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Australian officials to kill pit bulls, other 'dangerous' breeds

Knee-jerk reaction to maulings prompts overregulation, veterinarians say


September 29, 2011
By:
Angie DeRosa
For The VIN News Service



Municipalities in Australia and the United States are restricting pit bull ownership. As a result, some of the dogs end up in shelters.
Photo: Getty Images
A law takes effect Friday in Victoria, Australia, that could be the country's toughest regulation of the American pit bull terrier and four other dog breeds, based on the notion that some breeds are inherently dangerous. 

The crackdown — spurred by several recent attacks including last month's mauling death of a 4-year-old Melbourne girl — has veterinarians in Australia and other countries objecting to the idea that certain types of dogs are more likely than others to bite. Practitioners also fear that they will be dragged into Victoria's efforts to kill pit bulls by being asked to identify and euthanize them.

Beginning Friday, authorities will knock on doors in Victoria, seizing and euthanizing any American pit bull terrier — or dog that looks like one — that is not registered as a restricted breed with local officials. Owners of lookalikes such as American Staffordshire terriers need a certificate from a veterinarian or pedigree papers from breed registry groups that prove their ancestry. 

In addition to the American pit bull terrier, the restriction in Victoria includes the perro de presa canario, dogo Argentino (Argentinian fighting dog), Japanese tosa and fila Brasileiro (Brazilian fighting dog). Pit bulls are the most common among the restricted breeds in Victoria. To keep a restricted dog, owners must register their dogs with local municipal councils and prove that the animals are spayed and neutered, microchipped, housed in an inescapable enclosure, muzzled and leashed off premises, among other requirements. 

Dogs of mixed ancestry that visibly show characteristics of any of the restricted breeds are included in the regulation. Exactly what those characteristics are is not defined.  

In addition to the ban, legislation recently introduced by the Victorian Coalition Government in Parliament proposes that owners with dogs of restricted breeds or are declared dangerous face up to 10 years in jail if their dogs kill someone.  

Branding entire breeds as dangerous has incited an outcry from veterinary communities in Australia and the United States. In North America, cities such as Denver and Toronto have faced similar controversy when area politicians used legislation to target pit bulls and other breeds. Breed restrictions of varying kinds exist in dozens of U.S. cities and currently are being discussed in municipalities from Maine to Mississippi.

On Aug. 31, the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) spoke out against the legislation through a media release. AVA Victorian President Dr. Susan Maastricht lamented that innocent family pets are becoming scapegoats for aggressive dogs. She noted that dog bite incidents aren't limited to pit bull breeds. 

“The risk is this could lull the community into a false sense of security and do little to address the overall problem of dog bites,” she said. “... Dogs of any breed known to be aggressive and potentially dangerous must be properly housed and restrained. But just declaring that some breeds are dangerous and others aren’t is misleading."

To spread this message, the AVA has adopted the slogan “Ban the deed, not the breed.” The group's campaign focuses on educating the public about what causes dogs to bite as well as responsible ownership, which involves socializing and training family pets.

Joining the AVA's efforts is the Veterinary Defence Association, Ltd. (VDA), a non-profit group that provides legal defense for veterinarians in the United States, South Africa, Canada, Europe, South America and Australia. Founder David Carser, a veterinarian and lawyer, has put out a call for veterinarians worldwide to protest Victoria's breed ban.

The VDA has issued an alert to its Australian members and a letter of protest to the Victorian Parliament. Carser encourages others to take similar action.

“You don’t have to like pit bulls,” he said. “You just have to hate man’s inhumanity toward pit bulls.” 

When it comes to breed-specific legislation, many veterinarians are staunch critics. The American Veterinary Medical Association opposes laws targeting pit bulls and other breeds on grounds that dangerous dogs are a product of irresponsible owners, and casting a blanket policy encompassing a breed is excessive.

Confusion also stems from the fact that by itself, the pit bull does not constitute a breed. Rather, it is a general term that covers dogs with similar traits and characteristics such as American Staffordshire terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers and American bulldogs.

“There are more than 10 other breeds that may be confused visually with a pit bull or a pit bull cross,” Carser, of the VDA, wrote in an email to the VIN News Service. 

Considering that owners and authorities will bring dogs to be euthanized to Victorian veterinarians, the identification of a dog's breed carries a high level of legal risk, Carser said. 

With power to determine and certify whether a dog is of a breed on the restricted list, Victorian veterinarians could be held liable if a dog deemed to be of an unrestricted breed subsequently bites someone. On the other hand, veterinarians could be sued if they wrongly label a dog as a restricted breed and it's euthanized, Carser said. 

Another potential legal pitfall: It's foreseeable that Victorian veterinarians could be in breach of their ethical obligation to practice using scientifically justifiable and defendable principles, Carser said. Evaluating whether a dog is a pit bull — and therefore should live or die — based on appearance is largely subjective. DNA analysis reputably has no value, he added.

As a result, the VDA advises its members to avoid issuing any certificate identifying a dog's breed and to refuse to euthanize a dog on the basis of breed unless the owner has signed a euthanasia consent form specifically designed for such incidents. 

While the logistics of executing Victoria's breed ban are still being worked out, national legislation in Australia appears to be brewing.

On Aug. 18, Victoria's Premier Ted Baillieu noted during a press conference that legislation is being drafted. As for killing dogs of breeds deemed "dangerous" in Victoria, he professed an urgency to be "rid of these dogs as soon as we possibly can."



VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email news@vin.com.



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