A Vet’s Take on Treating Banned Breeds
Since 1990, Miami-Dade County, the municipality in which I reside, has required that all veterinarians post a prominent sign in English, Spanish and Creole with the following verbiage:
“BOTH PURE AND MIXED BREED PIT BULL DOGS ARE CLASSIFIED AS DANGEROUS. IT HAS BEEN ILLEGAL TO ACQUIRE A NEW PIT BULL DOG SINCE JANUARY 1, 1990. Section 5-17.1, Miami-Dade Code.”
So you understand, that means Pit Bulls and mixes thereof are 100 percent illegal. But that doesn’t mean veterinarians are on the hook for having to report their patients or tattle on their owners. Though we can be fined $500 every day we fail to display this sign, we’re otherwise not required to play the role of Pit Bull police.
But that doesn’t mean we’re comfortable with this arrangement.
For starters, many veterinarians are opposed to the kind of breed-specific legislation exemplified by this so-called “Pit Bull law.” After Miami-Dade enacted it, hundreds of municipalities followed suit, ushering in a wave of dog-breed bias on the basis of appearance alone. To which, many veterinarians responded: “Where’s the science? Is there any credible evidence to show these dogs are more dangerous than others?”
Focus on Individual Dogs, Not Breed Stereotypes
In a sweeping study conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in 2000, the following conclusion was reached: “Although fatal attacks on humans appear to be a breed-specific problem (Pit Bull-type dogs and Rottweilers), other breeds may bite and cause fatalities at higher rates. Because of difficulties inherent in determining a dog’s breed with certainty, enforcement of breed-specific ordinances raises constitutional and practical issues. Fatal attacks represent a small proportion of dog bite injuries to humans and, therefore, should not be the primary factor driving public policy concerning dangerous dogs. Many practical alternatives to breed-specific ordinances exist and hold promise for prevention of dog bites.”
This led the American Veterinary Medical Association to publish a statement on the subject titled Why Breed-Specific Legislation Is Not the Answer, which aptly echoes the sentiments of most veterinarians I know: Dog-breed stereotypes and breed-specific legislation will not keep our communities safe from dog bites. Focusing on individual dogs with a prior history of violence and teaching citizens how to recognize risky human-canine scenarios will.
Despite what seems to be a steady, science-fueled rollback of many of these laws in recent years, Miami-Dade County, among many others, remains staunchly protective of its ban in the name of “protecting citizens.”
The Oath Above the Law
I don’t have to like it. Still, I do have to live with it. As do so many veterinarians all over the country. Because here’s the thing: Pit Bulls have not gone away. They continue to live among us in the company of humans who — knowingly or ignorantly, gleefully or fretfully — flout the law. And legal or not, Pit Bulls still need veterinarians. Which naturally begs the question: How do we handle the potential clash between local government and caring for dogs who live in our communities?
The answer will surely differ from veterinarian to veterinarian, but by far the most common approach among veterinarians I know personally is one that effectively looks the other way. These laws don’t charge us with any enforcement responsibilities. And we have an oath to comply with — one whose provisions most of us believe supersede any such local laws.
But that doesn’t mean we’re always OK with it — nor are some of our clients. When a Pit Bull walks through the hospital’s doors, some of our waiting room’s human occupants will occasionally make snide remarks, move away, ask to be offered access to a “safer” location or make some other such show of indignation. And for our part, we’d rather not be asked to take sides.
In other words, “Leave me out of it!” is the usual refrain. As far as I’m [legally] concerned, the dog might as well be any other Terrier or mix thereof. That’s how I refer to them on local county licensure paperwork anyway.
After all, I reason, Pit Bulls are more of a breed type than an actual recognized breed. Therefore, “Terrier mix” is a perfectly appropriate and lawful interpretation of the dog’s physical characteristics, even if it is a little less precise than I’d be inclined to offer in any other legal climate.
Fortunately, it seems likely that most municipalities will eventually see fit to restore Pit Bulls to the list of the legal. This includes Miami-Dade County, too. But until then, I will continue to treat a breed that, in my experience, holds no special claim to the designation as “dangerous” dog.
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