In a study that could eventually spare more dogs from euthanasia, a University of Florida veterinary professor found that DNA analysis of canines labeled as pit bulls at shelters often had little genetic link to the breeds that spawned the generic pit bull classification.
A team headed by Dr. Julie Levy of the UF College of Veterinary Medicine’s Maddie’s Shelter Medicine program found that shelter workers often mislabel dogs as pit bulls. That can be a death sentence in cities or counties that ban pit bulls.
The label can also make it difficult for shelters in general to find people to adopt the dogs, leading to euthanasia.
“In Florida the impact is greatest in Miami, where it is illegal to own a pit bull, so they can’t be adopted out. That shelter will adopt them out to other counties but usually those counties often have a lot of pit bulls, too,” Levy said. “They start out with a difficulty in that they are the most common type of dog in a shelter. They come in in high numbers and they don’t go out in proportion to which they come in.”
The term ‘pit bull’ is loosely used. Dogs derived from the recognized breeds of American Staffordshire terrier and Staffordshire bull terrier are often labeled as pit bulls because they may have some of the physical characteristics of those breeds.
But the UF research found the dogs classified as pit bulls are typically mutts with many different genetic lines. Sometimes, the percentage of Staffordshire DNA was at or near the bottom.
The researchers took DNA from 120 dogs assessed by 16 shelter staffers, including four veterinarians, in four shelters in Jacksonville, Tallahassee and Marion County. Three of the shelters were government run.
Alachua County Animal Services was not included, Levy said, because it does not have a full-time veterinarian — something the research team wanted.
Blood was drawn from each dog to develop a DNA profile. That profile was then compared to the classification of the dog given by staff.
Dogs that had DNA from pit bull ancestors were identified just 33 to 75 percent of the time, depending on the staff member who judged them. Dogs lacking any genetic evidence of the breeds were labeled as pit bull-type dogs as much as 48 percent of the time.
The results mean it’s difficult to label a dog based on looks, yet dogs are banned or euthanized based on exactly that.
“Sometimes they look like a pit bull to us but they are a lab mix. It’s just the kind of random way that genes arrange themselves. They can create an image that doesn’t look anything like the parents,” Levy said. “It’s kind of a fallacy when we look at a dog and say, ‘Oh, that’s a shepherd mix.’ We really can’t say that. It just looks like a shepherd, but it might not have any shepherd at all.”
Breed-specific legislation, such as the pit bull ban in Miami, is controversial in the canine world. Ban supporters say pit bulls are responsible for attacks and maulings, and are fought. Opponents contend problems arise not from the breed, but from the way owners treat the dog.
Dogs labeled as pit bulls or pit mixes are common in Alachua County and are routinely adopted at both Animal Services and by rescue groups such as the Alachua County Humane Society.
Humane Society operations director Chrissy Sedgley said breed information is not mentioned on the dogs’ kennels. It is cited online because that is a direct feed from Animal Services, which lists the breed on rabies certificates.
“I feel a lot of dogs are mislabeled. We’ve tried to move away from that and focus on their age and their personality. When people ask us what we think, we tell them that it is just a guess. We know there is no true way of knowing without a test,” Sedgley said.
She added that only occasionally does a prospective adopter turn down a dog labeled as a pit bull.
“It definitely happens but we are so fortunate to live in a progressive town. I’m from South Florida where there are restrictions,” she said. “When people from down there move here and see all the pit bulls in our shelters, they are surprised by it.”
While adoptions of dogs classified as pit bulls are allowed here, they still face bias.
Levy said some apartment complexes won’t rent to pit bull owners and some insurance companies charge higher rates for homeowners with the dogs, or won’t insure them at all. Some government-subsidized housing bans them.
The study was prompted through the shelter medicine program’s work with Animal Services to help find ways to better market dogs awaiting adoption.
Labeling dogs gives us little useful information about their personality or behavior, Levy said.
“If you get a new dog and tell a friend, usually the first question they’ll ask is ‘What kind?’ We are hard-wired to imagine what a dog looks like. Then we might take it one step farther and want to think that the breed will tell us how it will behave and its personality, and that’s even more unreliable,” Levy said. “We might read a horoscope and look for coincidences that match with the horoscope, but it doesn’t mean the horoscope really knew what was going to happen. Talking about breeds is a fun pastime that we are stuck with.”
Reported by CINDY SWIRKO for The Gainesville Sun.