Tag Archives: shelter

The mis-labelling of pit bulls

DNA results show that shelter workers are often mistaken when they label a dog as a pit bull, with potentially devastating consequences for the dogs, a new University of Florida study has found.

DNA pit bull study

Dr. Julie Levy holds a dog currently up for adoption at the Alachua County Animal Services facility in Gainesville, Florida

“Animal shelter staff and veterinarians are frequently expected to guess the breed of dogs based on appearance alone,” said Julie Levy, D.V.M., Ph.D., 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.

“Unlike many other things people can’t quite define but ‘know when they see it,’ identification of dogs as pit bulls can trigger an array of negative consequences, from the loss of housing, to being seized by animal control, to the taking of the dog’s life,” she said. “In the high-stakes world of animal shelters, a dog’s life might depend on a potential adopter’s momentary glimpse and assumptions about its suitability as a pet. If the shelter staff has labeled the dog as a pit bull, its chances for adoption automatically go down in many shelters.”

The past few decades have brought an increase in ownership restrictions on breeds including pit bulls and dogs that resemble them. The restrictions are based on assumptions that certain breeds are inherently dangerous, that such dogs can be reliably identified and that the restrictions will improve public safety, the study states.

The study focused on how accurately shelter staff identified dogs believed to be pit bulls. ‘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. The purebred American pit bull terrier is also derived from these breeds and is often included in the loose definition of ‘pit bull.’

The research team evaluated breed assessments of 120 dogs made by 16 shelter staff members, including four veterinarians, at four shelters. These staff members all had at least three years of experience working in a shelter environment. The researchers then took blood samples from the dogs, developed DNA profiles for each animal and compared the DNA findings against the staff’s initial assessments.

“We found that different shelter staffers who evaluated the same dogs at the same time had only a moderate level of agreement among themselves,” Levy said. Results of the study also showed that while limitations in available DNA profiles make absolute breed identification problematic, when visual identification was compared with DNA test results, the assessors in the study fared even worse.

Dogs with pit bull heritage breed DNA were identified only 33 to 75 percent of the time, depending on which of the staff members was judging them. Conversely, dogs lacking any genetic evidence of relevant breeds were labeled as pit bull-type dogs from 0 to 48 percent of the time, the researchers reported.

“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,” Levy said. “These results raise difficult questions because shelter workers and veterinarians are expected to determine the breeds of dogs in their facilities on a daily basis.

Additionally, they are often called on as experts as to whether a dog’s breed will trigger confiscation or regulatory action. The stakes for these dogs and their owners are in many cases very high.”

Dog breeds contain many genetic traits and variants, and the behavior of any individual dog is impossible to predict based on possible combinations.

“A dog’s physical appearance cannot tell observers anything about its behavior. Even dogs of similar appearance and the same breed often have diverse behavioral traits in the same way that human siblings often have very different personalities,”Levy said.

Even though most pet dogs are of unknown mixed breeds, there is a natural inclination among pet owners to speculate on what their dog’s breed heritage might be, the authors said.

“This has fueled an entire industry of pet dog DNA analysis,” Levy said. “These tests are fun, but they won’t help predict behavior or health traits. Shelters and veterinary clinics are better off entering ‘mixed breed’ or ‘unknown’ in their records unless the actual pedigrees are available.”

As for legal restrictions on dogs based on their appearance, Levy said public safety would be better served by reducing risk factors for dog bites, such as supervising children, recognizing canine body language, avoiding an unfamiliar dog in its territory, neutering dogs and raising puppies to be social companions.

Source:  University of Florida media release

See also my 2013 post on Visual identification of breed – one reason why BSL doesn’t work

The five freedoms

Let’s go back to basics for a moment and think about our role as caregivers for our dogs.  Every animal owner should understand the Five Freedoms which are an internationally recognised code for animal welfare.

Anyone responsible for looking after animals should aim to meet each of these freedoms.

1.  Freedom from hunger and thirst

This means giving your dog adequate food and water to keep them healthy

2.  Freedom from discomfort

All animals deserve adequate shelter and a place to rest

3.  Freedom from pain, injury and disease

Owners should focus on keeping their animals safe from harm and, when they are sick, they should be taken for appropriate care without delay

4. Freedom to behave normally

This is about ensuring there is enough space for an animal to exhibit its normal behaviour including having opportunities to interact with others of its own kind

5.  Freedom from fear and distress

Treatment should ensure that animals are not distressed or fearful, exhibiting good mental health

What is a no kill shelter?

As the name suggests, a no kill animal shelter is one where all adoptable animals are allowed to live until they are found a forever, loving home.  Only severely ill animals, or those that are truly determined to be dangerous and unadoptable, are euthanised. 

The concept of ‘no kill’ has challenged the animal welfare sector as far back as the 1970s.  An article by Ed Duvin in 1989 in a publication called animalines is reputed to have been a major turning point.  The article characterised the animal welfare sector as a ‘slumbering giant’ and pointed to the need for a coordinated national effort with a greater focus on education and the valuing of each animal’s life.  It challenged the sector to stop killing animals in the name of mercy.

You can read a reprint of that article here.

I have just had the pleasure of working at the Best Friends Animal Society sanctuary in Kanab, Utah.  This is an inspiring leader in the no kill movement and I look forward to bringing you more news about Best Friends and animal welfare in future blog postings.

Florida shelter dog was a hero (and her new owner didn’t even know it)

Dog heroes come in all shapes and sizes.  This story, from St Petersburg, Florida is just another example.

Mabeline was being walked by a teenage shelter volunteer when a sex offender assaulted the girl.  Mabeline barked and scared the man away.  He was later arrested.

Mabeline, the Rhodesian Ridgeback cross, who was adopted from Friends of Strays (photo: Fox News)

The Friends of Strays shelter was able to place Mabeline with a new owner, who only found out about Mabeline’s heroics after the dog came to live with her.  This proves that it was Mabeline’s sweet nature that was her best asset  – her courage was an added bonus!

Source:  Fox News

Homeless dogs in paradise – a visit to the Maui Humane Society

Whenever I travel, I like to do research on dogs and dog welfare issues.  I was on Maui last week and took a trip out to visit the Maui Humane Society.  I’m very glad I did.

The Humane Society is a very busy place  set on beautiful grounds adorned by tropical flowers.    In the reception area is a notice board complete with photos and details of animals that have successfully found their forever homes after a stay at the shelter.

Jocelyn Bouchard, who  is the Chief Executive Officer of the Society, told me that the Society employs two full time adoption counselors who promote adoptions, provide counseling and support to potential adopters before, during and after adoption, and coordinate transfers.

The Society transports pets off island, out of state and internationally and works with adopters and transport agencies to make this happen.   For the ten months of this financial year (July through to end of April), 832 dogs have been adopted and another 63 have been transferred. In the fiscal year the ended June 30 2010, the Society adopted a total of 911 dogs, transferring a total of 33.

Holiday makers often visit the Society’s shelter, and adoptions to California and other west coast (USA) locations are fairly common.   The most common international designation for pets is Canada.  Pets have been transferred as far as Indonesia and Germany, too!

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The Society spends an average of $255 on every animal in its care.

The kennel area was full on the day of my visit.   Dogs are photographed with flower leis around their neck to add a unique Hawaiian touch.

The Society is a no-kill shelter and has no time limit for keeping animals.  Adoption information on the kennel signs tell you how long the animal has been in the Society’s care.  Adoption fees range from a high of $125 for puppies under the age of 6 months, $100 for dogs over the age of 6 months, and $55 for dogs over the age of 7 years.
You can find the Society’s headquarters at 1350 Mehameha Loop in Pu’unene.  Visiting hours are 10 am -4 pm, Monday through Saturday,  and 12 to 4 on Sundays.

The Maui Humane Society is committed to building lifelong bonds between people and animals through education, community outreach and the prevention of cruelty.

Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand