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DNA Tests Show Many Shelter Dogs Are Mislabeled as Pit Bulls

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Dave via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Pit bulls can be affectionate, docile pets, but you wouldn’t know it from the public perception and media coverage of them. You also might not know how these dogs are penalized—or how that penalty spreads to dogs who just happen to look like them. In a paper published in The Veterinary Journal, researchers say animal shelter staff frequently mislabel non-pit-bull dogs as pit bulls.

“Pit bull” is not a breed but a type that describes several breeds. The American Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier, and American pit bull terrier are all pit bulls. These dogs have been maligned as violent and aggressive by nature—a reputation they have not earned. But news reports disproportionately report the culprits of dog attacks as pit bulls, even when, as scientists note, it’s unlikely that most of them are. As the researchers cite, about 46 percent of American dogs are mutts, but 90 percent of dogs named by the media in attack stories were labeled with a single breed or type (often pit bull). The numbers just don’t add up, they say.

Discrimination against pit bulls often has deadly consequences for the dogs. There are outright bans on pit bulls in some parts of the country, which means that shelters won’t take them in, and they’re more likely to be put down. But many places rely not on evidence but on educated guesses and gut feelings to determine which dogs are pit bulls and which aren't.

“Unlike many other things people can’t quite define but ‘know when they see it,’ identification of dogs as pit bulls can trigger an array of negative consequences, from the loss of housing, to being seized by animal control, to the taking of the dog’s life,” lead author Julie Levy said in a press statement. “In the high-stakes world of animal shelters, a dog’s life might depend on a potential adopter’s momentary glimpse and assumptions about its suitability as a pet. If the shelter staff has labeled the dog as a pit bull, its chances for adoption automatically go down in many shelters.”

Levy and her colleagues suspected that many shelter pit bulls were being mislabeled. They wondered just how consistently and accurately veterinarians and shelter staff could identify pit bull breeds.

To find out, they went to four Florida animal shelters, which in the previous year had admitted from 2520 to 10,154 dogs. They recruited 16 workers at each, including four veterinarians, who were tasked with labeling newcomers to their shelters. Each participant completed a questionnaire about their shelter experience and any training they might have had in breed identification.

At each shelter, the researchers picked out 30 dogs of all different sizes, shapes, and colors, and noted how each dog had been identified. They brought shelter workers from cage to cage and asked them to name each dog’s breed based on its appearance. If the assessor felt strongly that the dog had a secondary breed, they could note that. “Mixed breed” was also an option when they had no idea.

A vet on the research team examined all of the dogs, noting their height, weight, age, color, and other characteristics. The vet also drew a small amount of blood from the dogs and sent it to a lab that could test their DNA.

The researchers’ hypothesis was correct. “We found that different shelter staffers who evaluated the same dogs at the same time had only a moderate level of agreement among themselves,” Levy said in the press release. And they fared even worse against the DNA analysis.

Shelter workers were able to spot real pit bulls and pit bull mixes 33 to 75 percent of the time, depending on the worker. But they labeled non-pit-bull dogs as pit bulls up to 48 percent of the time. That’s almost a 1 in 2 chance that a dog with no pit bull DNA could be lumped in with the unfortunate pit bulls.

Pit bull DNA does not mean that a dog will be aggressive—and neither does simply looking like a pit bull. “A dog’s physical appearance cannot tell observers anything about its behavior,” Levy said in the press release. “Even dogs of similar appearance and the same breed often have diverse behavioral traits in the same way that human siblings often have very different personalities.”

The researchers recommend that shelters make more use of the “mixed breed” category when labeling new dogs. They also recommend that public safety should shift its focus from persecuting specific breeds (and their lookalikes) to teaching people how to avoid dog bites.

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Animals
Dogs Rescued After Hurricane Maria Are Available to Adopt in New York
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Dozens of dogs displaced by Hurricane Maria last month are now closer to having happy endings to their stories. As Mashable reports, 53 dogs flown out of Puerto Rico by The Sato Project have been put up for adoption in shelters around the U.S., with 28 of the rescues now available through a shelter in New York City.

The new batch of dogs looking for forever homes is in addition to the 60 dogs retrieved by The Sato Project earlier this month. According to the local animal rescue group, Puerto Rico was home to about 500,000 stray dogs before the historic storm made landfall in September. The animals being shuttled from the devastated island and into the U.S. via charter plane are a mix of feral dogs, abandoned dogs, and dogs that were surrendered to local shelters by families unable to care for them post-Maria.

The Sato Project, which worked to tackle Puerto Rico's stray dog problem before the disaster, wrote that in light of the storm they would be "mobilizing to provide supplies and support to our team on the ground in Puerto Rico, and to transport as many dogs as we can to safety in the coming days and weeks."

Aspiring pet owners looking to take in a four-legged survivor will have the best luck at the no-kill shelter Animal Haven in Manhattan's Lower East Side. There, dozens of dogs who made the trip from the U.S. territory are anxiously waiting to meet their new families. And if you don't live in the New York City area, you can check out The Sato Project's list of adoptable pets around the country.

Looking for ways to help Puerto Rico that don't involve adding a new member to the family? Here are some organizations doing recovery work on the island and ways you can support them.

[h/t Mashable]

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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