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Deficient science hurts vicious dog law appeal


Columbus, Ohio — Lack of science supporting the case that aggression is not a breed-specific behavior damages the profession's attempts to remove the term "Pit Bull" from dangerous dog legislation.

COLUMBUS, OHIO — Lack of science supporting the case that aggression is not a breed-specific behavior damages the profession's attempts to remove the term "Pit Bull" from dangerous dog legislation.

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The deficiency is plaguing the Ohio Veterinary Medical Association's (OVMA) efforts to rewrite state law, which defines Pit Bulls as a dangerous breed. Last year, Ohio Supreme Court justices deemed Ohio Revised Code (ORC) 955.22 unconstitutional on grounds it violates owners' rights to appeal vicious dog convictions. While the technicality opens the 1987 law to revision, OVMA's efforts take on dog wardens who want the Pit Bull distinction to remain.

Removing the designation proves a "hard argument to make," OVMA Executive Director Jack Advent says.

"The OVMA joins the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) in opposing breed discrimination language in Ohio law," he says. "Yet without hardcore scientific data, it's difficult to make this a forceful case. Our position is based on an anecdotal professional expertise. Hardcore data and studies would diffuse some of the arguments dog wardens make."

Other side

The clash on breed specifics has led dog wardens to cease talks with OVMA and begin work on writing a competing bill. Neither side, at presstime, had introduced legislation, but warden Tom Skeldon, of Toledo, says a showdown at the state Capitol is eminent.

Dangerous Animal Legislation

Skeldon, who represents the Ohio County Dog Wardens Association, says he understands the term "Pit Bull" is not a breed but a generic descriptive for certain types of terriers. ORC 955.22 deems all Pit Bull-like dogs dangerous until proven otherwise by owners, and Skeldon sees an advantage to having the distinction remain.

"You have to accept that there have been more fatalities due to Pit Bulls than any other type of dog, and numbers are on the rise," he says.

Numbers game

Skeldon reports a 20-percent increase since 1994 in the number of Pit Bulls seized in Lucas County, which incorporates Toledo. In dogfight investigations, 95 percent of the animals involved are Pit Bulls, he says, adding, "I think these numbers show the danger of these animals."

Compared to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, Skeldon's numbers might not seem far off. According to the agency's most recent report on dog bites, Pit Bull-types ranked first in number of human dog-bite related fatalities in the United States, totaling 60 between 1979 and 1996. Rottweilers came in a distant second at just 29 reported cases.

Dr. Gail Golab

Lack of ammo

Faced with those numbers, the ability to tout studies on breed specifics as related to attacks could aid OVMA in its cause, Advent says.

Dr. Gail Golab, AVMA assistant director of professional and public affairs, acknowledges work on genetics-based aggression is scarce. Such studies are tough to conduct, she says.

"The lack of scientific data is an argument, but I'm honestly not sure how you would design a study like that; there are too many confounding factors," she says. "Plus, there's no evidence to suggest that aggression is breed specific. If you're going to look at raw numbers on fatal attacks, the breed that comes to the top of the list changes over time, which suggests a strong owner component to this."

Pressing onward

Due to the Ohio Supreme Court's demand that the law be rewritten, there's no time to wait for science, Advent says. OVMA supports a final draft of legislation scheduled for introduction by state Rep. Katherine Walcher in April.

The topic has proved popular among association members, who quietly debated the issue in conference rooms during the recent Midwest Veterinary Conference in Columbus. Since then, Advent says he's received calls from members concerning the association's stance.

"When this issue first came up, I thought I had something to debate only to find out the data wasn't as solid as I thought," he says. "Targeting Pit Bulls is oversimplifying the issue, but not having the science to prove it was a real wake-up call for me."

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