Breed bans and the human-animal bond: Not taking a bite out of crime
Have you ever been asked to change a dog’s breed in their medical record so that their owner can rent an apartment? Have you ever been denied homeowner’s insurance based on the breed of your own dog? I can answer “yes” to both of these questions, and I suspect many others can as well.
These are just two of the effects that breed-related discrimination can have on people, their dogs, and the veterinary teams who care for them. Most breed bans were enacted in an effort to reduce the number of dog bite injuries humans suffer every year, but they have been proven to be an ineffective and even harmful approach to solving this important problem.
Not just pit bulls: The most banned breeds
Among those studying the effects of breed bans is Lori Kogan, PhD, professor of clinical sciences at the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. Kogan is a psychologist and the chair of the Human-Animal Interaction section of the American Psychological Association. She has dedicated her career to supporting the human-animal bond by studying how human activities and health respond to and affect their relationship with animals.
Kogan reports that more than 700 cities have breed restrictions, which are most commonly aimed at pit bull-like breeds. According to the ASPCA, other commonly implicated breeds include Rottweilers, mastiffs, chow chows, German shepherds, and Doberman pinschers.
Many breed restrictions will also include mixes of any of these breeds and even dogs who look like any of these breeds. Apart from breed bans put in place in various cities and other municipalities, it is common for many landlords and homeowners’ insurance companies to restrict the breeds of dog they will permit residents to keep while renting a home or being covered by their insurance policy.
Do breed bans improve public safety?
Two of Kogan’s recent studies have looked at opinions of small animal veterinarians and the general US adult population toward breed-specific legislation. In separate surveys, these two groups were asked their opinions on the threat posed by dog bites to public safety, which breeds they considered to be the most aggressive, and their opinions on breed bans.
Both groups agreed strongly that dog bites are a major public health concern, but a majority in each group (70% of US adults surveyed and 89% of small animal veterinarians surveyed) indicated that they did not believe that breed bans improve public safety. Seventy-five percent of veterinarians and 56% of US adults agreed that breed bans constitute an animal welfare issue.
These laws are often not effective at preventing dog bites because of how difficult it can be for many people, even veterinarians, to accurately identify dog breeds (especially since about 50% of all US dogs are mixed breeds; and, while American pit bull terrier is a recognized breed by some organizations, “pit bull” is not a specific breed). This makes breed-based restrictions difficult to enforce and prone to error.
What makes a dog bite
Kogan also points out that predisposition to bite depends on much more than just a dog’s breed. While genetics almost certainly play a role in some cases, a dog’s likelihood to bite in a given situation is, more often than not, affected by the actions of the humans around them.
Dogs are more likely to bite when they . . .
- Are poorly socialized
- Have been abused or neglected
- Have been chained outside or allowed to roam free
- Have been trained to bite for any number of reasons
- Are sick or in pain
- Have been placed in a stressful situation
- Are not well supervised around young children
It is up to humans to help their dogs avoid these scenarios as much as possible.
The consequences of breed bans
In addition to being ineffective, Kogan explains that breed bans can be harmful to both dogs and people. For dogs, breed bans can result in relinquishment, suffering, and/or euthanasia—even for dogs with no bite history.
For humans, breed bans can mean the loss of a companion, the loss of affordable housing and/or insurance, and the loss of other opportunities if they have to move in order to keep their dog.
The ASPCA points out that when resources are shifted to enforcing breed bans, fewer are available to enforce leash and license laws, prevent dog fighting and tethering, and other efforts that will have a greater positive impact on the safety and health of dogs and people. Owners of dogs of banned breeds may be less likely to seek veterinary care out of fear of being reported as well. This can result in fewer vaccinated dogs, potentially creating a bigger public health risk.
The AVMA is also opposed to any breed-specific legislation. Its position statement reads: “Any dog can bite, regardless of its breed.” Breed bans are described as “not a reliable or effective solution for dog bite prevention.” They add that breed bans discriminate against responsible dog owners of supposed “high-risk” breeds (or those who look like them) without addressing the irresponsibility of other owners.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has determined that dog breed is not a helpful indicator of the likelihood of a dog to bite and the agency has stopped tracking breed information as a part of bite statistics.
What we can do instead of breed bans
If breed bans don’t work, what would be better? Kogan recommends a combination of temperament testing, education, and more effective laws. For landlords and insurance companies who want to protect others and reduce their liability, requiring temperament testing could be an alternative to outright banning all dogs of certain breeds. While this will not completely guarantee that an individual dog will never bite, it will prevent unfair discrimination against dogs and their owners purely based on breed.
Veterinarians and other advocates for human and animal health contribute to these efforts by teaching dog owners and those looking to adopt a dog the basics of dog and puppy care, including positive reinforcement, reading dog body language, understanding dog behavior, and helping children interact with dogs more safely.
We can also help would-be dog owners evaluate their lifestyle against the needs of a particular dog they wish to adopt to make sure they match up. Kogan would like to see veterinarians receive more comprehensive behavior training in veterinary school so that they feel more comfortable treating behavioral disorders in their patients. She also stresses the importance of veterinary teams recommending appropriate resources to dog owners, including trusted trainers, a veterinary behaviorist, and/or the Fear Free© website.
Improved animal control ordinances, including animal cruelty laws, can help prevent dog fighting and chaining or tethering of dogs outside. Leash laws and licensing requirements that are more strictly enforced can encourage dog owners to take more responsibility for their dogs. The ASPCA also advocates for financial and/or criminal penalties for “unjustified injuries or damage” caused by a biting dog.
Finally, both the AVMA and the ASPCA recommend “community-based approaches” to respond proactively to cases of known dangerous dogs to protect the health and welfare of both dogs and people. Veterinary professionals can be leaders in their local communities and contribute their expertise to help solve this important problem.
ASPCA: What is Breed-Specific Legislation?
AVMA: Why Breed-Specific Legislation is Not the Answer
Fear Free Happy Homes for Pets Website
Emily Singler, VMD, writes this monthly column for NEWStat exploring One Health and the human-animal bond. She is a 2001 graduate of Penn State University and a 2005 graduate of University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. She has worked in shelter medicine, private practice, and as a relief veterinarian. She currently works as a veterinary writer and consultant and has her own blog, www.vetmedbaby.com.
Disclaimer: The views expressed, and topics discussed, in any NEWStat column or article are intended to inform, educate, or entertain, and do not represent an official position by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) or its Board of Directors.
Photo credit: © Petra Richli E+ via Getty Images Plus