A new study has found that animal shelters often mislabel dogs as pit bulls, which can hurt the animals’ chances of finding homes and could even put their lives at risk.

A research team from the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine compared DNA samples from 120 dogs at four shelters against shelter staff -- including four veterinarians -- assessments of the animals’ breeds.

The results showed that dogs with pit bull heritage in their DNA were correctly identified as pit bulls at best 75 percent of the time. Meanwhile, dogs with no pit bull heritage DNA were labeled pit bulls up to 48 percent of the time.

“Essentially we found that the marked lack of agreement observed among shelter staff members in categorizing the breeds of shelter dogs illustrates that reliable inclusion or exclusion of dogs as ‘pit bulls’ is not possible, even by experts,” said study lead Julie Levy, D.V.M. and professor of shelter medicine at the university, in a press release.

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There is no formal breed directly called “pit bull.” Rather it’s a term applied to a type of dog that derives from the heritage (old) breeds of American Staffordshire terrier or Staffordshire bull terrier. Similarly, the American pit bull terrier often falls under the “pit bull” umbrella.

Dogs designated as pit bulls are often considered by the public as dangerous by their very nature, a risk to children and other dogs. The study’s researchers suggest, however, that dog breeds have a variety of genetic traits that make it impossible to offer predictions about how one dog will behave.

“A dog’s physical appearance cannot tell observers anything about its behavior,” said Levy. “Even dogs of similar appearance and the same breed often have diverse behavioral traits in the same way that human siblings often have very different personalities.”

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The study’s results, according to Levy, “raise difficult questions because shelter workers and veterinarians are expected to determine the breeds of dogs in their facilities on a daily basis. Additionally, they are often called on as experts as to whether a dog’s breed will trigger confiscation or regulatory action. The stakes for these dogs and their owners are in many cases very high.”

“Identification of dogs as pit bulls can trigger an array of negative consequences, from the loss of housing, to being seized by animal control, to the taking of the dog’s life,” Levy added. “In the high-stakes world of animal shelters, a dog’s life might depend on a potential adopter’s momentary glimpse and assumptions about its suitability as a pet.”

Levy suggests, in lieu of placing legal restrictions on dogs based purely on appearance, more emphasis might be placed on addressing the risk factors for harmful dog contacts — for example, vigilant supervision of children, recognition of canine body language, neutering of dogs, raising puppies to be social, and keeping watch for unfamiliar dogs.