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Pit bull

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"Pitbull" redirects here. For the Cuban-American rapper and entertainer, see Pitbull (rapper). For other uses, see Pitbull (disambiguation).
Pit bull
Pit bull sampler.jpg
Country of origin England
United States
Dog (Canis lupus familiaris)

Pit bull is the common name for a type of dog. Formal breeds often considered in North America to be of the pit bull type include the American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, and Staffordshire Bull Terrier.[1] The American Bulldog and the Bull Terrier (standard and miniature) are also sometimes included. Many of these breeds were originally developed as fighting dogs from cross breeding bull-baiting dogs (used to hold the faces and heads of larger animals such as bulls) and terriers.[2] After the use of dogs in blood sports was banned, such dogs were used as catch dogs in the United States for semi-wild cattle and hogs, to hunt and drive livestock, and as family companions,[3] although some owners still bred and used them for illegal dog fighting.[4] This practice continues to this day, but is illegal in many nations.[5]

The term pit bull is often used loosely to describe dogs with similar physical characteristics, and the morphological (physical) variation amongst "bully breed" dogs makes it difficult for anyone, even experts, to visually identify them as distinct from "non-pit bulls".[6][7][8] While mixed breed dogs are often labeled as "pit bulls" if they have certain physical characteristics such as a square shaped head or bulky body type,[9] visual identification of mixed breed dogs is not recommended by the scholarly community.[6]


Bull and bear baiting arenas shown on the "Woodcut" map of London of c.1561 (the dogs are shown coming out of pens on each side)
American Pit Bull Terrier puppy

Pit bulls were created by breeding bulldogs and terriers together to produce a dog that combined the gameness and agility of the terrier with the strength of the bulldog.[3] In the United Kingdom, these dogs were used in blood sports such as bull-baiting, bear-baiting and cock fighting. These blood sports were officially eliminated in 1835 as Britain began to introduce animal welfare laws. Since dogfights were cheaper to organize and far easier to conceal from the law than bull or bear baits, blood sport proponents turned to pitting their dogs against each other instead. Dog fighting was used as both a blood sport (often involving gambling) and a way to continue to test the quality of their stock. For decades afterwards, dog fighting clandestinely took place in small areas of Britain and America. In the early 20th century pit bulls were used as catch dogs in America for semi-wild cattle and hogs, to hunt, and drive livestock, and as family companions.[3] Some have been selectively bred for their fighting prowess.[4][5]

Pit bulls successfully fill the role of companion dogs, police dogs,[10][11] and therapy dogs.[12] Pit bulls also constitute the majority of dogs used for illegal dog fighting in America.[13] In addition, law enforcement organisations report these dogs are used for other nefarious purposes, such as guarding illegal narcotics operations,[14][15] use against police,[16] and as attack dogs.[17]

In an effort to counter the fighting reputation of pit bull-type dogs, in 1996 the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals renamed pit bull terriers to "St. Francis Terriers", so that people might be more likely to adopt them.[18] 60 temperament-screened dogs were adopted until the program was halted, after several of the newly adopted pit bulls killed cats.[19] The New York City Center for Animal Care and Control tried a similar approach in 2004, relabeling their pit bulls as "New Yorkies", but dropped the idea in the face of overwhelming public opposition.[20][21]

Blue-nosed pit bull pup

Dog attack risk

Pit bull, muzzled

Violent interactions between humans and canines have been studied by the US government,[22] notably the Center for Disease Control and Prevention,[23] as well as academic veterinary researchers.[24] The interpretation of these studies, breed identification and relevance [25] issues, and variable circumstances have given rise to intense controversy.[26][27][28] The American Veterinary Medical Association notes fundamental problems with tracking breed in dog bite related fatalities.[29] In a 2013 study of 256 fatalities in the United States from 2000–2009, the AVMA determined that valid breed determination was possible for only 17.6% of cases.[30], a US-based pro-breed specific legislation advocacy group that focuses on pit bulls[31] blamed pit bull breeds for 62 percent of the 325 people killed by dog attacks surveyed in media reports[32] from 2005 to 2014.[33] The Center for Disease Control and Prevention notes that studies on dog bite related fatalities which collect information by surveying news reports employ a methodology subject to potential errors, as some fatal attacks may not have been reported, a study might not find all relevant news reports, and the dog breed might be misidentified.[34]


A nine-year (1979–88) study of fatal dog attacks in the United States found that dogs characterized as pit bulls were implicated in 42 of the 101 attacks where the breed was known, and were almost twice as likely to be caused by strays as attacks by other breeds.[35] A 1991 study found that 94% of attacks on children by pit bulls were unprovoked, compared to 43% for other breeds, and that 67% involved freely roaming animals.[36] A 2001 literature review of dog bite studies notes that no other breed is represented by such a high proportion of unowned free-ranging dogs, and that unowned free-ranging dogs may be more likely to come from an environment that promotes aggression, and suggests the data for stray pit bulls be analyzed separately.[37] The study also notes that pit bulls may be overrepresented as the label "pit bull" is often applied without biological basis to a range of dogs, regardless of the dog's actual genetic makeup.

A 5-year (1989–94) review of fatal dog attacks in the U.S. determined that pit bulls and pit bull mixed breeds were implicated in 24 (29%) of the 84 deaths in which breed was recorded.[38]

A 20-year (1979–1998) study by the American Veterinary Medical Association into fatal dog attacks on humans[39] concluded that "fatal attacks on humans appear to be a breed-specific problem (pit bull-type dogs and Rottweilers)," and that "pit bull-type dogs and Rottweilers were involved in more than half" (67%) of all the 238 recorded dog bite-related fatalities (DBRF) in the United States during that period, with pit bulls accounting for 66 deaths. They also wrote that:

It is extremely unlikely that they accounted for anywhere near 60% of dogs in the United States during that same period and, thus, there appears to be a breed-specific problem with fatalities.[39]

However, the AVMA later reversed its position on breed being a factor in dog bite-related fatalities, stating in a comprehensive literature review of 66 dog bite studies:

Breed is a poor sole predictor of dog bites. Controlled studies reveal no increased risk for the group blamed most often for dog bites, ‘pit bull-type’ dogs. Accordingly, targeting this breed or any another as a basis for dog bite prevention is unfounded. As stated by the National Animal Control Association: “Dangerous and/or vicious animals should be labeled as such as a result of their actions or behavior and not because of their breed.”[24]

A 15-year (1991–2005) review of dog attack fatalities investigated by the Kentucky Medical Examiner determined that pit bulls were implicated in 5 of the 11 fatal attacks (45%).[40] Another 15-year (1994–2009) review of patients admitted to a Level I Trauma Center with dog bites determined that pit bulls were most often involved in these attacks: of the 228 patients treated, the breed of dog was recorded in 82 attacks, and of these, 29 (35%) of the attacks were by pit bulls.[41] In 45% of the attacks, the dog belonged to the victim's family.[41] The journal later published a response to the study, criticizing its conclusions based on the poor quality of the data employed.[42]

A five-year (2001–05) review of dog attack victims admitted to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia determined that pit bull terriers were implicated in more than half of the bites where breed was identified. Of the 269 patients where breed was identified, 137 (51%) were attacked by pit bulls.[43] The authors wrote:

…the overwhelming number of bites involving pit bull terriers in this study and others certainly has some degree of validity when it comes to identifying bite-prone breeds. Pit bull terriers, German shepherds, and Rottweilers were the offending breeds implicated in our study, and have accounted for the majority of dog bites according to other investigators.[43]

A medical literature review of animal-related fatalities, citing the 1979-1988 JAMA study and 1991–2005 Kentucky Medical Examiner study, reported that pit bulls and pit bull cross-breeds were involved in 42–45% of dog attacks, and that unneutered male dogs were the most likely to bite.[44] Fatalities were most often reported when children were attacked, with 70% of victims being under the age of 10.[44]

A 2008 study by the University of Pennsylvania[25] that determined aggression by owner surveys instead of hospital reports found that:

scores for stranger-directed aggression found among Pit Bull Terriers were inconsistent with their universal reputation as a ‘dangerous breed’ and their reported involvement in dog bite-related fatalities

The study theorized that this discrepancy between reputation and results is because of:

a disproportionate risk of injury associated with larger and/or more physically powerful breeds and the existence of breed stereotypes.

A study by Raghaven in Canada, which showed that breed specific legislation limits the number of pitbulls, and where sled dogs and free roaming packs of dogs are more common than in the United States, an electronic search of newspaper articles found that pit bull terriers were responsible for 1 (4%) of 28 dog-bite-related fatalities reported in Canada from 1990–2007.[45] The study also noted that:

A higher proportion of sled dogs and, possibly, mixed-breed dogs in Canada than in the United States caused fatalities, as did multiple dogs rather than single dogs. Free-roaming dog packs, reported only from rural communities, caused most on-reserve fatalities.

Several studies determined that pit bull owners, and owners of other "vicious" or "high risk" breeds (most commonly identified as Akita, Chow Chow, Doberman Pinscher, Rottweiler, and Wolf-mix), are more likely to have criminal convictions and are more likely to display antisocial behaviors. A 2006 study compared owners of "high risk" dogs to owners of "low risk" dogs. "High risk" dogs included “vicious” dogs by breed (e.g., pit bulls) or “vicious” actions (e.g., any dog that had bitten, attacked, or killed a person or other animal). The study determined that "high risk" dog owners had nearly 10 times as many criminal convictions than did "low risk" dog owners.[46] A 2009 study[47] and a follow-up 2012 study generally supported these findings.[48]


Contrary to popular myth, pit bulls do not have "locking jaws".[49] There is no physiological "locking mechanism" in the jaw muscle and bone structure of pit bulls or other dogs.[50] Pit bull-type dogs, like other terriers, hunting and bull-baiting breeds,[51] can exhibit a bite, hold, and shake behavior and at times refuse to release.[15][52][53] Pit bulls also have wide skulls, well-developed facial muscles, and strong jaws.[49] Breaking an ammonia ampule and holding it up to the dog's nose can cause the dog to release its hold.[52]

Breed specific legislation

Widely reported pit bull attacks in popular media have resulted in the enactment of breed-specific legislation in several jurisdictions. In some cases breed specific bans have been reversed or prohibited by state legislation.[54][55] These perceptions have also led to increased premiums for liability insurance.

Breed-specific legislation has been largely found to be ineffective at reducing the number of dog attacks.[56] Research has indicated that there is resistance by those who work in the adoption industry, applying a sharper distinction before allowing a dog to be labelled as a pit bull, as well as objections from veterinarians.[57][58][59]

Many of the jurisdictions that restrict pit bulls apply their restriction to the modern American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and any other dog that has the substantial physical characteristics and appearance of those breeds. Such jurisdictions include Ontario,[60] Miami,[61] Denver,[62] and Malden, Massachusetts,[63] However a few jurisdictions, such as Singapore[64] and Franklin County, Ohio,[65] also classify the modern American Bulldog as a "pit bull-type dog". In the United Kingdom, a pit bull is an American Pit Bull Terrier.[66]

Courts in the United States[67][68] and Canada[69][70] have ruled that expert identification, when using published breed standards, is sufficient for the enforcement of breed-specific legislation.

Approximately 550 jurisdictions have enacted breed-specific legislation (BSL) in response to a number of well-publicized incidents involving pit bull-type dogs, and some government organizations such as the U.S. Army[71] and Marine Corps[72] have taken administrative action as well. These actions range from outright bans on the possession of pit bull-type dogs, to restrictions and conditions on pit bull ownership. They often establish a legal presumption that a pit bull-type dog is prima facie a legally "dangerous" or "vicious" dog.[73] In response, 16 states in the U.S. prohibited or restricted the ability of municipal governments within those states to enact BSL, though these restrictions do not affect military installations located within the states.[74]

It is now generally settled in caselaw that jurisdictions in the U.S. and Canada have the right to enact breed-specific legislation.[75] Despite these holdings by the courts, there is some public skepticism over whether the laws are effective.[76] One point of view is that pit bulls are a public safety issue that merits actions such as banning ownership, mandatory spay/neuter for all pit bulls, mandatory microchip implants and liability insurance, or prohibiting people convicted of a felony from owning pit bulls.[77] Another point of view is that comprehensive "dog bite" legislation, coupled with better consumer education and legally mandating responsible pet-keeping practices, is a better solution to the problem of dangerous pit bulls than BSL.[29][78]

A third point of view is that breed-specific legislation should not ban breeds entirely, but should instead strictly regulate the conditions under which specific breeds could be owned, for example, forbidding certain classes of individuals from owning them, specifying public areas from which they would be prohibited, and establishing conditions, such as requiring a dog to wear a muzzle, for taking specific breeds of dogs into public places.[79] Finally, some governments, such as in Australia, have forbidden the import of specific breeds, and are requiring the spay/neuter of all existing dogs of these breeds in an attempt to eliminate the breed's population slowly through natural attrition.[80][81]

The ASPCA said that along with putative over-reporting, false reporting was a major contributor to public perceptions about the breed.[82]

In England and Wales the Dangerous Dogs Act prohibits the ownership of American Pit Bull Terriers, along with three other breeds. The Act also bans the breeding, sale and exchange of these dogs.[66] Similar legislation in Australia has been criticized by veterinary professionals.[57]

Commercial restrictions

Liability insurance

Dog owners in the United States can be held legally liable for injuries inflicted or caused by their dogs. In general, owners are considered liable if they were unreasonably careless in handling or restraining the dog, or if they knew beforehand that the dog had a tendency to cause injury (e.g., bite); however, dog owners are automatically considered liable if local laws hold an owner strictly liable for all damage caused by their dog, regardless of carelessness or foreknowledge of a dog's tendencies. Homeowners and renters insurance policies typically provide liability coverage from US$100,000–300,000 for injuries inflicted by dogs;[83] however, some insurance companies limit their exposure to dog bite liability claims by putting restrictions on dog owners that they insure. These restrictions include refusing to cover dog bites under the insurance policy, increasing insurance rates for homeowners with specific breeds, requiring owners of specific breeds to take special training or have their dogs pass the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen test,[84] requiring owners to restrict their dogs with muzzles, chains, or enclosures, and refusing to write policies for homeowners or renters who have specific breeds of dogs.[83]

Owners of rental properties may also be held liable if they knew an aggressive dog was living on their property and they did nothing to ensure the safety of other tenants at the property; as a result, many rental properties forbid pit bull-type dogs and any other breeds if the rental property's insurance will not cover damage inflicted by that type of dog. The dog breeds most often targeted by insurance companies include pit bull-type dogs, Rottweilers, German Shepherd Dogs, Doberman Pinschers, Akitas (Akita Inu and American Akita), and Chows.[85]

In 2013, Farmers Insurance notified policy holders in California that "it will no longer cover bites by pit bulls, rottweilers and wolf hybrids. A spokeswoman for Farmers said those breeds account for more than a quarter of the agency's dog bite claims."[86]

Air carrier restrictions

Several air carriers embargo certain dog breeds, due to the effect of high temperature and humidity on brachycephalic animals. The following table has a sampling of air carrier embargoes on dogs.

Airline Reason Details
Air France Not Permitted Purebred Staffordshire Terriers and purebred American Staffordshire Terriers may be transported. However, dogs that "do not belong to a particular breed but are similar in morphology" to Staffordshire Terriers, mastiff (boerboel), tosa, and pit bulls may not be transported or shipped by air.[87]
Alaska Airlines / Horizon Air Health Dog breeds including American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, fly at their owner's risk, with no additional compensation if the dog suffers injury or dies during transit. The airline may refuse to accept the dog if it feels outside temperatures are too extreme for the animal's safety.[88]
American Airlines Health American Airlines will not accept brachycephalic or snub-nosed dogs as checked luggage.[89]
Delta Air Lines Health "Snub-nosed dogs" are embargoed when the temperature at the departure point or any stop along the travel route is expected to exceed 75 °F (24 °C).[90]

United Airlines formerly embargoed American Pit Bull Terriers for safety reasons.[citation needed] However, pit bulls (along with American Staffordshires and other similar breeds) are now permitted, provided that dogs over six months old or weighing more than 20 pounds (9 kg) are transported in reinforced crates.[91]

Notable pit bulls

Pit bull breeds have become famous for their roles as soldiers, police dogs, search and rescue dogs, actors, television personalities, seeing eye dogs, and celebrity pets. Historically, the Bull Terrier mix Nipper and the American Staffordshire Terrier, Pete the Pup from the Little Rascals are the most well known. Lesser known, but still historically notable pit bulls include Billie Holiday's companion "Mister",[92] Helen Keller's dog "Sir Thomas",[93] Buster Brown's dog "Tige",[94] Horatio Jackson's dog "Bud",[95][96] President Theodore Roosevelt's Pit Bull terrier "Pete", "Jack Brutus" who served for Company K, the First Connecticut Volunteer Infantry during the civil war,[97] Sergeant Stubby who served for the 102nd Infantry, 26th (Yankee) Division during World War I, and Sir Walter Scott's "Wasp".[98]

Contemporary significant pit bulls are: Weela, who helped save 32 people, 29 dogs, 3 horses, and 1 cat;[99] Popsicle, a five-month-old puppy originally found nearly dead in a freezer, who grew to become one of the nation's most important police dogs;[100] Norton, who was placed in the Purina Animal Hall of Fame after he rescued his owner from a severe reaction to a spider bite;[101] Titan, who rescued his owner's wife, who would have died from an aneurysm, D-Boy, who took three bullets to save his family from an intruder with a gun,[102] and Lilly, who lost a leg after being struck by a freight train while pulling her unconscious owner from the train tracks.[103] Daddy, Cesar Millan's right-hand dog was famous for his mellow temperament and his ability to interact calmly with ill-mannered dogs.

See also


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Further reading

  • Collier, Stephen (2006). "Breed-specific legislation and the pit bull terrier: Are the laws justified?". Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research 1 (1): 17–22. doi:10.1016/j.jveb.2006.04.011. ISSN 1558-7878.