Note: This article’s statistics come from third-party sources and do not represent the opinions of this website.
There are few animals as controversial as the Pit Bull Terrier. Some people argue fiercely on behalf of these dogs, claiming that they’re lovable yet misunderstood creatures, that they’re victims of humanity rather than a menace to it.
Others claim that these dogs are too dangerous to own, asserting that they’re lethal weapons on the end of a leash. They cite statistics that show that most fatal dog attacks are caused by Pit Bulls and that each one of these dogs is nothing more than a ticking time bomb.
With these competing claims in mind, we decided to take a deep dive into the facts and stats on these dogs. Are they truly a public health crisis, deserving of special legislation to stop their ownership? Or are the fears surrounding these dogs completely overblown?
The truth, as it often does, lies somewhere in the middle.
Pit Bull Facts and Statistics
1. According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), the Pit Bull is not an actual breed.
It’s surprisingly difficult to get a clear answer as to what, exactly, a Pit Bull is. There are several breeds often lumped together under the umbrella of “Pit Bull,” including American Staffordshire Terriers, American Bully, and Staffordshire Bull Terrier.
There is a breed known as the American Pit Bull Terrier, which is recognized by the United Kennel Club and American Dog Breeders Association, but not by the AKC, which is generally considered the final word on dog breeds in America.
Generally speaking, people use the term “Pit Bull” to refer to any medium-sized dog with a stocky body and boxy head. As a result, getting clear and accurate data that applies only to Pit Bulls is extremely difficult, if not impossible.
2. Based on data compiled by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), Pit Bulls are the most commonly-found dog in animal shelters.
In 2014, the ASPCA collected data from over 30 animal shelters across the United States. Pit Bulls were the most abundant breed by far, with over 50,000 dogs in those shelters. To put that in perspective, Chihuahuas were second, with just over 34,000 individuals in shelters.
Unfortunately, only around 11,000 of those Pit Bulls were eventually adopted, whereas over 25,000 were eventually euthanized.
This data indicates that there are issues with population control of Pit Bulls, as well as limited demand for their companionship. However, like most of the other data on this list, this information may be misleading due to frequent misidentification.
3. There is no clear or compelling data indicating how popular Pit Bulls are or how many are currently in the United States.
You’ll find various numbers on the internet showing that Pit Bull-type animals represent anywhere from 6-20% of the total number of dogs in the United States. These stats are based on little more than educated guesses, if that.
According to the ASPCA study cited above, Pit Bulls are the third most-commonly adopted dog from animal shelters. As a result, many sources automatically assume that Pit Bulls are the 3rd-most-popular breed in the United States.
However, according to data from HSUS, only 19% of all dogs were obtained from shelters. The rest were either taken in as strays, bought from breeders, or taken from friends and associates.
Given that, it’s extremely unlikely that Pit Bulls are as popular as many of the commonly-cited numbers would indicate. However, it’s impossible to say with any certainty.
4. Breed identification in shelters will vary depending on where you are — and who’s doing the labeling.
To further emphasize the point that Pit Bull identification is a dicey proposition at best, a recent study by Arizona State University’s Canine Science Collaboratory found that people in different areas of the country have different odds of labeling the same dog as a Pit Bull.
The difference is even more stark when comparing the opinions of American shelter workers to those of British shelter employees. When shown 20 different dog pictures, American shelter workers labeled 35% of them as Pit Bulls, whereas British shelter workers only labeled 5% of the same dogs as Pit Bulls.
One of the biggest drivers of misidentification is the presence of breed-specific legislation (BSL) in the area represented by the shelter. In fact, 42% of polled shelter workers said they would deliberately misidentify a Pit Bull-type dog if they thought that it would improve the animal’s chances of survival.
5. Dogs labeled as Pit Bulls spend three times longer in shelters than those labeled as other breeds.
The name that intake officials at animal shelters give to any dog goes a long way toward determining that dog’s eventual fate. As we’ve seen, they’re not that effective at accurately identifying dogs, voluntarily or not.
According to one study, a dog’s attractiveness is the most popular reason that they are adopted or rejected. However, adding the label of “Pit Bull” to the dog dramatically affects the animal’s chances of being adopted.
Dogs that look like Pit Bulls — but aren’t labeled as such — stay in shelters for 12 days on average. However, by adding the “Pit Bull” label, the same dog will now stay in the shelter for 42 days on average.
Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) looked at data from 1981-1992. The numbers showed that Pit Bull-type dogs and Rottweilers accounted for the vast majority of dog-related fatalities.
However, the data relied on eyewitness identification of the dogs responsible for the attacks, without any DNA analysis. That would seem to imply that Pit Bulls are likely shouldering the blame for attacks performed by other breeds.
Still, though, the numbers are massive enough to indicate that even when accounting for misidentification, Pit Bulls are likely to be overrepresented on dog-related fatalities lists.
Many of the breeds that made the list are far less common than Pit Bulls, like Akitas, Japanese Hunting Dogs, and Rhodesian Ridgebacks. This may suggest that at least part of the issue with the high numbers associated with Pit Bull-type dogs is the fact that they’re a much more popular breed.
8. While the number of dog attacks has remained constant for quite some time, the breeds responsible for them have changed.
People who claim that Pit Bulls are inherently dangerous point to statistics like the one above that shows that the dogs are responsible for the lion’s share of fatal attacks. However, that hasn’t always been the case, and the breed responsible for the most fatal attacks has changed over time.
For example, German Shepherds were responsible for the most fatal mauling in the 1970s, while Great Danes took the mantle in the early part of the next decade.
It seems as though the likelihood of a fatal assault is due as much to the popularity of the dog as anything else, and the Pit Bull’s increasing popularity may be what’s behind its prominent place on attack statistics.
9. According to data from the American Temperament Test Society (ATTS), Pit Bulls pass temperament tests 87.4% of the time.
The ATTS is a national non-profit organization that performs examinations of dogs to determine their temperament. In order to pass the test, the animal cannot show panic, strong avoidance without recovery, or unprovoked aggression.
Pit Bulls pass the test 87.4% of the time, according to their data. To put that in perspective, Golden Retrievers, a breed generally considered friendly and harmless, only pass the test 85.6% of the time.
Now, this data does not guarantee that any individual animal will be trustworthy. However, it strongly indicates that unprovoked aggression is not an innate issue with Pit Bulls.
10. Pit Bulls have been shown to be more aggressive toward other dogs.
The data mentioned above from the ATTS is largely designed to show how likely Pit Bulls are to be toward humans; clearly, they’re not the threat that many people perceive them to be.
However, a study performed in 2008 by the University of Pennsylvania’s School for Veterinary Medicine found that Pit Bull-type dogs showed “significantly decreased aggression to owners, but increased aggression to dogs.”
This aggression was especially pronounced toward dogs that were unknown to the Pit Bull. However, it didn’t extend to the owners of the strange dogs.
They weren’t the most aggressive breed in this metric, though. That distinction was shared by Chihuahuas and Dachshunds.
11. The Pit Bull has the 8th-strongest bite force of any breed.
There is plenty of misinformation about the bite strength of Pit Bulls, most of which claims that these dogs have the most powerful bites of any breed. In fact, there have only been two reputable studies examining canine bite force, and they indicate that Pit Bulls have the 8th-strongest bite of any dog at 235 psi.
That’s roughly twice as strong as a human’s bite force — so while it can be damaging, it’s far from an inescapable vice grip.
The breed with the most powerful bite is the Kangal, a Mastiff-type dog that can pack 743 psi in each bite. However, Kangals don’t have a reputation for being deadly, indicating that something else is behind the Pit Bull’s spotty reputation.
Why Do Pit Bulls Have Such a Mixed Reputation?
There’s no doubt that Pit Bulls have a negative image in the minds of many people. Some of that is due to myths and misinformation about the breed, but there is also truth behind that poor reputation.
Pit Bull-type dogs were originally developed in the United Kingdom at the beginning of the 19th century. They were used for blood sports like dog fighting, bull-baiting, and rat baiting. These sports made the trip across the pond, becoming popular in the United States by the middle of that century.
The U.K. banned all dog-related blood sports in 1911, but the dogs were still bred as companion animals. Attempts to eliminate those horrific activities haven’t been as successful, as dog fighting only became a felony in all 50 states in 2008.
This has led many people to associate the dogs with violence. They believe that aggression is innate to these dogs, and it’s something that they can’t “turn off.” There’s little evidence to support that assertion, however.
One issue that these dogs do encounter is the type of owners they can attract. Since Pit Bulls are often seen as powerful and masculine, they are often owned by people wishing to project those traits — which unfortunately, includes gang members and other criminal elements. These owners are unlikely to properly train, socialize, or contain their dogs, greatly increasing the risk that they’ll be involved in a serious attack.
Pit Bulls and Breed-Specific Legislation
Due to the Pit Bull’s poor reputation, they’re often the targets of breed-specific legislation (BSL). These are attempts by legislators to restrict or outright ban the ownership of dogs that have been deemed dangerous.
Pit Bull lovers argue that such legislation is discriminatory, as it unfairly demonizes a breed and punishes responsible owners of those dogs, while proponents of BSL counter that it’s a common-sense solution to a legitimate public health issue.
One problem with this is that breed is a poor predictor of aggression. Dogs of any breed can be aggressive, and there are factors other than breed (such as keeping a dog chained up) that affect the animal’s likelihood of attacking.
However, a far bigger issue is the fact that numerous studies have shown that BSL doesn’t work.
Not only does it fail to reduce the number of serious dog bites, but it also drives up costs to the community, largely due to the need for re-training animal control officers, lawsuits over breed misidentification, and increased shelter population.
That’s not to say that there’s nothing that can be done, however. Enforcing existing animal control laws like leash laws is a good start, as is requiring more training and certification from dog owners.
Common Pit Bull Myths
More so than just about any other breed, Pit Bulls are subject to a variety of myths. Some of these are intended to unfairly demonize the dogs, while others give them undeserved credit.
Myth: Pit Bulls have locking jaws.
This myth is designed to scare people about the severity of a Pit Bull attack; it strongly hints that if your Pit Bull bites someone, you will be unable to stop them from continuing to attack.
Physiologically speaking, a Pit Bull’s jaws work just like any other dog (and there are other dogs with stronger bites). Their jaws don’t lock, nor are they more likely to stay “locked on” to a bite victim than other breeds.
Myth: Pit Bulls don’t feel pain when they fight.
Sadly, this couldn’t be further from the truth. They feel as much pain as any other dog would feel in the same situation.
However, fighting Pit Bulls were bred to be non-aggressive toward their owners, even during or immediately after about. This lack of aggressiveness may contribute to the belief that they weren’t in pain during the fight itself.
Myth: Pit Bulls were once considered nanny dogs.
This myth seems to be based on a single claim in 1971 from a woman named Lilian Rant, who was then the president of the Staffordshire Bull Terrier Club of America. However, Rant’s quote — that many owners of Staffordshire Bull Terriers referred to them as “nursemaid dogs” — was clearly based in the present tense, not an indication of years of prior history.
The fact is that you should never leave a dog of any breed alone with a child, no matter how much you trust them. Even so, Pit Bulls are often highly tolerant of children, provided that they’re well-trained and socialized.
Myth: Pit Bulls attack unprovoked.
This myth is commonly cited to prove that the dogs are inherently untrustworthy and unpredictable. However, the temperament studies performed by the ATTS clearly indicate that Pit Bulls aren’t prone to unprovoked aggression.
Also, most people are unfamiliar with canine behavior, so they have a poor understanding of what “provokes” a dog attack. In the overwhelming number of cases in which a Pit Bull attacks a human, there was provocation — albeit usually unwitting — on the part of the victim.
While we’re not suggesting that Pit Bulls that have shown aggression toward humans should be tolerated, better education and awareness are needed to teach people how to safely behave around dogs of any breed.
It’s rare to find a middle-of-the-road opinion on Pit Bulls, as views on the dogs seem to congregate at the two extremes. One side believes them to be ruthless killers, while the other views them as sweet, misunderstood animals that are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it.
What’s worse, these opinions are seemingly becoming more calcified, as supporters of either viewpoint are unwilling to accept any information that might contradict their previously-held notions.
The fact of the matter is that these animals are neither devils nor saints — they’re just dogs, albeit ones that carry a vicious social stigma. Can they be loving, loyal family pets? Absolutely. Are they capable of great violence if abused, neglected, or poorly trained? Yes, just like any other breed.
The debate around Pit Bulls isn’t likely to be solved anytime soon. Hopefully, though, we can finally begin to judge these dogs on their own merits, rather than the various sensationalistic claims that plague them from supporters of both viewpoints.
Featured Image Credit: Melounix, Shutterstock
- Pit Bull Facts and Statistics
- 1. According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), the Pit Bull is not an actual breed.
- 2. Based on data compiled by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), Pit Bulls are the most commonly-found dog in animal shelters.
- 3. There is no clear or compelling data indicating how popular Pit Bulls are or how many are currently in the United States.
- 4. Breed identification in shelters will vary depending on where you are — and who’s doing the labeling.
- 5. Dogs labeled as Pit Bulls spend three times longer in shelters than those labeled as other breeds.
- 6. One study found that Pit Bulls and Rottweilers accounted for 67% of all dog bite-related fatalities in the United States.
- 7. Over 42 breeds were found to have caused at least one dog-bite related fatality in that same study.
- 8. While the number of dog attacks has remained constant for quite some time, the breeds responsible for them have changed.
- 9. According to data from the American Temperament Test Society (ATTS), Pit Bulls pass temperament tests 87.4% of the time.
- 10. Pit Bulls have been shown to be more aggressive toward other dogs.
- 11. The Pit Bull has the 8th-strongest bite force of any breed.
- Why Do Pit Bulls Have Such a Mixed Reputation?
- Pit Bulls and Breed-Specific Legislation
- Common Pit Bull Myths