American Pit Bull Terrier

Ana Oliveira
Dr Ana Oliveira (DVM, University of Lisbon)
Photo of adult American Pit Bull Terrier

The American Pit Bull Terrier is a misunderstood dog breed. Loving and extremely affectionate, it is nonetheless generally regarded as dangerous and aggressive. Its bad reputation has followed it over the years, despite proof of the contrary. Pit Bulls are gentle and friendly, though unscrupulous people have taken advantage of their strength, tenacity, and power for criminal activities.

Pit Bulls were bred to be fighting dogs, but have later developed to be companion dogs. They are confident and intelligent dogs, eager to please and excellent family pets, being known for their love for children. Proper socialisation and training is mandatory to prevent aggressive behaviours towards other dogs and animals. They are both great athletes and working dogs.

About & History

The American Pit Bull Terrier belongs to the pit bull family of dogs, which includes different dog breeds, such as the Bull Terrier and the American Staffordshire Terrier. This dog breed has not been recognised by the American Kennel Club (AKC), being considered the same as the American Staffordshire Terrier. Though related, they differ in conformation and personality.

Pit Bulls were bred in 1800s England by mixing the now extinct Old English Terriers with Old English Bulldogges. By combining the strength and resistance of Bulldogs and the drive and gameness of Terriers, breeders aimed at creating a powerful, invincible dog to fight in pits. They were thus used in bull baiting and bear baiting, until these blood sports were banned in 1835 with new animal welfare laws. After that, illegal dog fighting grew, as it was easier to conceal, and Pit Bulls kept being bred and selected for their aggressiveness, willingness to fight, and athletic structure. Because dogs needed to be separated during fights, kindness towards humans was considered a desirable trait and dogs were bred to be friendly.

Immigrants going to America took Pit Bulls with them and soon they started performing other tasks, such as catching wild cattle. During the 20th century, Pit Bulls moved on to be farm and companion dogs. Their fighting past was left behind, though their willingness to please, their overall enthusiasm, and solid body are sometimes exploited for criminal purposes, such as guarding illegal drug operations and dog fighting.

American Pit Bulls are great sporting dogs, excelling at agility, obedience, flyball, lure coursing, and weight pulling, just to name a few canine sports. As working dogs, they are determined and engaged, playing important roles as police dogs (detecting narcotics and explosives), service dogs (for the deaf), border patrol dogs, and search and rescue dogs. There are legal liabilities associated with its ownership and there is breed-specific legislation in more than 20 countries (most of them in Europe, but also Australia, Canada, Ecuador, Malaysia, New Zealand, Puerto Rico, Singapore, and Venezuela). This type of legislation ranges from complete banning of the breed (in the UK, Ontario, and some locations in the US) to certain restrictions or conditions on ownership.


American Pit Bull Terrier Large Photo

The American Pit Bull Terrier is a compact, medium-sized dog with a well-defined muscle tone. Its coat is short, smooth, and shiny, coming in all colours. Except for merle, all patterns are accepted. Pit Bulls have thick tails, small ears, and almond-shaped eyes. The most common colour patters are:

  • Brindled
  • Solid
  • Spotted

Male Pit Bulls weigh between 15 and 27 kg (35-60 lb) and are 45 to 53 cm tall (18-21 inches), while females weigh 13 to 22 kg (30-50 lb) and are 43 to 50 cm tall (17-20 inches).

Character & Temperament

Intelligent, bold, and extremely affectionate, American Pit Bull Terriers are great family pets and are particularly fond of children. These “nanny dogs” are natural protectors and known loyal companions of their families. Confident, active, and full of energy and enthusiasm, Pit Bulls are mistakenly taken for aggressive dogs, due to their dark past as fighting dogs and some unscrupulous and negligent owners. In fact, aggressiveness towards humans is highly uncharacteristic, as this was an undesirable trait for fighting dogs and thus selection was done in the opposite direction.

Pit Bulls do not tolerate non-sense behaviours from other animals and, though they will not start a fight, they will not back down from one when provoked. For this reason, and because they are dominant dogs with some level of dog aggression, interactions with other animals should be supervised and off-leash walks are not recommended. Pit Bulls also have a strong prey drive and are known climbers and jumpers, so good fencing is advisable. Nevertheless, when raised with other animals, even cats and other furry pets, Pit Bulls are friendly and non-aggressive.

Furthermore, the American Pit Bull has one of the highest proportion of approval in temperament tests performed by the American Temperament Test Society, whose motto is “A sound mind in a sound body”. In scientific literature assessing 66 dog bites, the breed was not considered as a risk factor for dog bites. Biased associations between Pit Bulls and bite-related injuries and fatalities are possibly due to the media’s overreporting of attacks from certain breeds over others, as well as bias towards reporting stigmatised dog breeds. Moreover, these studies do not usually cover all dog bite fatalities and mixed breeds may be mistakenly accounted for as “pure breeds”. Interestingly enough, when Pit Bulls were banned from the province of Ontario, in Canada, the overall number of dog bites increased, though the number of dog bites by Pit Bulls decreased.

Pit Bulls are active dogs that need both physical and mental stimulation. They love to learn commands and new tricks, thriving when given consistent discipline. They have a need for chewing and because of their strong jaw, owners should provide them with strong and durable toys, which will make sure to keep them entertained. Pit Bulls do not stand being alone for long periods of time and may suffer from separation anxiety. When bored or alone for a long time, they will find their own entertainment, which usually entails chewing on furniture or other objects, digging, and destroying whatever they find. They need attention and they also need to be involved in their families’ activities and daily life.


Photo of American Pit Bull Terrier puppy

Pit Bulls can be stubborn and they are dominant dogs. A firm, consistent leadership will work best for this dog breed and a lot of patience is needed. Despite the fact that Pit Bulls may take time to train, mainly due to their short attention span, they are intelligent dogs, eager to please their owners and do the right thing.

Short training sessions are preferred, as well as food rewards instead of punishment for wrongdoings. Socialisation is also imperative, as Pit Bulls may show signs of aggression towards other dogs. Correct and early socialisation with other dogs, animals, and people will help create a well-rounded dog, welcoming of other people and animals.


American Pit Bull Terriers have lifespans ranging from 12 to 16 years. They are sturdy, healthy dogs with few health problems. Still, they may be more prone to the following health issues:

Hip Dysplasia

Usually occurring in large and giant breeds, hip dysplasia is an orthopaedic condition sometimes seen in Pit Bulls. It occurs when the ball of the femur bone in the dog’s leg does not fit the hip socket well, causing the joint to work deficiently. Because there is an incorrect attachment of the ball and socket, extra pressure is added to the joint, creating inflammation that leads to pain and lameness. Genetic predisposition and environmental factors (including diet) are associated with hip dysplasia, though the exact causes remain unclear. Treatment may be symptomatic, directed towards inflammation and pain, or surgical.

Parvovirus Infection

Canine parvovirus (CPV) is a virus that affects puppies. It is highly contagious and may be fatal. There are two forms: an intestinal form causing bloody diarrhoea, vomiting, weight loss, and loss of appetite; and a cardiac form (less common) affecting the heart muscle and often fatal.

Early vaccination is extremely important to prevent parvovirus infection, as well as respecting the timing of boosters and not exposing puppies to public spaces and other dogs of unknown vaccination history before all boosters are complete.


Pit Bulls may be more prone to allergies in the skin, which may cause redness and itchiness. When the dogs scratch the affected skin, it may cause wounds that are then more likely to become infected. The most effective treatment is finding which allergen is causing the problem and avoid the dog’s exposure to it.

Demodectic Mange

Demodicosis or demodectic mange is a skin disease that is caused by the mite Demodex canis. It is not contagious to either humans or animals and it usually results from a supressed immune system. Young puppies are more susceptible to Demodex and they usually recover as they grow.

Demodex is usually present in people and animals without causing any harm, but when the immune system is supressed (due to vaccination, other diseases, young or old age), it causes lesions (hair loss, red skin) that may be localised, or, in more severe cases, generalised.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Pit Bulls are active and dynamic pets. They need vigorous exercise and playtime. At least 1 hour per day of walking, running, and playing is required to keep up with a Pit Bull’s needs. They are known for being destructive when not exercised enough or if left alone for a long time. Playtime and daily walks are also an important part of the animal-human bonding and socialisation processes, which is essential for any dog to thrive as a happy, healthy pet.


Pit bulls are not a very demanding dog breed when it comes to grooming. Their short coat is easy to keep, with a weekly brush being enough to meet their needs. Nail trimming, teeth brushing, the occasional bath, and checking their ears for signs of redness are all it takes to keep a Pit Bull looking great at all times.

Famous American Pit Bull Terriers

Pit Bulls have made it to television and popular culture over the past decades. Some examples of famous Pit Bulls are:

  • Bud, Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson’s mate in the first road trip across America in 1903. Bud crossed the US from San Francisco to New York City.
  • Grunt, the character from the film Flashdance (1983), whose real name was Jumbo Red.
  • Sergeant Stubby was the mascot of the 102nd Infantry, from the Yankee Division and the most decorated dog of World War I. Stubby captured a German spy and became a Sergeant.
  • An American Pitbull represented the United States on World War I propaganda posters.


Pit Bulls have been crossbred with many different dog breeds, resulting in interesting mixes:

  • Alaskan Pit Bull – Cross between an American Pit Bull Terrier and an Alaskan Malamute
  • Beagle Bull – Cross between an American Pit Bull Terrier and a Beagle
  • Bullypit – Cross between an American Pit Bull Terrier and a Bulldog
  • Dox-Bull / DoxiePit – Cross between an American Pit Bull Terrier and a Dachshund
  • German Sheppit – Cross between an American Pit Bull Terrier and a German Shepherd
  • Great Danebull – Cross between an American Pit Bull Terrier and a Great Dane
  • Greybull – Cross between an American Pit Bull Terrier and a Greyhound
  • Labrabull – Cross between an American Pit Bull Terrier and a Labrador Retriever
  • Piston – Cross between an American Pit Bull Terrier and a Boston Terrier
  • Pit Bullmastiff – Cross between an American Pit Bull Terrier and a Bullmastiff
  • Pitchow – Cross between an American Pit Bull Terrier and a Chow Chow
  • Pithuahua – Cross between an American Pit Bull Terrier and a Chihuahua
  • Pitoxer – Cross between an American Pit Bull Terrier and a Boxer
  • Pitweiler – Cross between an American Pit Bull Terrier and a Rottweiler
  • Pugbull Terrier – Cross between an American Pit Bull Terrier and a Pug
  • Sharpull Terrier – Cross between an American Pit Bull Terrier and a Shar Pei
  • Pitsky – Cross between an American Pit Bull Terrier and a Siberian or Alaskan Husky

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