There was a great tragedy last week in Atlanta. A two year-old boy was mauled and killed by the family's eight year-old pit bull. This made local and even national news and was a horrible event. One of my part-time staff also works as a paradmedic and was the first medical responder to the call. We were talking about it today and I can't imagine having to look at a child in that state and then tell his mother that he died.
As you can expect, the discussion among people hearing the story quickly became oriented around the dog's breed. "How can you let such a dangerous dog around a child?" "Those dogs should be outlawed!" "They're a menace to society!" As a veterinarian I often have clients asking me about pit bulls and whether or not their reputation as a dangerous breed is true. After having worked almost 16 years as a vet and almost 30 years in the profession, I absolutely say "no".
Do you know what breed has the highest reported bite rate? Labrador retrievers. Yet they're considered good family dogs and generally friendly. I talked about this back in 2009, where a study looked at bite rates and concluded that veterinarians get bit most by Chihuahuas and have the worst bites from lhasa apsos. I completely agree with the study's conclusions.
The large majority of pit bulls I see are very friendly and outgoing. Some of them are a little shy but aren't a danger. Every once in a while I'll see one that is truly agressive and we have to watch carefully. However, I can say that about every breed. I've known some labs, golden retrievers, Siberian huskies, and just about every other breed that we have to muzzle or even sedate to handle. As a vet I am more concerned about the bite tendencies of Chihuahuas and shih-tzus than I am about pit bulls. I'll trust the average pit over the average dachshund any day of the week.
That doesn't mean that pit bulls can't be dangerous. In my opinion and based on my personal experience they as a breed are not likely to bite. But when they do bite it will be serious because of their jaw strength. If a small dog bites me I might have to have stitches if it's a really bad injury. If a pit bull decides to bite me I'm going to end up hospitalized. To me the danger of pits (if any) is in the severity of the bite, not the likelihood.
ANY dog can have the potential to bite under the "right" circumstances. I've had very sweet patients that will snap at me if they're really painful. If you provoke a dog enough you run the risk of it biting just out of fear or retaliation. That's why when I hear of a bite I always want to know the circumstances. If a dog is not properly socialized and is treated roughly it will have a higher tendency to bite. In this case last week, I have a hard time seeing how a normal, well-treated dog will suddenly turn aggressive at eight years old. With my background in behavior I have to wonder if the dog was not properly trained or handled and had this tendency prior to this event. There is also the possibility of a medical condition such as pain, a brain tumor, and so on. A normal, healthy, well-adjusted dog doesn't suddenly go psychotic at eight for no reason. But you won't hear about those potential causes on the news. All you'll hear is "Pit bull attacks and kills toddler!" I think this is sad, as it makes people afraid of the breed when they don't need to be.
The question will probably come up "So what breeds will bite?" In my personal, non-scientific experience I get nervous around the following breeds: Rottweilers, German shepherds, basenjis, shar-peis, chow-chows, Chihuahuas, dachshunds, akitas, Cane Corsos, and Presa Canarios. Before people with these breeds get up in arms, I've known very sweet examples of all of these. I'm just listing the breeds with which I've had repeated issues, as well as breeds that can do some serious damage. Again, any dog can bite depending on the circumstance, and the breed that has the most reported bites is also universally recognized as a good family breed.
If you talk to vets and those in our profession you'll find very few who agree that pit bulls are an overly aggressive breed. Unfortunately the breed attracts people who want a "tough" dog and deliberately train it to be this way, or neglect it's social development. Because of these irresponsible owners there have been more serious bites from the breed than we would otherwise see.