Pit Bulls in Shelters: The Pit Bull Problem in the USA

Pit Bulls in Shelters: The Pit Bull Problem in the USA

Currently in the United States, pit bulls make up a considerable portion of the dogs in shelters. Some estimates put the number at 40% to 60%, but I have seen statistics as low as 20%. While accurate numbers are hard to come by, one only needs to look at adoptable animal listings in their area to discover that most pounds and shelters have many, many pit bulls in their kennels looking for homes.

What is a Pit Bull?

The pit bull is a group of dog types originally descended from the crossing of bull-baiting dogs and terriers. (http://love-a-bull.org/resources/the-history-of-pit-bulls/). Currently, there are a few dogs within this family of breeds, including the American Staffordshire terrier, which is recognized by the American Kennel Club, the American bully, the American pit bull terrier, and the Staffordshire bull terrier. All of these breeds come from the same original stock, and all are muscular, tenacious dogs with a propensity to animal aggression. Many argue as to whether or not the above dogs should all be considered pit bulls. I think it is reasonable to class all as pit bulls, in the same way the Malinois, the Laekenois, the Tervuren, and Groenendael are all called Belgian Shepherds, even as the Malinois is being moved more toward a schutzhund and police dog and other varieties are being bred for other tasks such as the show ring.

US Pit Bull Population and Shelter Population:

I have seen many different numbers on what percentage of the US dog population is made up of pit bulls. The most commonly stated number is 6% (https://dogbitelaw.com/vicious-dogs/pit-bulls-facts-and-figures#:~:text=Pit%20bulls%20are%20less%20than,of%20the%20country’s%20canine%20population.) It must be recognized that this source is adamantly anti-pit bull, but with this being said, even pro-pit websites seem to use this statistic (https://pawsomeadvice.com/dog/pit-bull-statistics/#:~:text=15%25%E2%80%9320%25%20of%20dogs,the%20breed%20is%20quite%20broad.) Still, I wonder if the number of pit-bulls is higher than this, simply because I tend to see A LOT of this type of dog. Anti-pit bull activists have interest in reporting a low number for the total pit bull population, as then the number of attacks become more significant. Still, there is a huge variety of dogs in the USA, and most are not pit bulls, but I suspect the number may be closer to 8 – 9%, especially in certain regions of the country.

An article by the ASPCA from 2014 states that the dog most commonly relinquished to shelters was the pit bull type dog. (https://web.archive.org/web/20190731184541/https://www.aspcapro.org/blog/2014/05/15/filling-pit). This lines up with my own experience when searching for a new dog. I started off my search by looking at shelters, only to discover that the vast majority of shelter dogs are pit bulls. The shelter I adopted Raina from 12 years ago, is now entirely made up of pit bulls, when at the time of her adoption I don’t remember even one pit bull being on the shelter’s floor.

When researching for this article, I decided to look at Petfinder’s listings. Now, these numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt: shelters seem woefully inadequate at labeling their dogs correctly. For example, I saw several German Shepherd pups labeled as Pumi mixes, and several pit bulls labeled as Affenpinscher crosses. Shelters commonly list pit bull type dogs as lab mixes or just plain old mixed breeds. Additionally, the numbers are not mutually exclusive of one another: if a dog is listed as a golden retriever pit bull mix, I believe it would register in both categories. Even with these things considered, the number of dogs labeled as “pit bull terriers” on Petfinder’s site (looking nationwide) is staggering. The website lists 17,434 pit bulls as up for adoption. Compare this to Labrador Retrievers, which make up 14,320 of the dogs registered on Petfinder as up for adoption. Considering the fact that Labrador retrievers are the most popular breed in the United States (https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/dog-breeds/the-most-popular-dog-breeds-of-2020/), one would suspect they would make up the biggest percentage of dogs in shelters if no other factors were at play.

In summary, I think accurate numbers on the total population of pit bulls are incredibly hard to ascertain, but what we can know is that they are not a rare type of dog by any means, and that pit-bull type dogs find themselves in shelters at a higher rate than many other popular breeds of dog.  

Why Do Pit Bulls End up in Shelters and Pounds?

There are many, many reasons as to why pit bulls are so commonly found in shelters. Here, I will give some of the reasons I have come across, along with some of my own theories.

Housing:

Many apartment complexes do not allow pit bulls, along with a myriad of other breeds, including Cane Corso’s, Rottweilers, and German Shepherds. (https://www.apartmentlist.com/renter-life/breed-restrictions). As such, when people move, they might be forced to give up their dog. Still, Rottweilers in 2020 ranked at number 8 in popularity by the AKC (https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/dog-breeds/the-most-popular-dog-breeds-of-2020/), and my simple Petfinder search only showed 1,261 available Rottweilers being up for adoption. German Shepherds are the 3rd most popular breed by the same AKC source, and my Petfinder search produced 5,963 homeless GSDs. So, by no means are Rottweilers and German Shepherds rare breeds, but they are not finding themselves in need of a homes to the same extent that pit bull type dogs are. From this, I really doubt housing breed restrictions are the sole reason pit bulls are ending up in shelters as such high rates.

No-Kill Shelters:

There was a time when any pit bull type dog that entered a shelter or pound was basically guaranteed a death sentence. I could not find the article, but several months ago I read a piece in which a shelter worker talked about how in days gone by, pit bulls that entered shelters were automatically euthanized. Now, with the no-kill movement, this doesn’t happen. Pit bulls may seem to be more common in shelters simply because they are not being killed on sight. There are obviously good outcomes from this, as more friendly, adoptable dogs are being saved. I talk a little bit more about the problems with this below.

Irresponsible Owners and Misconceptions of the Pit Bull Type Dog:

This is largely based on my own readings and observations, but I believe the biggest reason pit bulls find themselves homeless is because of irresponsible owners and misconceptions about these types of dogs. Many stupid, ignorant people buy and indiscriminately breed this dog type. These people are not looking to better the breed, they are looking to make a quick buck. Consequently, the pups have the worst genetic package possible. Unsuspecting dog lovers, who are uneducated on breed traits, buy these pups to give them a good life. These owners think breed characteristics are non-existent, and they don’t have the foggiest clue on how to handle a dominant, strong breed like the pit bull. The dog grows into a monster, due to poor bloodlines and poor rearing, and ends up in the shelter system.

The misconception that a dog’s personality and temperament is completely dependent on rearing and environmental factors is one I often see touted by well-meaning dog lovers, most often when talking about pit bulls. While this sounds nice, it is totally inaccurate. If this were true, we wouldn’t even have dog breeds, we would simply have a basic, domesticated dog that could be trained to do anything. There would be no Labradors bred for seeing-eye dogs, no bloodhounds bred for search and rescue work, no Border Collies for herding sheep. One could just take a husky and train it to herd livestock, or take a Golden Retriever and train it for protection work. Faced with these scenarios, it become obvious that breed traits do exist, and the argument that they do not is a silly and ridiculous proposition.  

Pit bulls were selectively bred for aggression for generations, plain and simple. The ancestors of the pit bull were bull baiting dogs. This bull baiting history is where these dogs obtained their desire to bite and hold (Dog: The Definitive Guide for Dog Owners). When bull baiting became illegal, these bull dogs were crossed with terriers to compete in the sport of ratting. Eventually, they began to breed the dogs to fight other dogs as well (http://love-a-bull.org/resources/the-history-of-pit-bulls/). As such, pit bulls tend to be more aggressive than breeds such as the Golden Retriever. With this, it is understandable why so many people who may be able to properly raise and train a Golden Retriever may be completely unable to handle a pit bull or related breed. Even well-bred pit bulls, American Staffordshire Terriers (Am Staff), can become dog aggressive at any point in their life, as noted on the AKC website:

It must be noted that dog aggression can develop even in well-socialized Am Staffs; an AmStaff should never under any circumstances be left alone with other dogs. (https://www.akc.org/dog-breeds/american-staffordshire-terrier/)

Considering even well bred pit bulls should be expected to develop some sort of aggression, one can imagine the bad outcomes when poor breeding practices are in place.

The indiscriminate breeding of these dogs is a huge issue. It is estimated that 80% of pet dogs in the US are spayed or neutered (https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/news/is-spaying-neutering-always-the-best-choice/#:~:text=It’s%20estimated%20that%2080%20percent,branded%20an%20irresponsible%20dog%20owner.), but many suspect that the number of pit bulls that are spayed and neutered to be much lower. It seems many pit bull owners are reluctant to spay and neuter their animals, even when the service is free (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5VuFHZeZ0kA) Some estimates put pit bull spay and neuter rates at as low as 25% (https://newspaper.animalpeopleforum.org/2011/10/01/editorial-the-shelter-killing-of-pit-bulls/). I don’t know what the accurate number on the spay and neuter rates for pit bulls is, but I assume it is lower than the rates at which other dogs are spayed and neutered, simply because so many of these dogs are ending up in shelters. This trend certainly does not represent responsible, well-controlled, limited breeding practices common in many other breeds.

Indiscriminate breeding can be an issue in any breed of dog, but is especially bad for pit bulls. When collies saw a surge in popularity, poorly bred dogs were known to be aggressive and nippy. The same thing happened with German Shepherds and Cocker Spaniels during different time periods. Each of these breeds was bred for a variety of tasks, not just aggression. In the case of pit bulls, aggression was the desired trait. Take this foundation and add current poor breeding practices to the mix, and what one is left with is a disaster. This disaster is being seen in the flooding of shelters with pit bulls and pit bull mixes. These dogs often have a variety of behavioral problems from bad breeding and bad rearing combined.

To top it off, the worst offenders are not being euthanized, but instead “rehabilitated” because of the no kill movement (https://www.vin.com/vetzinsight/default.aspx?pId=756&id=7218009).  Frankly, I believe too many aggressive dogs, pit bulls and unrelated mixes, are passing through the shelter system and being sent to live in unsuspecting homes when they should be humanely euthanized. These dogs are returned when bad behaviors rear their heads, and the cycle that should have never started goes on and on. Good pit bulls with good temperaments should be placed in loving homes with owners who know how to handle dominant breeds. Pit bulls, or any dog for that matter, with serious behavioral issues should be humanely euthanized and never adopted to the public.

Summary:

The state of shelter pit bulls is a very sad one. Too many of these dogs are being produced by irresponsible people and are being sold to individuals who cannot handle a strong dog with aggressive tendencies such as the pit bull terrier. The only way this problem ends is with people spaying and neutering their pit bulls, and people who are not prepared to handle this type of dog not buying them in the first place. Along with this, shelters need to euthanize dogs with serious behavioral issues so more healthy, stable dogs can be adopted out.

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