Article ‘Rethinking dog breed identification in veterinary practice’ available in JAVMA

As far back as the 1960’s, there was clear photographic evidence that mixed breed dogs could look nothing like their purebred parents and grandparents.[i] More recently, surveys conducted by university researchers on both coasts have shown that guesses by animal professionals, even veterinarians, as to the breed composition of mixed breed dogs of unknown origin correlate poorly with breed identification obtained from DNA analysis; and that professionals will frequently disagree with each other regarding breed composition of the same dog. [ii]

An article by two veterinarians and an attorney that appeared in the November 1, 2012 issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) has considered the implications of these undisputed findings for veterinary practice, and recommends that veterinarians stop attempting to assign breed labels to mixed-breed dogs whose origin they do not know.  The authors recommend that veterinarians will better serve their clients and their clients’ pets if they describe these mixed-breed dogs without assigning a breed, adopting a “single non-breed based term to describe all dogs of unknown parentage.”[iii]

Since most practice management software applications will store pictures, the authors further recommend that practitioners add a picture of the dog to the patient records. A picture will undoubtedly be the most reliable way to recognize a canine client.

The real-world challenge of breed-labeling for veterinarians can be seen in a breakdown of the U.S. dog population.  Estimates vary as to the portion of America’s dogs that are mixed breed, but there is general agreement that it is substantial.  The American Pet Products Association reports that the percentage of purebred dogs in America has fallen in the 21st century: that currently only 56% of the dog population is purebred and that 44% of the population is mixed breed. However, the same survey also reported that only 40% of dog owners interviewed said they obtained their dog from a breeder or pet store. If this is true, it suggests that far fewer than 56% of the dogs are purebred.[iv] The commonly accepted estimate is 50/50.

With the U.S. canine population hovering near or above 70 million animals, what is a veterinarian to make of the millions of dogs that will not come with reliable registration papers? Is the dog clearly a member of a breed with which the veterinarian is familiar? Did the owner obtain the dog from a breeder? Or, did he/she obtain the dog from a relative or friend who had no documentation to offer; did he/she find the dog; or did the owner simply assign a breed label because someone told him/her that the dog looked as though it was a member of that breed? The work of Scott and Fuller and the results of the university surveys mentioned above document that the general physical resemblance of a mixed breed dog to a purebred dog is by no means evidence of its genetic relatedness to that breed of dog.

Veterinarians swear an oath to protect animal “health and welfare.”[v] In terms of health, accurate breed identification may be important in anticipating medical issues for a dog and accurate identification is obtained from registration papers, actual knowledge of the dog’s parentage, or a DNA analysis.

The welfare issues are also significant, because some communities and commercial providers (e.g. insurers, airlines, landlords, etc.) discriminate against, or even forbid certain breeds or breed mixes. While stereotypes and generalizations are unfounded even when breed identification is accurate, and there is no scientific evidence to support the notion that one or more kinds of dogs is to be considered disproportionately dangerous,[vi] the inescapably severe consequences of discriminatory policies can also be visited on dogs who have been mislabeled, based upon an unreliable judgment of the dog’s appearance.

The two authors who are veterinarians  report that they have already begun providing versions of the following short statement on their new client or new patient sheet, which describes their position regarding dogs of unknown or uncertain parentage:

“Because new scientific evidence has called into question the accuracy of visual breed identification of dogs, our hospital has adopted a policy to not identify canine patients by predominant breed unless the dog is purebred, the predominant breed of the dog’s parents is known, or the dog’s lineage has been established through the use of DNA analysis.”

We at the National Canine Research Council concur.



[i] Scott, J. P., & Fuller, J. L. (1965). Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

[ii] Voith, V., Ingram, E., Mitsouras, K., & Irizarry, K. (July 2009). Comparison of Adoption Agency Identification and DNA Breed Identification of Dogs. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. 12(3). 253-262.)

Olson, K. R., Levy, J.K, and Norby, B. (2012). [Poster] Pit Bull Identification in Animal Shelters. Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida and Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences at Michigan State University. Retrieved from http://www.maddiesfund.org/Resource_Library/Incorrect_Breed_Identification.html;

Levy, J.K. (2012). DNA and Survey Results: What Kind of a Dog Is That? Retrieved from http://sheltermedicine.vetmed.ufl.edu/library/research-studies/current-studies/dog-breeds/dna-results/

[iii] Simpson, R.J., Simpson, K.J., VanKavage, L. (November 1, 2012). Rethinking Dog Breed Identification in Veterinary Practice. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 241(9), 1-4.

Dr. K.J. Simpson is the founder of the Kingston Animal Hospital in Kingston, Tennessee. Dr. R.J. Simpson, also a veterinarian, is her son. Ledy VanKavage is Senior Legislative Attorney for Best Friends Animal Society, and immediate past Chair of the American Bar Association’s Tort, Trial and Insurance Practice Section’s Animal Law Committee.

[iv] American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, 2009-2010 National Pet Owners Survey.

[vi] AVMA Animal Welfare Division. (17 April 2012). The Welfare Implications of the Role of Breed in Dog Bite Risk and Prevention. Retrieved from: https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/Backgrounders/Pages/The-Role-of-Breed-in-Dog-Bite-Risk-and-Prevention.aspx

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