The Most Dangerous Pets: Discussion of Exotic Animals vs. Pit bulls
If you ask someone to think of the most dangerous pet someone can own which species do you think would immediately come to mind? We’re all used to images of scary-looking Dobermans baring their teeth or muscle-bound ‘pit bulls’ being dragged with a catch pole. On the other hand, we have those so-called ‘crazy exotic pet owners’ wrapping giant snakes around their necks and naively claiming how harmless they are, or even people who walk their pet tigers around on a leash. The common claim is that a tiger or a giant python is a dangerous pet because it is a ‘wild animal’.
Exotic pets and pit bulls have a lot in common. Both are restricted or banned in some places (exotic pets to a much more considerable extent) because they are feared as threats to public safety. Ironically, exotic pet owners are criticized and told the difference between domesticated and ‘wild’ animals. Dogs have been selectively-bred for thousands of years while a tiger, for example, hasn’t. Yet, a pit bull is a domesticated animal and it is also feared by many.
What’s in a name?
Another similarity pit bulls and exotic pets share…we all have an idea of what they are but there is no consistent definition.
The term ‘pit bull’ encompasses various dog ‘breeds’…most notably the American pit bull terrier, but also the American Staffordshire terrier, American bulldog, American bully, bull mastiffs…even bull terriers and Boston terriers. These canines are known as ‘bully breeds’, and they share several physical characteristics and some common ancestry.
Exotic pets can be—anything—anything that isn’t a cat, dog, or traditional farm animal. When you learn this, the notion of exotic pets being ‘dangerous’ as is often claimed, starts to sound very silly.
Exotic pets can be any animal that isn't a dog, cat, or traditional farm animal (in the U.S.) Some exotic pets, like camels and pot-bellied pigs, are domesticated.
Why did cats and dogs become the standard of how popular a pet needs to be before it is considered ‘exotic’? Cats and dogs might be absurdly popular, but just because a hamster, ferret, or hedgehog isn’t as commonly kept doesn’t make it a restricted species like say, a pet sloth would be.
The term exotic pet is so diverse, not much can be said for this group of animals other than that they are all living things that some people keep as pets. No definition of ‘exotic pet’ means dangerous, no matter which way you spin it.
Pit Bulls and Dog Breed-ism Culture
Now that we’ve seen why exotic pets cannot collectively be considered dangerous, let’s marvel at the fact that while various exotic pets are swiftly labeled and banned, one of two of the nation’s most popular pet species (the other being the cat, which even has questionable domestication status) are next in line as being the most popularly persecuted pet. The undefined ‘pit bull’ group is a domesticated member of Canis lupus familiaris, and the outcry against them isn’t based on zero evidence.
This group of dogs are involved with the most dog attack-inflicted fatalities each year. While they frustrate dog owners, anti-pit bull people have their hearts in the right place, as these incidences, most involving children, are gruesome and sad. Still, before declaring that any pet be banned, they deserve fair and intelligent examination. Especially when animals' lives are at stake.
There is much controversy, vitriol, and emotion involved with this subject, but I feel a few points might help clear the air.
Not a 'pit bull', dogo argentino
The dogo argentino was derived from the Cordoba Fighting Dog, a 'breed' that was so aggressive they would attack each other during mating and were known to fight to the death. These extreme traits led to its extinction. It was a crossbreed of the mastiff, bull terrier, English bulldog, and boxer
Dog breeds aren’t a ‘thing’
I used to be on the fence with my opinion on the ‘pit bull’ debate, a ‘breed’ that isn’t even a single breed. Research to find the most ‘aggressive’ dog breeds have been conducted with surprising results. Considering how often we hear of the pit bull group being the offenders of some pretty horrendous attacks against humans and pets, temperament tests often place them on the lower end of the aggression scale. Often at the top of the list are the much less scary Chihuahuas and dachshund hounds, and you‘ll hear pit bull lovers repeatedly state that these breeds are ‘most likely to bite’.
All dogs are the same species. Dog breeds don’t really exist. Yes, I mean that.
Understand this, and you will better comprehend the fundamental problem with both 'breed' discrimination and disregarding the occurence of severe attacks associated with certain 'breeds'.
Within our culture is a very strong dog breed enthusiasm zeitgeist. We feel that each breed has been intricately and intelligently crafted to excel at a purpose. Some have been. But most dogs are bred for their looks.
Organizations like the American Kennel Club promote ‘breed standards’ and the best representation of these entirely arbitrary standards are awarded at dog shows where the function of the dog is never tested, just how they strut around the ring.
Are these 'breeds' different?
Flat Coated Retriever
Curly Coated Reteriver
Members of the same breed being different
You'll have breeders that create versions of a dog breed that strive to be like those in the show ring. On the other hand, you'll have breeders that don’t—they just grab any individual they can find to make a quick profit. Unfortunately, some bully breeds are illegally selectively bred as fighting animals. In high crime areas, humane societies will often immediately euthanize dogs that descend from fighters even if they haven’t been trained to fight.
There are different genetic lines for dog breeds. In other words, dog breeds can be almost whatever the heck the breeder wants them to be, as long as they loosely resemble a set of traits. We simply give these set of traits a name, and then they suddenly become unique in our eyes, but it hardly actually exists. Dogs are probably more likely to have more consistent behavior associated with their ‘breed’ the more rare their ‘breed’ is. Rare dogs are more likely to be a part of stricter breeding programs and therefore, they'll have more consistent temperaments.
‘Pit bulls’ are overly represented in the population. Their genetics are all over the place.
Staff or Pit? Does it really matter?
Humans seem to have a need to label. This is why exotic pets are irrationally categorized as ‘dangerous’ or ‘bad pets’. Dog ‘breeds’ are already composed of other ‘breeds’. If a dog with unknown origin fits the profile of an arbitrary breed concept, it will often be determined to be that breed even though similar traits can arise with different genetic compositions.
There are actual animal species that have evolved separately but take on similar characteristics, like sugar gliders and flying squirrels where one is a marsupial and the other a rodent. This is called convergent evolution. If actual separate species can be similar, you can count on members of the same species being far more so.
If it looks, swims, and quacks like a duck...
This is why I find it appropriate to lump most bully breeds together. If a breed has enough phenotypical similarities to another, if they share a breeding history for the same set of characteristics and skills, and especially if they’ve been derived from or share ancestry with the other breed in question, they are essentially the same creature. In fact, when I was browsing the list of 'breeds' that a DNA test designed to identify dog ancestry could check for, I found out that so-called American pit bull terriers and American Staffordshire terriers are not genetically distinct enough for the company's scientists to tell apart.
I find the argument “that’s not a pit bull, that’s a (insert the name of another ‘breed’ that looks exactly like a pit bull here) tiresome. The idea of certain groups of dog ‘breeds’ being refined, special, and distinctively different from each other is a state of mind, which deems making risk assessments based on breed questionable from the start. It’s better to think of a ‘breed’ as a description of traits.
I do not believe the common phrase ‘there are no bad dogs, just bad owners’. Some dogs have inherent drives that cannot be fully ‘trained away'
Nature vs. Nurture
Since dog breeds do not actually exist, we’re left with groups of animals that sometimes (but not always) share characteristics in their personalities, temperament, and drive due to some amounts of intentional breeding. We can get an idea of what to expect from an animal based on its breeding history, but it’s likely that most of the dogs responsible for severe and fatal attacks do not descend from a breeder that consistently selects for certain traits other than appearance (unless they are breeding fighters). This means we have different genetic lines and possibly other ‘breeds’ thrown into the mix. On top of this, environmental factors matter.
A dog’s environment—from the exercise it gets, the training it receives, to even the food it eats—can affect behavior.
However, I do not believe the common phrase ‘there are no bad dogs, just bad owners’. Some dogs have inherent drives that cannot be fully ‘trained away’, like the fighting pit bull lines, and it is not fair to expect expert training and animal behavior knowledge from the average dog owner.
If special knowledge is required to keep a dog from causing harm, this dog should be considered dangerous. Just as larger exotic pets like tigers and elephants require expertise so do dogs pre-wired with an intensive drive. Still, potentially dangerous dogs still enjoy far more acceptance than even tiny exotic pets.
Are small breeds really more aggressive?
Going back to the claim that a dachshund hound or Chihuahua is ‘more likely to bite than a pit bull’, I’m unsure how true this is. Pit bull advocates contend that ‘it’s not the dog, it’s the owner’…why don’t they extend the same consideration to small dogs?
Due to their size, smaller canines tend to be less trained than bigger dogs by their owners. They tend to be ‘spoiled’ and suffer from ‘small dog syndrome’. Could this contribute to their characteristic yappiness and readiness to nip or bite strangers? Do the bigger dogs in these studies come from owners that have well-trained dogs, eager to show off and have them tested? Small dog owners are notorious for loving their little babies and not seeing a thing wrong with them. Untrained large dogs are very difficult to live with and are often swiftly destroyed when they show aggression.
Dog aggression…what is it?
Dogs are prompted to bite for different reasons. While Chihuahuas have been shown to be more likely to bite, is this form of aggression comparable to those which have resulted in a fatality? In the rare case that a dog kills an older child or adult, it is not accomplished with a single, defensive nip like the neurotic pocket dogs deliver. Dogs suffering from small dog syndrome don’t seem to intend to kill, but to ward off annoyances or fearful situations. This is profoundly different from a dog latching on to the face or neck of a human. The videos of this behavior are chilling. Claiming which breed ‘is more likely to bite’ trivializes the discussion.
There is also a difference between aggression toward dogs and animals and aggression toward humans. However, dog aggression can turn into redirected aggression toward a human. Some dogs can easily confuse a rambunctious toddler with a prey animal.
Similar style attacks
Literally, around 50 incidental recordings of 'pit bull' attacks towards animals and humans can be found on Youtube, and they are strikingly similar. The above video does not show an attack, but describes the nature of it.
A 'pit bull' latched on to a human, triggered by the owners trying to put a sweater on it. If you view any of the numerous pit bull attack videos (warning, many are graphic), the 'latch and shake' style attack is evident, sometimes barely provoked. If you then conduct a search on videos of Chihuahua aggression or 'attacks', the facts are clear, it is defensive aggression or resource guarding in every case (and to the amusement of the owners).
Both dogs and exotic pets are more dangerous when they are larger. Some dogs and exotic pets are just too small to kill a person or even do serious damage. This fact is more often acknowledged for dogs while exotic pets weighing under 5 pounds are considered ‘dangerous wild animals’ in numerous states.
Are exotic pets or pit bull-type dogs dangerous?
It seems pretty undeniable that more pit bull-type dogs are involved with fatal attacks than retriever-types, spitz-types and all other groups.
Although fatal dog attacks are relatively rare, statistics say that if you are killed by a dog, it will most likely be a pit bull. There are substantially more pit bulls that don’t possess the potential to kill, however.
While there are around 30 deaths per year due to dogs, dogs number in the high millions (around half are small dogs). Most of the victims are young children and the elderly. In addition, there are around 300,000 reported bites (and likely more unreported ones).
Exotic large carnivores have lower populations and unsurprisingly small numbers of fatalities. Large constrictor snakes, ‘big cats’, bears, wolves, and hyenas that are privately owned each cause about 0-1 fatalities per year in the U.S. An estimated amount of injuries is not really known with them. Other exotic pets that are not ‘large’ likely have no fatalities associated with them. This includes primates and even chimpanzees
Banned in numerous staes: the fennec fox
The exotic pet numbers don’t really sound too frightening, do they? Let’s then consider that with a significant majority of lethal and injurious attacks from exotic ‘pets’, the victims were either children living with the owners of the animal, or they were voluntarily involved with it. A generous percentage of dog attack victims did not know the animal or choose to interact with it.
The bridge between these two groups are wolfdogs—a dog with a high percentage of wolf DNA which are often considered to be exotic pets and are grouped with other large carnivores. Wolfdogs are often cited as a more ‘dangerous’ breed, along with German Shepherds, akitas, and chow chows as well as some more rare breeds like boerboels and Caucasian Ovcharka . It is sensible to conclude that wolfdogs can pose a threat not mainly due to being crossed with wolves, which are actually naturally aloof animals that prefer not to confront humans, but because they are crossed with dog breeds like huskies and shepherds; breeds where some individuals have been known for inappropriate aggression.
Wolfdogs can combine the territoriality and prey drives of a wolf and the human-comfortable traits of dogs, along with their heightened ability to confront over avoiding conflict. Wolfdogs often originate from breeders that do not focus on creating even-tempered ‘breeds’ with desirable behavior.
Wolfdogs and so-called dangerous dog breeds illustrate the irony of banning so-called exotic pets. Dogs and cats are tolerated and accepted as ‘proper pets’ and not automatically considered dangerous due to an entrenched cultural bias not based on actual evidence.
The problem with dogs that can make them a danger in society is that as they are one of our most popular pets, they are populous and easy to obtain. Not all dogs have the capacity to be dangerous based on genetics and size (at least half of the nation’s canines are too small to be lethal to a human aside from infants), but some do. As a nation we sometimes let our guard down with dogs as they are ‘supposed’ to be perfect pets.
When it comes to domestic animals, it is actually DUE to them not being wild that the danger increases. Most wild animals avoid confrontation outdoors.
Dogs are often irresponsibly left alone with children or not restrained properly. Furthermore, dogs can be used as weapons or be involved with illicit gambling activities. The ‘fighting genes’ of these dogs can leach into the gene pool of pet dogs. Genetics, environment, or both can cause some dogs to have aggressive tendencies that will be unknown until the unthinkable occurs. Temperament tests can decrease, but not eliminate the possibility of adopting out dangerous dogs.
It is possible to create a dog 'breed' that will never be deadly to humans and only allow the keeping of that breed, but in our society, we have accepted and tolerated the inevitable loss of human life due to the presence of canines with the capacity to kill.
Dogs can intentionally be made to be far more dangerous than any wolf. Dogs can easily become a bigger public safety threat than a large exotic pet. Yet dogs are often thought to be the standard of which exotic pets are judged against! In comparison to exotic pet owners, dog owners are so privileged that many states have even adopted laws making it illegal to 'discriminate' against dog 'breeds'.
Exotic pet danger
Of course, exotic pets can be more dangerous in other ways. A randomly selected dog is far less likely to be more dangerous than a randomly selected tiger. Exotic pets are often more dangerous to handle in comparison to most dogs. Most exotic pets will leave you alone unless you interact with them, and then you have the risk of getting bitten in defense, regardless of size. Specialized knowledge is usually needed to capture and transport pets like alligators, servals, kinkajous, and of course all large exotics.
Based on statistics, a loose dog is more likely to be lethal than a loose exotic of any size. Primates (mostly monkeys) appear to be one of the few exotic pets prone to attacking strangers, as they can get temperamental and ‘jealous’ around other people.
All of this considered, we can know be sure that risk assessment with animals is nowhere near as simple as people make it out to be. We cannot just determine that ‘pit bulls’ are dangerous when pit bulls aren’t even a single ‘breed’, and ‘breeds’ don’t really exist anyway. Exotic pet species can be more consistently categorized as they have more predictable temperaments and their size is consistent. Exotic pets can be far more dangerous and far less dangerous than certain dogs.
The risk of dogs is the unknown; do they have a hidden ancestry that can contain intentionally bred fighting genes? Could a dog just happen to have a challenging temperament and what if this dog ends up with an owner that is either neglectful or doesn’t really understand canine behavior?
The end result is that inevitably fatalities and injuries will occur with both groups of animals. These numbers can be reduced with education, temperament testing, prompting breeders to screen their potential buyers and the encouragement of exercising caution around children with all animals.