much of the attention, with many breed-specific rescue and advocacy organizations focusing solely or primarily on pit bulls, often promoting them as ideal family pets. Often this focus is a reaction to legal campaigns to regulate or ban pit bulls known as breed-specific legislation(BSL) driven by media reports of maulings and fatal attacks attributed to pit bulls and the subsequent portrayal of them as mean, nasty killers. The public discussion on pit bulls and the surrounding issues is complex, with people on either extreme of the issue often employing emotionally charged and fuzzy reasoning. Both sides often accuse the other of being financially motivated, uncaring, deluded and/or uneducated. Both sides have sad and gruesome photos, questionable statistics, flashy info-graphics, and plenty of talking points to throw at you as well. At the end of the day it can be hard to find objective references and tease out the relevant bits of data and logically sound arguments, but if we are truly concerned with ethics then it behooves us to look past the slogans and emotional appeals.
To begin with, the term “pit bull” refers not to one breed but refers to several including the American pit bull terrier (APBT), American Staffordshire terrier (AmStaff), Staffordshire bull terrier (Staffie), and according to some definitions in legislation, any substantially similar dog. This makes for a somewhat vague category, though many of these dog do often share similar genetic backgrounds, they are often crossed with each other or with other breeds making for a good bit of variation. Originally bred largely for working and fighting, pit bulls are quite energetic and strong dogs, often prized for their “gameness“, or ability to persevere through difficult and painful tasks, a trait they share with other terrier breeds. But gameness, when combined with aggression creates the potential for sustained and deadly attacks often requiring extreme force to stop. The question of whether pit bulls have an increased potential for aggression is what has created much of the controversy.
In reaction to media reports some places have enacted breed specific legislation aimed at reducing serious attacks and deaths. One of the issues when talking about BSL is vagueness, the term “breed specific legislation” covers a variety of laws, anywhere from restricting felons from having certain breeds, mandatory spay/neuter, micro-chipping, insurance requirements, handling requirements, to outright breed bans, so we should be careful when making comparisons or drawing conclusions based on one community’s experience. It should also be noted that pit bulls are not the only breed targeted by BSL, many other breeds with fighting, hunting, or guarding history are mentioned in legislation in various places, including but not limited to the Dogo Argentino, Fila Brasileiro, Japanese Tosa, Presa Canario, Rhodesian Ridgeback, Rottweiler, Doberman, German Shepherd, Akita, and of particular interest, Wolfdogs.
Opponents of BSL cite evidence, largely from other nations, that such legislation does not work and is often counterproductive, leading to an increase in bites and killing of pit bulls. They have even gone so far in some cases as to pass laws preventing the enactment of breed specific legislation. On the other hand, advocates say that there is plenty of data showing BSL to be an effective public safety tool for both humans and dogs. Advocates also claim that conflating dog bites with serious maiming and fatalities is disingenuous, as BSL is aimed at preventing the most serious of dog attacks. As evidence that pit bulls are particularly dangerous, BSL advocates tend to most often cite a study from 2000 titled Breeds of dogs involved in fatal human attacks in the United States between 1979 and 1998 which concluded that pit bulls were indeed the breed responsible for the majority of reported dog bite related fatalities (DBRFs), followed somewhat closely by Rottweilers. Its should be noted though that the authors of the study all openly oppose BSL. While this study is often criticized for using media sourced reports it is not the only study to find a breed effect (others are listed at the end of this post), not just for pit bulls but for other breeds as well. Unfortunately its not easy to estimate the actual dog population by breed in the US leaving us with a floating numerator. This is not to say individuals haven’t tried to make an estimate, some have used the AKC breed registry but this is highly skewed toward purebred owners who choose to register their dog and only represents a small percentage of the dog population. Others have used local dog licensing records, the accuracy of these numbers often depends on the level of compliance which in many cities is quite low. Some have attempted to use shelter intake numbers, which should be obviously problematic. Still others have used classified ads to calculate the amount of each breeds being sold, this too has its own issues. These various sources don’t give the most accurate numbers but viewed together they can give us some ranges in which to estimate. It should be noted that the breed effect seen in the 2000 CDC study and others has shifted over the years, possibly with the increased and decreasing popularity of some breeds but still shows a number of serious attacks for certain breeds disproportional to most reasonable estimates of breed prevalence.
Another oft cited resource by BSL advocates is the Clifton Report, compiled by the editor of Animal People magazine, which states that “pit bulls & close pit mixes” are responsible for 47% of fatal attacks and 56% of maimings. The Clifton Report has its own issues of accuracy and is heavily criticized by pit bull advocates though I find these criticisms at times logically fallacious, this is not to say it is the most robust data set either. There are confounding factors with these studies that should be noted such as the difficulty of visually assessing breed accurately, but DNA testing for breed identification has itself also been criticized as next to worthless. Besides breed, which as noted was not always a stable factor in studies, other potentially relevant factors that can be gleaned from the research is the dog’s reproductive status, sex, age, and socialization. The human factor while not perfectly studied has been of interest as well including, the effect of the involvement of unsupervised children, whether the dog was chained or not, type of enclosure, provocation, socioeconomic status, ect. We must always remember that “correlation does not imply causation”, if the effect we see in these studies does correlate with breed it still doesn’t tell us why, but we should also not use such skeptical mantras to dismiss an uncomfortable idea out of hand. Nor should we too quickly dismiss the possibility of better data and further research on the excuse that it is impractical, out of fear that it may reveal something inconvenient to our established beliefs. Being a cynic is easy but being a skeptic requires “hard intellectual work” and willingness to consider that we may be wrong.
Because of their history and actual and/or perceived attributes pit bulls have become the dog of choice among those looking for a “strong and tough” dog, whether for use as a fashion accessory or as an actual weapon. This is not to say all pit bull owners are like this, rather that they have become the dog of choice among people most likely to be bad “owners”. Despite begin outlawed dog fighting is still in existence and pit bulls are still generally the fighting dog of choice though other physically similar dogs are used as well. When dog fighters are actually take to court they too often will get off easy or have charges dropped due to technicalities or biased judges and cops and when they do, the dog fighting community openly cheers. Between dog fighters breeding for the next champ and backyard breeders doing it for a buck the pit bull population has risen and with it increased numbers ending up in shelters and on death row. These people should be the enemy of any animal rights advocate and pit bull lover but too often breeders and dog fighters use pit bull advocacy and rescue as a cover. In one case the then Director of the Fulton County Animal shelter and anti-BSL activist, Jere Alexander, was accused of mismanaging aggressive dogs at the shelter resulting in five dogs killed in fights and injuries to staff. She was found to have personal dog fighting connections after she resigned in disgrace. While on staff an aggressive pit bull being held as evidence in a dog fighting case along with 83 cats were taken by her from the shelter, leading to some gruesome speculations. Unfortunately Alexander is not the only animal shelter director allegedly found to be involved in dog fighting. In another case, Donald D. Chambers duped Best Friends Animal Sanctuary into giving him $36,720 and 28 rescued dogs following Hurricane Katrina supposedly in hopes of finding them good homes, but in the end only 3 dogs made it to new home and 3 were given back to Best Friends. Chambers was eventually caught & prosecuted but it was too late for the 6 dogs that went missing and the rest that died or were killed. Other victims of post-Katrina fraud and cruelty include a number of pit bulls being “cared for” by William and Sandra Coy on behalf of the Louisiana Humane Society, the issue came to light when investigators responded to a report of foul odor coming from their property. Investigators found a dead dog still on its chain and many others in dire need on a 100+ degree day. In the end 37 pit bulls, several of which ended up dying, 1 German Shepherd, and 8 puppies were confiscated, the couple got off light and then simply moved to another state where they continued their cruelty.
Along with BSL the issue of spay and neuter is another common one in the pit bull discussion. There is a general consensus among veterinarians that the benefits of spay and neuter outweigh the risks and that it is an acceptable form of population control, additionally spay and neuter has been embraced by the majority of animal rights and welfare organizations. How big an effect sterilization actually has on aggression has been questioned, though it seems most experts still agree it can be of help in reducing aggression. While we only have evidence of a correlation, given that over 90% of fatal dog attacks appear to involve a sexually intact dog it still seems reasonable that one possible way to help reduce both dog bites and fatalities is an intensive spay and neuter campaign. Whether spaying and neutering should be advocated for through public education and voluntary compliance or by imposing mandatory spay/neuter (MSN) legislation is quite controversial, not to mention whether it will be breed-specific or all inclusive. MSN is often seen as a conspiracy by the animal rights crowd to eliminate all pet ownership, not that some activists don’t actually hold such a desire, but I don’t think it is quite that simple to dismiss. MSN laws differ from community to community and the term “mandatory” is often a misnomer as it often actually involves differential licensing fees for intact animals. Breeders, dog fighters, the AVMA, the ASPCA, and no-kill organizations in general oppose MSN. Opponents of MSN also point to the lack of supporting formal research and claim that shelter admission and kill rates increase following passage of MSN legislation along with a decrease in licensing and rabies vaccination rates, citing Los Angles as an example. It should be noted that the Los Angles case coincides with a nationwide upswing in shelter admissions amid the housing crisis, though it is not the only city claimed to see such a counter-intuitive effect from MSN. On the other side groups such as HSVMA, HSUS, and PETA support forms of MSN legislation and point to successful examples such as San Francisco, Tulsa, Santa Cruz, and other places. The issue of mandatory spay/neuter laws is complex one that probably deserves its own post in the future.
So what is my conclusion? There does not seem to be adequate evidence to support breed bans at this time*, however some forms of breed specific legislation may be appropriate for some communities to consider based on their individual needs and resources. I feel that the focus of many pro-pit bull activist on stopping BSL is a misuse of energy and misses the heart of the issue, breeding. Public education campaigns on responsible dog care along with spay and neuter campaigns are also vital to promoting canine and human health. I would like to see advocates on both sides tone down the sensationalist rhetoric, take some time to look at the other side, and engage in a civil debate. Be careful what slogans you repeat, perpetuating falsehoods muddles up the public dialog and may actually serve the purposes of dog fighters and breeders. I would also advise pit bull advocates to be careful who they associate with or donate to, not every self proclaimed pit bull lover is actually out to help the dogs. Most of all be realistic and be a responsible caretaker, take proper precautions with your dog and around others, failure to do so can result in tragedy.
*an exception to this may be Wolfdogs, but they are not the focus of this post
Further studies on dog bite and fatality prevalence:
Fatal dog attacks, 1989-1994.
“Pit bulls, the most commonly reported breed, were involved in 24 deaths; the next most commonly reported breeds were rottweilers (16) and German shepherds (10).” based on combined data from vital records, the HSUS, and media reports
Dog bite-related fatalities from 1979 through 1988.
“Pit bull breeds were involved in 42 (41.6%) of 101 deaths where dog breed was reported” based on combined data from the National Center for Health Statistics and media reports
Fatal dog attacks in Canada, 1990-2007.
“as pit bull-type dogs gradually, and almost singularly, came under legislation in several Canadian jurisdictions, this breed-type’s ranking in the present retrospective study cannot be compared easily with the ranking from the earlier US-based study. In nonfatal aggressive incidents, the pit bull did rank highest in 2000 and 2001 (2.84 bite incidents per 100 licensed dogs of this breed type) in 1 Canadian municipality (Edmonton, Alberta). Other breeds that followed in this municipality included the rottweiler (1.60 bite incidents per 100 licensed), Akita (1.52), mastiff (1.47), Dalmatian (1.40), and Great Dane (1.21). The rottweiler, by causing 21 of the 72 non-fatal injuries attributed to dogs from known breeds, ranked 1st in a hospital-based summary of dog bites in children” based on media reports
Dog bite-related fatalities: a 15-year review of Kentucky medical examiner cases.
“Pit bull-type dogs, Rottweilers, and German Shepherds constitute the majority of canines implicated in these fatalities.” based on medical records
Mortality, Mauling, and Maiming by Vicious Dogs
“Our Trauma and Emergency Surgery Services treated 228 patients with dog bite injuries; for 82 of those patients, the breed of dog involved was recorded (29 were injured by pit bulls). Compared with attacks by other breeds of dogs, attacks by pit bulls were associated with a higher median Injury Severity Scale score (4 vs. 1; P = 0.002), a higher risk of an admission Glasgow Coma Scale score of 8 or lower (17.2% vs. 0%; P = 0.006), higher median hospital charges ($10,500 vs. $7200; P = 0.003), and a higher risk of death (10.3% vs. 0%; P = 0.041).”
Dog Bites in Urban Children
“More than 12 different purebreeds or crossbreeds were identified as perpetrators, including German shepherds (n = 35), pit bulls (n = 33), rottweilers (n = 9), and Dobermans (n = 7). ”
Canine and human factors related to dog bite injuries.
“Risk factors associated with biting dogs included breed (terrier, working, herding, and nonsporting breeds), being a sexually intact male, and purebred status. ”
Dog bite injuries in children: a preliminary survey.
“Pit bulls caused 25 per cent of the bite injuries. Large dogs were responsible for 88 per cent of the attacks.”
Which Dogs Bite? A Case-Control Study of Risk Factors
“Compared with controls, biting dogs were more likely to be German Shepherd (adjusted odds ratio (ORa) = 16.4, 95% confidence interval (CI) 3.8 to 71.4) or Chow Chow (ORa = 4.0, 95% CI 1.2 to 13.7) predominant breeds, male (ORa 6.2, 95% CI 2.5 to 15.1), unneutered (ORa = 2.6, 95% CI 1.1 to 6.3), residing in a house with ≥1 children (ORa 3.5, 95% CI 1.6 to 7.5), and chained while in the yard (ORa = 2.8, 95% CI 1.0 to 8.1). “
Texas Department of Health Zoonosis Control Division Severe Animal Attack and Bite Surveillance Summary
Chows, Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, and German Shepherds consistently makeup the majority of dog bites in each years report.
Further reading: Please note that I am posting the following links to provide a starting place for research and some further perspective. I am not endorsing the views of any particular author.
Pit Bull Attack! on Skeptoid
Should pit bulls be banned? on Animal Voices
Between Two Lies, Lost Opportunity for Pit Bulls by Terrierman
woo groups and pit bulls part 1, part 2, part 3, & part 4 by Skeptifem
BADRAP member killed by her pit bull by Skeptifem
Pit Bull Belonging to Families Against Breed Bans Activist Attacks Dog
Debunking Find the Pit Bull on Craven Desires
The Nanny Dog Myth Revealed on Craven Desires
The Ethology and Epidemiology of Canine Aggression by Randall Lockwood
Benefits & Risks of Neutering–What does the science say? by Skepvet
More adoptions will not end shelter killing of pit bulls by Merritt Clifton
Controlling an animal as deadly as a weapon by Ingrid Newkirk
A community approach to dog bite prevention by AVMA
What pit bulls can teach us about profiling by Malcom Gladwell
Why Pit Bulls Are More Dangerous and Breed-Specific Legislation is Justified Experience – by Kory A. Nelson
Punish the Deed… of Breeding Pit Bulls for Cash
The breeds most likely to kill by Kenneth Phillips
Publications on Dog Bites at the CDC
Are pit bulls really all that dangerous? on The Straight Dope
Breed-Specific Legislation in the United States by Linda S. Weiss
Spay and Neuter Laws Work? by Sharon Seltzer
Why Breed-Specific Legislation Won’t Solve the Dangerous-Dog Dilemma by Safia Gray Hussain
Making the Dogman Heel: Recommendations for Improving the Effectiveness of Dogfighting Laws by Francesca Ortiz
A community approach to dog bite prevention from the AVMA
Dogmen: The Rationalization of Deviance by Craig J. Forsythe and Rhonda D. Evans
Will breed-specific legislation reduce dog bites?