“Mutt Testing” the Motley and the New Veterinary Politics of Breed Identification

4. Given all three above circumstances, understanding our mixed breed dogs’ true parentage might well save some lives — and perhaps even help erase negative stereotypes about so-called “bad” breeds.

5. It’s this last issue that recently turned heads in my profession after a paper was published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) titled, “Rethinking Dog Breed Identification in Veterinary Practice.”

Visual Identification Is Not Enough

Their goal was simple but decidedly counter to common practices in veterinary hospitals throughout the U.S. While most veterinary practices choose to assign a breed or breed cross to nearly every patient (in medical records, for municipal licenses, health certificates for travel, etc.), the authors convincingly argued we omit the visual breed ID in the case of mixed breed dogs whose parentage is unknown and for those whose purebred status is questionable.

Referencing canine genetic studies demonstrating that dogs’ physical appearance (phenotype) within the same litter varied enormously from their parents,’ the authors’ agreed with genetic researchers who concluded that mixed breed dogs’ genetic underpinnings could not be determined effectively based on their appearance.

This conclusion is in stark contrast to a conventional wisdom advancing the notion that dogs’ purebred heritage can be readily discerned from their physical appearance.

Which would be an innocuous concept if dogs’ very lives weren’t depending on an erroneous assumption even veterinarians have been perpetuating since the dawn of pet keeping.

After all, dogs can die if they’re assumed to be a Pit Bull mix instead of a Bullmastiff, American Bulldog, or Bull Terrier cross. In fact, I know one dog living in Miami whose parents were definitively known to be a Boston Terrier male and a Boxer female. Yet she was forced out of the county (lest her owners face fines and her eventual euthanasia) after county officials deemed her a Pit Bull mix.

But it’s not just breed bans we have to contend with. Homeowner’s insurance policies are problematic here too. As of three decades ago, these carriers began adopting policy exclusions for certain purebreds, including everything from German Shepherds and to Boxers and English Bulldogs too; and, to add insult to injury, all of their crosses.

Which is terrible and unjust, of course, given all the evidence now at our disposal. Hence, why the new politics of breed ID would see veterinarians abandon old ways in favor of a noncommittal approach to breed identification, or at least using DNA testing in place of visual assessments to provide a more accurate estimation of the breed.

In other words, let there be no record of any veterinarian or vet staff’s visual breed “guess.” Because not only is it probably wrong, as the science of genetic testing and other research is informing us, if it’s on record that a dog is a mix of x, y or z, the possibility of an untoward legal or financial outcome remains.

It all makes sense. But will veterinarians alter their behavior? Given the average human’s resistance to change, probably not fast enough. Which is why posts like these will hopefully serve to educate owners on the need to ask that their veterinarians leave out any reference to breed in medical records if no definitive evidence exists.

Here’s hoping we’ll all change our ways. Because ultimately, too many dogs’ lives may depend on it.


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