A Veterinary Expert Offers Insights Into America's Most Controversial Breed
No other dog has had more media coverage in the last 15 years than the Pit Bull. The Pit Bull is, without a doubt, a breed surrounded by controversy and misinformation. In fact, one of the most common misconceptions is this: it’s not really a dog breed at all.
Pit Bull is actually a general term that means different things to different people. To some, it’s simply a synonym for the American Pit Bull Terrier. To others, it refers to a group of breeds that includes the American Pit Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier, and possibly other dogs with similar features.
The debate over pit bulls is as contentious as any political debate. And it's tough not to be emotional about the topic if you've owned one or two, or if a loved one has been involved in a bad incident involving a Pit Bull. One side says Pits are dangerous and should be banned. The other side says they are loving, safe dogs and it's the owners who are to blame. To help you look past the noise and learn the truth about pit bulls, I interviewed Dr. Kristen Kulinski, a respected veterinarian well known for her appearances on the Animal Planet television show Pit Bulls and Parolees.
Before her work with the hit Animal Planet show, Dr. Kristen Kulinski was born in Buffalo, New York and now lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She holds Two Bachelor's Degrees: Biology & Psychology (Neuroscience) from The University of Virginia; a Masters of Science (Animal Science, Equine Endocrinology) from Louisiana State University; and received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at LSU in 2006. Dr. Kulinski currently owns and works at Cypress Lake Animal Hospital in Prairieville, Louisiana.
We discussed the continuing controversy that surrounds pit bulls and her professional experiences with them.
HH: Many of my readers know you as the veterinarian for Villalobos Rescue Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. They have seen you on the TV show "Pit Bulls and Parolees" on Animal Planet. What have you learned about the breed since working with them on a regular basis?
KK: I'll be honest, I was not a huge fan of the breed prior to working with Villalobos. I had a very scary incident with a pit bull that got out of a cage and attacked another animal at another hospital where I was working at the time. I was alway a little wary of the breed because of this incident. But, after working with them I now realize that it is extremely rare for a pit bull to behave like that dog did, and usually the ones that are very animal aggressive have been rescued from fighting situations. I can say now that I do love the breed after working on them for the last four years. They are the most resilient animals I have ever come across, and on the whole they are incredibly sweet, kind, and loving animals.
HH: What have you learned about working with the media while working on the set of "Pit Bulls and Parolees"?
KK: I think the media is so fixated on the negative things about the breed, It is nice to see a show that focuses on the positive. The camera crews and producers have been pretty great to me. They really haven't tried to sway the way I say or interpret things, and just want my honest reaction. Tia Torres is about as real as it gets; I have a tremendous amount of respect for her. What you see on TV is exactly how she is: hardworking, kind and fair.
HH: Are there any misconceptions about pit bulls that you have had to clarify for the producers/creators of "Pit Bulls and Parolees"?
KK: The show had been on for several years before I became a part of it, so I think they were more the teachers in this instance. They have definitely changed my perception of the breed.
HH: Although it's illegal, how common is dogfighting in Louisiana? How can concerned citizens help to eliminate dog fights and the gambling that surrounds it?
KK: I would hate to guess the numbers, but it seems that there are a lot of pit bulls that do end up in the rescue and in shelters that have wounds consistent with fighting. Obviously there are probably areas that have more concentrated problems with it, but it definitely is a problem that does exist in Louisiana. I would say that if you think that there is illegal dog fighting happening in your area, call the local police and report the incident. They can't do anything if they don't know that it is happening. I have met so many animal loving police officers! It is not difficult to get them interested in helping!
HH: Once a pit bull has been trained to fight and has participated in dogfights, is it possible to rehabilitate that dog for adoption? What guidelines for adoption are recommended?
KK: I am not a dog trainer, but I will always be less likely to place a dog from a fighting ring in a home that already has pets. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. I have seen dogs that come from known dog fighting rings that thrive in homes with many other animals, but as a rule I would be uneasy with them in that situation until they had extensive behavioral evaluation. You always want to put the dog in a situation that it will be successful in, and for many of the dog fighting dogs, this means they may need to be the "only" pet in the household. I do think that rehabilitation is possible, but working with a dog trainer, and avoiding situations that would initiate a fight are two of the most necessary parts for success.
HH: Is it dangerous to adopt a pit bull that has an unknown history and parentage from a rescue or shelter rather than buying from a breeder?
KK: There is some uncertainty that comes with adopting an animal of any breed and trying to get it to fit into a new situation. Most of the pit bulls that are considered "adoptable" at the rescues have had extensive behavioral evaluation. They often have detailed instructions on or what they need/don't need in their environment. No other breed is held to such high standards. Potential adopters need to pay attention to those recommendations.
The one benefit that you do get from getting a puppy from a reputable breeder, is that you know the parents; their demeanor and their health history. If you start with a young puppy you also have the control on the experiences the puppy has early in his life, which will help develop their adult behavior. I have seen puppies that have grown up in loving homes become aggressive later in life, so I do believe there is a bit of genetics involved too, although environment has a far greater effect in my experience. There are NO genetic traits of any breed that are 100% guaranteed.
HH: On average (estimated), how many pit bulls, pit bull mixes, and other bully breeds do you see a week at your clinic?
KK: On a busy week, we probably see 20-30 pit bulls and/or mixes a week.
HH: Are pit bulls as bad as the media portrays them?
KK: No. Honestly, there are far more breeds that I worry about biting a human. I have been bitten quite a few times at work, and never once by a pit bull. Pit bulls are extremely easy to work with and the vast majority are not human aggressive. I think the problem lies in that the media chooses to cover the worst bites and only those done by pit bulls. When an attack does happen the damage can be severe because pit bulls do have the ability to disfigure and/or kill a human solely because of their size. Another type of large breed dog (ex: German Shepherd or a Rottweiler) is just as capable of causing severe damage, but these bites rarely are covered by the media.
HH: Do you think dog abuse, irresponsible and neglectful owners contribute to the bad rap of pit bulls?
KK: Absolutely. I think that "bad people" are definitely responsible for "bad" dogs. Lack of education of how to handle the breed and of course abuse can detrimentally effect any animal.
HH: Are pit bulls born aggressive?
KK: I think there is a extremely small percentage of dogs that are genetically born with aggressive tendencies, but this includes ALL breeds. You also have to keep in mind that the most aggressive dogs in dog fighting rings are the "winners" and hence the dogs that are bred. If there is a genetic predisposition, I think that this would be where we might be likely to see it expressed the most.
HH: Do pit bulls have locking jaws?
KK: No. There is no evidence that pit bulls have any special biting ability. BSL discussions and facts can be found on the following sites:
Both sites research showing that the "fear" of the breed is not supported by facts.
HH: In your opinion, are pit bulls a good breed to choose if you have children?
KK: Yes, I think the vast majority are wonderful caring animals. But as with any breed, you have [individual] dogs that do not like children (I have a Labrador that is not fond of children). I think that the owners need to be responsible and use common sense. Children can terrorize dogs (I know they don't mean to), by pulling on them, for example. I think that it would be best not to leave children alone with any animal, especially when the two are still figuring each other out. The only way to guarantee that a child is not bitten, is to not place the dog with the child in a situation that something could happen.
HH: Are pit bulls dangerous to other animals?
KK: I do not believe that the breed is any more dangerous to other animals than any other breed. I do see some animal aggression in the pit bulls that I deal with from rescues, but many of these dogs have been in the position that they had to fight or kill for food in order to live. Many pit bulls live in multi dog households and never have a problem. Once again, I truly believe this is more an individual dog issue than a "breed" issue. There are a few pit bulls I know personally that get pushed around by much, much smaller dogs. I won't name names because they would be embarrassed!
HH: Do you recommend spaying or neutering a pit bull? What are the benefits of spay/neuter?
KK: I'm a big fan of spaying and neutering ANY breed! Our shelters are always full. We don't need any more unwanted dogs out there! Not to mention there are health benefits to spaying and neutering. For instance, spaying a female before her fourth heat cycle has been shown to decrease the chance she will get mammary (breast) cancer. Spaying also eliminates the chance of developing infections and other problems with her reproductive tract. In males, neutering does decrease aggression and also reduces the chance of your male dog developing an enlarged prostate and the problems that go along with that. It also eliminates the chance of testicular cancer. Castrated male dogs are also less interested in finding "girlfriends" and tend to stay at home more. All of my animals are spayed and neutered. If you don't plan on breeding I would strongly encourage spaying or neutering your animals. I think the benefits far out weigh the risks.
HH: Is there anything else you would like to add about the breed?
KK: Pit bulls are one of the most resilient, trusting, loving, intelligent and forgiving breeds in my opinion. I have watched several pit bulls live through unspeakable horrors (abuse, starvation, neglect), expecting them to become aggressive once they were stronger. Almost all have proved me wrong and have blossomed into wonderful pets that bond even more intensely with their new families. Their will to survive is unparalleled; often living through trauma that most other animals would have succumbed to a long time ago. As a doctor they are the perfect patients; they have a strong desire to survive, but also are so easy to handle and treat. I love the breed and I'm glad I gave them a second chance to be part of my life. I think that if you use common sense and put the right dog in the right situation; a pit bull could become one of the BEST things that could ever happen to you.
For more information on the work Dr. Kulinski does with pit bulls and other animals, visit the official website of Cypress Lake Animal Hospital, their Facebook page, and look for her appearances on Animal Planet on the hit show "Pit Bulls & Parolees".
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