The Water Bowl
Breed & Health Resources

Pit Bulls

American Staffordshire Terriers and American Pit Bull Terriers are the breeds usually considered to be "pit bulls." Once the very icon of American doghood, the pit bull is today the victim of those who seek to exploit his tremendous loyalty, tenaciousness, and bold nature for profit and the gruesome "sport" of dog fighting. Find the right dog, give him the right amount of training, attention, and love, and you'll be rewarded with a fierce friend and a loving family dog.

Traits, Personality & Behavior

There is no breed with the name "Pit Bull." When that term is used, it's usually referring to either American Staffordshire Terriers or American Pit Bull Terriers, and sometimes to the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, a British breed. It's also a label given to any dog who resembles those breeds, even if that dog is a Lab mix and has little or no pit bull in his DNA.

From his earliest days as a farm dog to when he was bred for dog fighting, the pit bull in America has always been a sturdy, muscular dog with a short coat, a playful nature, and an unquenchable spirit.

Whatever else those old dog fighting breeders did, they created a dog that is extremely resilient and stable, as well as very friendly to people. That’s why so many pit bulls, even from the worst backgrounds, go on to being loving, trustworthy family dogs.

Nonetheless, even carefully bred AmStaffs and APBTs are strong, determined, and smart dogs, and backing down is not part of their normal behavior. That the pit bull is some kind of dual-personality dog ready to switch from a loving pet to a killer in an instant is nonsense, but like all dogs, he needs to be trained and socialized. And like all terriers, even dogs from show backgrounds are far more likely to be fighters than lovers when it comes to other dogs, especially of the same gender. And he's probably going to dig in the yard and view cats as prey, too.

He doesn’t just need a little love; dogs from fighting backgrounds or other troubling situations need expert evaluation and, usually, rehabilitation.

For that reason, take your search for a knowledgeable, responsible breed rescue organization seriously. The dogs should have been evaluated and made available for adoption only to suitable homes. If they tell you a particular dog isn't right for you, believe them, and keep looking. There is certainly no shortage of pit bulls and pit bull-type dogs in America's shelters and rescue groups, and there is no question you'll be able to find the right one for your family.

Whether your pit bull is from a breeder or a rescue group, a puppy or an adult, you'll need to show him a lot of love while still making sure he sees you as a strong, confident leader. He's a pushy kind of dog, and if you let him, he'll walk all over you.

Although he's not among the largest of dogs, an American Staffordshire Terrier can weigh up to 75 pounds, the AmStaff usually under 60 – most of it muscle. He's a powerful dog, and can be a challenge to walk on a leash if not well-trained. Pulling is one of the things these dogs love best.

Pit bulls are very people-oriented dogs, but with other dogs and small furry creatures, it's a very different story. There are pit bulls, and dogs that look like pit bulls, that have become friends with the cats in the household and who love every dog they meet, but it's not typical of the breed.

The grooming needs of the pit bull are modest. Brush his coat a couple of times a week to keep shedding to a minimum, and make sure his ears are clean and his nails are trimmed.

Pit bulls don't do well if they're left alone for long periods, and are not happy as backyard dogs. Let him live as a member of your family or you might find yourself with a lonely, bored, noisy, and destructive nuisance instead of a happy, well-behaved companion.

Pit Bull Breeders

What about buying a pit bull from a breeder? There are plenty of good breeders of AmStaffs and APBTs, but there are far more greedy, unethical, and careless ones. How can you tell the difference?

The American Staffordshire Terrier is an AKC breed, and dogs bred for the AKC show ring may have a somewhat softer temperament than is traditional in the breed.

The American Pit Bull Terrier is recognized by the United Kennel Club, a reputable organization that holds conformation, obedience, weight pulling, and other competitive events for APBTs and hundreds of other dog breeds.
APBTs are also registered with the American Dog Breeder's Association, which was founded to register the APBT and also holds conformation and weight pulling competitive events.

Making sure your puppy is registered with one of those three organizations is only a first step, however. Good breeders, whatever registry they use, will have done extensive genetic testing on their dogs, and have written documentation that they're clear of genetic health problems that occur in the breed.

They will be active in some kind of canine activity such as showing their dogs, competing with them in obedience, agility, or weight pulling, or using them in therapy dog work, at which they excel. Many of the best breeders have a "TT" certificate issued by the American Temperament Test Society for their puppies' parents.

Health Issues Common to Pit Bulls

American Staffordshire Terriers and American Pit Bull Terriers are fairly healthy, but they can be affected by several genetic health problems.

In the hopes of controlling the genetic diseases that already affect the AmStaff and prevent any new ones from emerging, the Staffordshire Terrier Club of America, which is the American Kennel Club parent organization for the breed in the United States, participates in a program operated by the Canine Health Information Center (CHIC). It requires that breeders test all their breeding dogs for kidney, heart and hip diseases that occur in the breed. It is advisable to use these guidelines as well for the APBT.

Your puppy's breeder should have written documentation from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) or the University of Pennsylvania (PennHip) that your puppy's parents' hips are free of dysplasia, a genetic hip deformity that requires costly surgery to repair and can lead to arthritis later in life. OFA certification that the parents are free of thyroid and heart disease is also required, as are Optigen test results for an inherited condition known as spinocerebellar ataxia, which can cause the dog to develop difficulty walking.

Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF) documentation that breeding dogs have had their eyes tested within the last year and OFA certification of their elbows are recommended but not required as part of the CHIC program.

American Staffordshire Terriers can also suffer from some types of cancer as well as allergies, and are more likely than many breeds to bloat, a condition in which the stomach twists on itself, cutting off blood flow. Bloat and torsion strikes very suddenly, and a dog who was fine one minute can be dead a few hours later. Watch for symptoms like restlessness and pacing, drooling, pale gums and lip licking, trying to throw up but without bringing anything up, and signs of pain.

Bloat requires immediate veterinary surgery, and most dogs that have bloated once will bloat again. That means it’s wise to opt for the procedure known as "stomach tacking," which will keep the stomach from twisting in the future. This procedure can also be done as a preventive measure.

Even though those problems can't be prevented at this time, your puppy's breeder should be willing – eager, in fact – to go over the health histories of his parents and their close relatives, and discuss how prevalent those particular health concerns are in his lines.

Any breeder who tells you that she doesn't need to do those tests because her dogs have "never had any problems" or are "vet checked" is either lying or completely ignorant about pit bulls and dog breeding in general. Walk away and find your dog somewhere else.

Following these guidelines may not protect you entirely from genetic health problems in your dogs because they are animals, not machines, and all living things can suffer from genetic problems. But they will protect you from the army of exploiters who fill newspapers and online classifieds and the backs of magazines with ads selling their dogs without health and temperament testing. If you're going to buy a puppy from a breeder, make sure you're giving your money to, and getting your new family member from, someone who has the dogs' best interests at heart, not their bank balance.

To protect yourself from the expensive vet bills associated with these conditions, you'll want to purchase pet insurance for your Pit Bull before they show symptoms or are diagnosed.

Condition Risk Profile Cost to Diagnose and Treat
Hip Dysplasia Medium $1,500-$6,000
Gastric Dilatation Volvulus (Bloat) High $1,500-$7,500
Deafness High $100-$300
Elbow Dysplasia High $1,500-$4,000
Myotonia High $500-$1,500
Estimates based on claims paid by Embrace Pet Insurance.

5 Tips to Bring Home a Healthy Pit Bull Puppy

  1. Finding a good breeder is more important than finding the right puppy. A good breeder will match you with the right puppy, and will without question have done all the health certifications necessary to screen out health problems as much as possible.
  2. Consider an adult dog from a shelter or a rescue group. Many of the health and behavior problems in pit bulls aren't apparent in puppyhood, but by adopting an older dog, most of them can be ruled out. Since a pit bull can live to be 12 years of age, even an adult dog will be with your family for a long time.
  3. Puppy or adult, take your pit bull to your veterinarian soon after adoption. Your veterinarian will be able to spot visible problems, and will work with you to set up a preventive regimen that will help you avoid many health issues.
  4. Don’t ever, ever, ever buy a puppy from a pet store or Internet site that offers many breeds and popular mixes, or that ships with no questions asked. If you buy a puppy from these sources, you’ll be more likely to get an unhealthy, unsocialized and difficult to house-train puppy and will be supporting the cruelty of high-volume puppy mills.
  5. Make sure you have a good contract with the seller, shelter or rescue group that spells out responsibilities on both sides. In states with “puppy lemon laws,” be sure you and the person you get the dog from both understand your rights and recourses.

Pet Insurance for Pit Bulls

Pet insurance for Pit Bulls costs more than for mixed breed dogs. This is because Pit Bulls are more likely than mixed breed dogs to make claims for hereditary conditions that are expensive to treat.

Embrace pet insurance plans offer full coverage for all breed-specific conditions (excluding those that are pre-existing) to which Pit Bulls are susceptible. The best time to get pet insurance for your Pit Bull is when he’s a healthy puppy. You can’t predict what will happen in the future, and pet insurance is the one thing you can’t get when you need it the most.

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