Rethinking Dog Breed Identification in Veterinary Practice
The visual identification of dog breeds is made more difficult when assessing mixed breed dogs. This paper examines whether it is useful for veterinarians to attempt to visually identify mixed breed dogs, especially as a means of predicting future health problems that may be associated with certain breeds. The study recommends that animal hospitals adopt a policy of not using visual identification, and instead explain to their clientele that only purebred or DNA tested dogs will be identified by breed, while others should be identified in different, non-breed specific ways.
Despite the popularity of pure bred dogs in popular culture, and events such as dog shows, almost half (44%) of the dogs living in the United States are mixed breed. For many of these dogs the lineage is almost or completely unknown, and breed is assigned based on visual appearance. Of course, as this paper notes, “it is possible to describe dogs without assigning a breed. In fact, in previous times, dogs were characterized not so much by breed as by their personality.” In the past, dogs have been identified as hunting dogs, guard dogs, lap dogs, etc; and in recent times, the American Kennel Club labeled mixed breed dogs that participate in obedience and agility competitions as “all-American dogs.” Visual inspection is the most common way of trying to identify the parentage of mixed breed dogs at veterinary hospitals across the U.S. That being said, there are problems with this kind of visual identification. With hundreds of recognized breeds out there, it is almost impossible to accurately identify mixed breed dogs with complete certainty.
Considering that certain health problems are associated with specific dog breeds, misidentification of breeds could potentially lead to misdiagnoses or missed preventative measures. Likewise, considering that many states and countries have breed specific bans in place, misidentifying a dog breed could have dire consequences for the dogs in question. In some cases, vets could potentially be accused of intentional misrepresentation of dog breeds if they got it wrong. Because of these factors, the authors of this study “strongly recommend” that vets adopt a “consistent use of a single non-breed-based term to identify all dogs of unknown lineage, regardless of appearance and regardless of any previous identifications that might have been made.” They add that “it is ill advised to alter a dog’s medical record, including changing the breed identification, without documenting the change and explaining why the change was made.” The researchers advise that it is not a good idea to retroactively apply the policy to existing patients, “unless a DNA analysis has been done to substantiate the change in breed identification and a copy of the test results can be included in the patient’s medical record.” They also recommend that vets communicate this new policy to new and existing patients with a simple statement such as this: “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.”
Ultimately, the authors of this paper wish to encourage “a paradigm shift in the veterinary profession’s approach to canine breed identification. Specifically, we believe that veterinarians and animal shelters should adopt a policy to avoid visual breed identification of any dog of unknown lineage and should train their staff on the rationale for this policy, including the drawbacks of visual breed identification and misidentification.” They note that “this does not preclude including breed information in the medical records of dogs when the owner has actual knowledge of the dog’s lineage or when breed identification has been determined by means of DNA analysis.” Considering the numerous problems that can arise if dogs are misidentified, it seems like a safer policy to use going forward.
Dog breed identification is deeply rooted in veterinary practice. Practice management programs, diagnostic service request forms, and government forms, including health certificates and rabies certificates, all require information on dog breed. Owners may ask for assistance in identifying the breed of newly acquired dogs, and veterinarians frequently use information regarding dog breed to assess the risk that dogs will develop various breed-specific medical problems. However, the utility of breed identification in veterinary practice may not be clear for mixedbreed dogs, particularly when parentage is unknown and must be guessed at on the basis of appearance.