Life's Little Mysteries

Are Pit Bulls Really Dangerous?

dogs, danger, dangerous, pit bulls
What do dog bite statistics reveal about pit bulls and their reputation for being dangerous dogs? (Image credit: Sergey Lavrentev | Shutterstock)

Tales of pit bulls mauling youngsters seem to abound, with one story hitting the news in 2013 detailing police in Nassau County, New York, who were searching door-to-door for two pit bulls that had attacked a teenage boy and three women during a 30-minute period on Feb. 13 of that year.

"One literally went for my leg and [the] other was trying to jump on top of me, but I was hitting them, and I was punching them," Janelle Manning, 24, told CBS New York at the time. "They both weren't letting go, once they got a hold of my leg." Because of her leg injuries, Manning struggled to walk up and down stairs, CBS reported. "These dogs were, like, trained to kill; trained to hurt and viciously attack people," she said.

But do pit bulls deserve their reputation as vicious "attack" dogs? An overwhelming amount of evidence suggests, in some instances, they do.

Related: Dog-mauling death: Why dogs turn on their owners

A five-year review of dog-bite injuries from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, published in 2009 in the journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, found that almost 51 percent of the attacks were from pit bulls, almost 9 percent were from Rottweilers and 6 percent were from mixes of those two breeds.

In other words, a whopping two-thirds of the hospital's dog-attack injuries involved just two breeds, pit bulls and Rottweilers.

Other studies confirm these statistics: A 15-year study published in 2009 in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology revealed that pit bulls, Rottweilers and German shepherds were responsible for the majority of fatal dog attacks in the state of Kentucky. [See What Your Dog's Breed Says About You]

And a 2011 study from the Annals of Surgery revealed that "attacks by pit bulls are associated with higher morbidity rates, higher hospital charges and a higher risk of death than are attacks by other breeds of dogs."

The authors of that 2011 study go on to say, "Strict regulation of pit bulls may substantially reduces the U.S. mortality rates related to dog bites."

Pit bulls and the law

Some states and cities have acted on the research: The state of Maryland has determined that pit bulls are "inherently dangerous" and all owners are liable for any injuries they cause, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Even the U.S. Army has acknowledged that pit bulls are high-risk dogs; they are therefore prohibited in some military housing units.

Pit bulls join several other breeds on the list of dogs that are recognized as more likely to attack and cause significant injury: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed data and found the following breeds are implicated in a majority of dog-bite fatalities:

  • Pit bulls
  • Rottweilers
  • German shepherds
  • Huskies
  • Wolf hybrids
  • Malamutes
  • Doberman pinschers
  • Chow-chows
  • Saint Bernards
  • Great Danes

It's worth noting that no matter how these data are arranged — mixed breeds versus pure breeds, injuries versus fatalities — pit bulls consistently rank at the top of the list for attacks, and by a wide margin. (Rottweilers generally rank a distant second.)

Paying the price for pit bulls

As a result of the overwhelming evidence against pit bulls, home owners and landlords often must pay significantly higher insurance premiums if they have a pit bull or other recognized "bad dog" breed on their property. [Infographic: Dog Bite Incidents]

Fans of pit bulls are quick to assert that a dog's propensity for attack depends in large part on its owner and how it is raised, and there's considerable evidence that owners of pit bulls and other high-risk dogs are themselves high-risk people.

A 2006 study from the Journal of Interpersonal Violence revealed that owners of vicious dogs were significantly more likely to have criminal convictions for aggressive crimes, drugs, alcohol, domestic violence, crimes involving children and firearms.

These findings were confirmed in a 2009 report published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences. The authors of that report wrote, "Vicious dog owners reported significantly more criminal behaviors than other dog owners," and they were ranked "higher in sensation seeking and primary psychopathy."

And a 2011 study, also in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, found that "vicious dog owners reported significantly higher criminal thinking, entitlement, sentimentality and super-optimism tendencies. Vicious dog owners were arrested, engaged in physical fights, and used marijuana significantly more than other dog owners."

What exactly is a 'pit bull'?

The term "pit bull" is a general term encompassing three distinct, though related, breeds: the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier, and the Staffordshire bull terrier.

They were originally bred as "catch dogs" for hunting and attacking large animals like wild boar, for herding livestock and for pit fighting.

There's a myth that pit bulls have "locking jaws" that seize up when biting. Though pit bulls have strong jaws and, like most dogs, will hold onto their prey after biting it, there is no evidence that a pit bull's jaws are anatomically different from those of other breeds.

Even fans of pit bulls acknowledge the breed is different from other dogs. "I tell people right off the bat, if you want a dog-park-type dog, a dog you can just run off-leash, please do not get a pit bull," Ami Ciontos, founder and president of the Atlanta Underdog Initiative, a pit bull rescue group, told

"I want to make sure that whomever I adopt to is educated about the breed," Ciontos said. "We want to make sure they understand the stigma about the breed and that they are held to a higher standard."

Marc Lallanilla
Live Science Contributor
Marc Lallanilla has been a science writer and health editor at and a producer with His freelance writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and Marc has a Master's degree in environmental planning from the University of California, Berkeley, and an undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin.