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Identifying Pit Bulls

Clinician's Brief (Capsule)

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Pit bull is not a recognized breed but a term applied to a group of dogs that may include or resemble various breeds such as the American Staffordshire terrier and the Staffordshire bull terrier. Dog owners, animal shelters, insurance companies, veterinarians, and the public frequently use the term casually and in official documents as though it describes a single, recognized breed. Pedigree information on individual dogs is not usually available, especially in a shelter scenario, so animals are identified based on subjective assessment of physical characteristics. 

In this study, 4 shelters were used to assess this subjective breed identification. Results were compared with DNA testing using DNA signatures of the American Staffordshire terrier and the Staffordshire bull terrier. Results, which showed a lack of consistency among shelter team members, confirmed that visual identification of pit bull-type dogs was unreliable. One in 3 dogs showing no DNA evidence of pit bull heritage were identified by at least 1 person as a pit bull-type, and 1 in 5 with DNA evidence of pit bull heritage were missed by all team members. 

These data are particularly important because of assumptions that breeds can be identified by observation and that certain breeds or phenotypes are inherently dangerous, which lead to breed bans and regulations. However, even pedigree analysis cannot reliably predict morphology or behavior. Therefore, injury-prevention efforts should focus more on recognition, prevention, and mitigation of other risk factors for both humans and dogs. 


“Pit bulls” are common in the United States. The dog was bred from a bulldog and a terrier to capitalize on the qualities of both—strength, endurance, tenacity, and high-energy athleticism—and originally intended as an animal-killer before inevitably being used in killing-type sporting events (eg, dog fighting, cock fighting). Advocacy websites provide quizzes that challenge users to correctly identify a pit bull; these emphasize the difficulty of differentiating pit bulls from other bull-headed type breeds (eg, the cane corso). A future point-of-care blood test for DNA markers of pit bull heritage would be useful in shelters and municipalities for accurate identification of the breed-type. Challenges remain to demystify the temperament of this dog and raise awareness about all factors implicated in dog bites that are not breed-related.—Heather Troyer, DVM, DABVP, CVA, CVPP


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