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  News from the Maryland Veterinary Medical Association                                                    Summer  2013

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Why Are There So Many Pit Bulls at the Shelter?
by Mary Zink, DVM, Veterinary Medical Director, Baltimore Humane Society

In this issue I’d like to discuss the topic of pit bulls in our area shelters. What do you need to know as a veterinarian? There are three important points I’d like to cover on this topic.

ONE: First of all, what is a “pit bull?”

This topic is a complicated one because most people lump a combination of breeds under this label. Different states can’t even agree on how to define a “pit bull” breed dog. This topic has recently drawn a lot of media attention in Maryland as breed- specific legislation continues to be argued in Annapolis. I am not going to address that topic here, but I will refer you to extremely helpful websites that present a nice overview of this issue.

http://animalfarmfoundation.org/pages/Labels-Language 

www.nationalcanineresearchcouncil.com 

As veterinarians we need to stay educated on animal-related issues.

TWO: “All you have is pit bulls for adoption.”

We often have people visit the shelter looking for a family pet and their primary complaint is that “all you have is pit bulls for adoption”. There are several facts that might help you understand this phenomenon. Although these numbers are specific to our shelter, the data is similar in most metropolitan shelters. Approximately 24% of the dogs that come into our shelter are what we as veterinarians might consider “pit bulls” or “pit mixes”. But they take up approximately 75% of the cage space in the shelter. The reason the kennel is so full of “pit bulls” and “pit mixes” is because they have a much longer “length of stay” (LOS) than the other dogs in the kennel. That’s why it seems to be the only breed a shelter offers.

Like it or not, the reality is that the media has negatively influenced the public’s perception of the “pit bull” breed. The fact is that the small breed dogs come in and go out so quickly that they are barely on the adoption floor for 2-3 days. Also, the small breeds only stay on the website for a few days before they are adopted so the website also appears to be loaded with “pit bulls” and “pit mixes”. Larger breed dogs are relinquished at a higher rate in shelters. I believe it’s because it’s more costly to care for a larger dog (food, surgery, heartworm and flea prevention, etc.); they require more living space (home and yard); and a poor mannered large breed dog is more difficult to handle in a home than a poor mannered small breed dog.

THREE: Visual identification of breed is wrong 75% of the time.

Veterinarians need to understand that research shows that people are unable to accurately label a dog as a certain breed or mixture of certain breeds just by looking at it. Without “papers”, we’re guessing about a dog’s breed. As veterinarians we know that phenotype does not always give a full picture of genetic make-up. We need to be very careful in labeling a dog as a certain breed because breed identity elicits behavioral expectations and affects ease of future adoption ( Voith , 2010). Voith’s study was published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science; details appear on the Animal Farm Foundation webpage listed above. In summary, shelter dogs were visually identified as certain breeds or breed combinations by shelter staff and then their DNA was tested using the MARS Witness DNA kits. The staff was only correct in identification of the predominate breed 25% of the time. The conclusions made by the study were as follows:

  • “There is little correlation between dog adoption agencies’ identification of probable breed composition with the identification of breeds by DNA analysis.”

  • “Further evaluation of the reliability and validity of visual dog breed identification is warranted.”

  • “Justification of current public and private policies pertaining to breed specific regulations should be reviewed.”

As veterinarians we are influential in our communities and potentially, in our legislature. It is important that we educate ourselves about the “pit bull” facts. I hope these three points help keep you up to date!

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