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Q & A PIT BULLS

More Limits Sought for Widely Feared Breed

July 26, 2005|Veronica Torrejon | Times Staff Writer

Following a rash of pit bull attacks this year in the Bay Area -- including the fatal mauling of a boy -- a state lawmaker has proposed a bill that would give local governments greater power to control pit bulls.

Though it would not ban pit bulls, the bill by state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) would allow municipalities to establish mandatory spay or neuter programs for a particular breed. Professional breeders would be exempt.

The proposed law also would let local governments place greater control on breeders and set limits on the number of litters a breeder can raise each year.

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Question: What is a pit bull?

Answer: "Pit bull" is not a breed recognized by the American Kennel Club but rather a loosely used term referring to any of a number of breeds of dogs developed from the English bulldog and the terrier family.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 04, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 News Desk 2 inches; 105 words Type of Material: Correction
Dog attacks -- An article in the July 26 California section about a state bill to control the breeding of pit bulls quoted a spokeswoman from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who said fatal dog attacks represented 0.00001% of the estimated 4.7 million dog bites that occur each year in the United States. That would translate to about one fatal attack every two years. The CDC says that estimate came from an outside source and does not match its own research, which records about 12 fatal dog attacks each year. The CDC says that it will remove the 0.00001% estimate from its literature.

The name is also commonly used to refer to crossbreeds and other breeds with similar characteristics. Breeds recognized as pit bulls include the American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier and the American bulldog.

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Q: What are the characteristics of pit bulls?

A: They tend to have large heads, strong jaws and strong, muscular bodies. Pit bulls range in size from medium to large and come in an array of colors. Once they bite, pit bulls are known for holding on tenaciously.

Their ancestry dates back to the early 17th century. Known for their strength and stamina, pit bulls were used to "bait" large animals -- attacking chained bears or bulls for sport. Pit bulls were also used in illegal dogfights, said Marcy Setter of Pit Bull Rescue Central, an online advocacy group.

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Q: Are they more aggressive than other breeds of dogs?

A: Because of their breeding history, they are more likely than other breeds to show aggression toward other dogs, Setter said. But when the pit bull was being developed centuries ago, dogs with a tendency toward human aggression were killed immediately, she said.

As a group, pit bulls are not more dangerous than other dogs, said Eric Weigand of the California Veterinary Medical Assn. "Their bites are more dangerous," he said. "I won't say they are more dangerous."

Other professionals take a different view.

"It's not just the owners, it's the breed itself," said Lt. Sheri Koenig, who handles dangerous dog cases for the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control. "They are extremely aggressive. Not all pit bulls are nasty, it's true, but they are aggressive and they have the ability to do a lot of damage."

Fatal attacks by any kind of dog are rare. Fatalities represent only 0.00001% of the estimated 4.7 million dog bites that occur each year in the United States, said Dagny E. Putman, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At present, there is no way to accurately identify how many dogs of a particular breed exist; thus, there is no way to determine which breeds are more likely to bite or kill, Putman said.

According to a CDC study, dog attacks killed more than 300 people in the United States from 1979 to 1996. Many of those victims were children.

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Q: Do pit bulls attack humans more often than other dogs?

A: There is no conclusive data to either support or refute the idea that pit bulls are involved in more attacks than any other type of dog, CDC epidemiologist Julie Gilchrist said.

Gilchrist said dogs deemed the most dangerous have shifted over the decades.

Since 1975, more than 30 breeds have fatally attacked people, she said, noting two separate dachshund attacks involving infants.

Breeds involved in fatal attacks tend to change with the popularity of breeds. That may be what is happening now.

"If you look over time, the dogs that are responsible for most attacks change from year to year in direct parallel to the population of the dogs," Gilchrist said.

In the late 1970s, German shepherds caused the most fatalities.

Misidentification may also play a role in the increasing number of reported pit bull attacks. "Everything is identified as a pit bull mix," Setter said. "You're dealing with three different breeds people consider pit bulls and people just don't know their breeds. Yet we take it as the Bible truth when it comes to dog bite reports."

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Q: How many pit bull attacks have taken place in California recently?

A: There is no way of knowing how many pit bull attacks have occurred in California recently. While the CDC and state health department track the number of dog attacks each year, neither agency breaks down that data by breed. Many attacks also go unreported.

Recent high-profile attacks include the June 3 death in San Francisco of 12-year-old Nicholas Faibish, who was mauled to death in his home by one or both of his family's pit bulls. Speier's bill, SB 861, came in response to that death.

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