Ban on 'XL bully' dogs puts British veterinarians in a bind

Practitioners in UK must decide whether to euthanize healthy dogs

Published: January 23, 2024

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U.K. government photo
Guidance issued by the United Kingdom government provides this photograph of an American XL bully to help people identify the dog type, which has been officially deemed dangerous.

A hastily implemented ban in the United Kingdom of American XL bullies — large, powerful dogs partly descended from pit bulls — is putting veterinarians under pressure, including by forcing them to choose whether to euthanize healthy pets.

For at least one practitioner, the nuances of the challenge have been encapsulated all too vividly. When one of the dogs known as XL bullies was brought to a clinic in northwest England to be euthanized, it bit him.

"I was just walking past the dog to the other side of the room to get things ready, and it kind of jumped up and latched onto my arm," said the veterinarian, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Elliot, owing to abuse being directed toward practitioners who are euthanizing the dogs.

Fortunately, Elliot's injuries weren't serious, possibly because the patient was sedated. "I didn't need stitches, but it made my arm bleed a little bit. I just cleaned the wound and got on with the rest of the day."

The unsettling incident comes as the British veterinary profession grapples with a controversial rule that was approved Oct. 31 and partly came into effect on Dec. 31, when the dogs were officially deemed dangerous. It is now illegal to breed them or take them outside unleashed and unmuzzled.

Meanwhile, owners face a Feb. 1 deadline to apply for an exemption certificate to keep their dogs, a requirement that involves paying a £92.40 (US$117.22) "application fee" and buying liability insurance. Without an exemption, owners must have their dogs euthanized. In fact, the government encourages it by offering them a £200 (US$254) subsidy to offset the veterinary fee for euthanasia.

In brief

Opponents have requested a judicial review.

The seemingly brutal reform, which, for the moment, applies to England and Wales only, has sparked gruesome reports of dogs being set on fire to eliminate them or, in a more humane reaction, moved in vanloads up to Scotland — although the Scottish government is now planning its own ban.

Impacts on the veterinary profession are numerous. Demand for spay and castration appointments is rising, for instance, since the new rules require all dogs be desexed. XL bullies that are older than one year on Jan. 31 must be neutered by June 30. Dogs younger than one year must be neutered by Dec. 31. The dogs also must be microchipped. (The U.K. has a relatively high rate of neutering compared to other European countries. According to one recent study, 72% of dogs in the U.K. are neutered, though no data appears to exist for XL bullies specifically).

There are fears shelters will be overrun by abandoned dogs. And, since veterinarians in the U.K. are not obliged by law to euthanize healthy animals, there are concerns that some owners will struggle to find a professional willing to humanely kill their pet.

What, exactly, is an XL bully, and how many are there?

American bullies originated during the 1980s and ‘90s from selective breeding of American pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers and bulldog breeds like American bulldogs and English bulldogs.

Whether the American bully can be described as a breed depends on whom you ask. Neither the American Kennel Club nor the U.K.'s Kennel Club officially recognize it as such. However, the two countries' respective American bully clubs describe it as a breed that comes in various types. The U.K. bully club, for example, lists seven: standard, exotic, micro, pocket, classic, athletic and XL (extra large). And, if that isn't confusing enough, dogs of the same type don't necessarily look alike.

The U.K. government has issued an official definition to help pet owners, police and veterinarians identify XL bullies. Critics fear that many remain confused.

XL bullies, the government says, generally are a "large dog with a muscular body and blocky head, suggesting great strength and power for its size." The guidance then lists dozens of characteristics pertaining to height and body parts like the head, neck and teeth. Dogs meeting the height measurements and "a substantial number" of the other descriptors "could be considered" an XL bully, the guidance says. Crossbreeds "that look more like" an XL bully than other types of dogs also could fit the bill.

Nobody knows how many XL bullies exist in the U.K. During a parliamentary committee hearing on Oct. 18, a veterinarian at IVC Evidensia, the biggest owner of veterinary hospitals in the country, estimated the population at 55,400 but possibly much higher.

"Looking at our clinical records, the number of dogs that we have in our practices listed as American bully XLs came out at 5,540," the company's head of animal welfare, Dr. David Martin, told the committee. "We think you can probably add a zero to the end of that to multiply up to the total number of bullies that are registered within veterinary practices."

Martin added that the estimate doesn't include dogs that aren't patients of veterinary practices or dogs that have been recorded at practices only as a "crossbreed."

Bans and restrictions on dogs considered dangerous are nothing new, though they tend to focus on established breeds. The U.K., for example, already has banned four breeds: the pit bull terrier, Japanese tosa, dogo Argentino and fila Brasiliero.

In the U.S., there are no nationwide bans on dog breeds or types, but some cities have breed bans. Pit bulls are by far the most commonly targeted breed in U.S. communities and elsewhere. The VIN News Service was unable to identify any bans or restrictions in the U.S. specific to XL bullies. At least one jurisdiction, though — Maumelle County in Arkansas — has banned the ownership of American bulldogs, though the ban was lifted in 2021.

So-called breed-specific legislation long has attracted a mixture of support and derision in the veterinary community. Advocates argue that some breeds have physical capabilities and temperaments that make them inherently more dangerous. Detractors counter that attacks against humans and other animals are the fault of irresponsible owners, not dogs.

"Every dog over 15 kilograms, they can kill," said Dr. Barbara Di Nigris, a veterinarian in Lincoln, England, who opposes the U.K. ban.

"Think about the malinois, for instance," she said. "They are not as strong and don't have the same power as an XL bully, but they are really quick, they can jump over two or three meters high and they are used by the police." Similarly, breeds used as guard dogs, such as Dobermans, German shepherds and Rottweilers, can be dangerous in the wrong hands, Di Nigris said.

The U.K. restrictions come in the wake of some horrific fatal attacks by XL bullies on humans, including children, that received widespread press coverage and put a Conservative government that is flagging in opinion polls under pressure to respond.

U.K. government photo
This side view is another example of an American XL bully shown in official government guidance about the ban.

The government has acknowledged that there is no official record of how often dog attacks occur and that accurately identifying the kind of dog involved in each attack isn't always possible. Still, it contends that combined evidence from police reports, hospital admissions records and media reports indicate that attacks against people and other dogs are rising rapidly. Twenty-three people have died from fatal dog attacks in the U.K. since 2021, and XL bullies were "disproportionately involved in fatal dog attacks in the past 12 months," the government maintains.

For veterinarians, an ethical dilemma

The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the U.K.'s regulator for the profession, reminds practitioners in its advice about the ban that there is no obligation under its Code of Professional Conduct for veterinarians to euthanize a healthy animal.

"However, the owner's wishes and circumstances should also always be taken into account, particularly if public safety and/or the animal's welfare could be compromised should the request be refused," the guidance states.

IVC Evidensia's Martin told the parliamentary committee in October that its veterinarians will be allowed to choose for themselves. He added that when he recently surveyed 200 freshly hired graduates on whether they would euthanize an animal without behavioral problems, 94% said they wouldn't.

At least six independent practices are refusing to carry out euthanasia requests for healthy XL bullies, VIN News has determined, based on statements the practices have posted on their Facebook pages.

Di Nigris, who is from one of those practices, said that while she can accept that a violent dog might be euthanized, she could never bring herself to kill a good-natured one.

"When police are going into the family house and they are bringing out pet dogs that haven't done anything — it's shaking its tail, it's a friendly dog — it's unacceptable for the animal, and it's unacceptable for the family," she said.

For his part, Elliot has euthanized four XL bullies since December, all with known behavioral problems. Two (including the one that bit him) displayed aggression in the clinic, but the other two were calm. "They both seemed like nice dogs," he said. "It was as if you were putting to sleep a Labrador."

Asked whether he would euthanize healthy XL bullies with no aggression issues, Elliot said he would — as he would many other animals if euthanasia were requested by an owner. Refusing, he reasons, could sour relations with clients and make them reluctant to seek out care for other animals.

"Secondly, an unwanted animal is just as bad as a sick animal because they will then experience some degree of neglect or abuse," he said. "The owner could throw it off a bridge, shoot it, run it over, dump it. Rescue centers already are at capacity."

By the same token, Elliot posits that veterinarians never should refuse an owner's request to treat a sick or injured XL bully, even if the owner is keeping it illegally. Nor, he said, should veterinarians feel compelled to report owners who are breaching the rules to police. "They may be very reticent to come to the vet's for fear of judgment or for being reported," he said. "It is not our job to enforce the law."

The U.K. government told VIN News that there will be no professional responsibility for veterinarians to report owners to enforcement authorities if they suspect a dog is being kept illegally. "We recognise that vets are not enforcement practitioners and have a unique responsibility to ensure the health and welfare of the animals in their care," a spokesperson for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said in an email. "We would recommend that vets signpost owners to information about the ban and the actions that they should be taking."

Rush anticipated but demand appears patchy

Whether veterinarians are in for months of extra work is unclear. Two large British rescue centers, Blue Cross and the Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, told VIN News they haven't seen a rush of abandonments to date.

Elliot said his euthanizing of four dogs hardly reflects a frenzy that's depicted on some social media forums. "You would think that every other appointment is for an XL bully," he said. "But from my perspective, that just isn't true."

Still, he acknowledges that practices in places where the dogs are more popular — for instance, in certain pockets of larger cities — will see more demand for euthanasia, desexing and microchipping than others. He's aware of a practice in central Liverpool, for instance, that is experiencing a spike in appointments related to XL bullies.

IVC Evidensia's clinics probably will be able to handle only one or two neutering surgeries per day, Martin said in October. That's because, he explained, procedures for dogs weighing up to 150 pounds can be relatively complex and require large kennels, for which most practices have limited space.

Di Nigris' is among clinics feeling the strain. "We are fully booked until March for the XL bully," she said, noting that her practice is offering deep discounts on desexing. It's doing spays, for example, for £200 (US$254), down from around £400 (US$507) usually. "We are receiving calls from people who are coming from London, two or three hours' away, from Liverpool, and from many other cities. We are trying to help all the families that cannot afford this."

She and Elliot, maintaining that the ban has been implemented too quickly and messily, fear for some of their colleagues' welfare.

"It's not been thought through in terms of how this would affect an already under-serviced industry with a recruitment crisis and a huge burnout rate," Elliot said.

Despite opting not to perform euthanasia, Di Nigris hasn't been able to avoid a disturbing situation: One XL bully she was spaying turned out to be pregnant, and the owner didn't want the operation stopped. The unborn puppies died (though they were under general anesthetic so likely didn't suffer).

"It's not been considered," she said, "the impact this is having on veterinarians."

This story has been corrected to say that breed bans in the U.S. exist only in certain cities. Some states allow cities to impose bans, while others do not. A previous version of this article wrongly suggested that some breed bans are statewide.

This story also has been corrected to distinguish between American bullies and American bulldogs.

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