University of Florida Study Shows Shelter Dogs Often Mislabeled as ‘Pit Bulls'

A new study from the University of Florida analyzing the DNA of shelter dogs reveals that even experienced animal shelter workers often mislabel dogs as "pit bulls," resulting in potentially devastating consequences for the dogs including decreased chances at adoption.

Researchers evaluated breed assessments made on 120 dogs by 16 shelter staff members. The staff members included four veterinarians at four different shelters, all of whom had at least three years of experience.

Blood samples were then taken from the dogs, and researchers compiled DNA profiles for each animal to compare with the assessments made by shelter employees.

The study concluded that true pit bull-type heritage was positively identified only 33 to 75 percent of the time, depending on which staff member was making the assessment.

Conversely, dogs with no genetic evidence of being pit bull-type dogs were labeled as pit bull-type dogs as much as 48 percent of the time, once again depending on the staff member.

“Essentially we found that the marked lack of agreement observed among shelter staff members in categorizing the breeds of shelter dogs illustrates that reliable inclusion or exclusion of dogs as ‘pit bulls’ is not possible, even by experts,” said Julie Levy, a professor of shelter medicine at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine and the lead author of a study published recently in The Veterinary Journal.

Several hundred municipal governments nationwide have enacted strict breed-specific ownership limitations and bans, especially on pit bull-type dogs. The restriction is based on the assumption that certain breeds of dogs are inherently dangerous or aggressive, and in response to a number of highly publicized dog bites and attacks made by animals identified as pit bull-type dogs.

Many of these dogs are not permitted in apartment complexes or by homeowner's associations, or are not allowed or covered under many homeowner's insurance policies.

"Pit bull" is not a recognized breed, but a term applied to dogs derived from the heritage breeds American Staffordshire terrier or Staffordshire bull terrier.

It is illegal in Miami-Dade County to own or keep "American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers" or "any other dog that substantially conforms to any of these breeds' characteristics" according to Miami-Dade County Animal Services.

Owners can be fined as much as $500 for acquiring or keeping such dogs, and the dog may be forcibly removed from the county.

In Broward, a ban on pit bull-type dogs was considered at one time, but was dropped due to a Florida state law against breed-specific bans.

The law in Miami-Dade was passed in 1989 prior to the passage of the state restriction.

An estimated 70 percent of dogs that end up in shelters are classified as pit bull-type dogs, according to data from PETA.

Visit the UF Health Newsroom for complete details on the study.

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