Flaws on paws - Welfare problems in breeding pedigree dogs

14 October 2008

There is a compelling argument that our interdependence with dogs has been so great, we may even have co-evolved. Yet we seem to struggle to maintain their quality of life, particularly in pure-bred dogs. Last month, a BBC documentary, Pedigree dogs exposed, argued for example that winners of dog shows are selected chiefly on appearance and movement, at the expense of health and wellbeing.

In the wake of the documentary, leading animal welfare charities such as the Dogs Trust and the RSPCA have spoken out against pedigree dog breeding, and withdrawn their support for Crufts, the UK Kennel Club's flagship event. It is time for a new approach to dog breeding: that is based on a comprehensive understanding of their biology; that values health, longevity and suitable temperament; and that ensures we get the best out of companion dogs by helping them to help us.

Many veterinary geneticists saw the crisis that now faces the Kennel Club looming many years ago. The closed studbook system used by pedigree breeders inevitably involves inbreeding that increases the risk of inherited disorders caused by recessive genes. Such disorders are now recognised in all established breeds of dogs and cats, as well as horses, farm animals and a growing number of captive exotic species. But the problem is worst in dogs, which have been intensively bred within the closed studbook system since Victorian times. Many dogs now have inherited disorders that cause them to suffer so much that it is unkind to keep them alive.

Worse, pedigree dog breeders compete to produce animals that conform to written standards, which may include morphological and behavioural traits that compromise quality of life. These traits were incorporated into the first breed standards when dogs left the working arena and entered the world of dog shows in the late 1800s, and many of them may have been valued by early dog domesticators because they served a particular purpose. Unfortunately breed standards now tend to prioritise appearance over functionality.

For example, the breed standard for Weimaraners demands that the chest is "well developed, deep" while the abdomen is "firmly held" and the flank is "moderately tucked-up". These requirements may help to make Weimaraners appear athletic but veterinarians know that breeds with deep chests are at risk of gastric dilation and torsion, an extraordinarily painful, life-threatening condition in which the stomach bloats with gas and can become twisted. Or take the Pug, which according to its breed standard should have eyes that are "very large, globular in shape". Breeders oblige the judges and select for this feature, leaving Pugs with eyes that bulge so badly their lids scarcely meet well enough to wipe the eyeball clean. The poor dogs undergo a lifetime of chronic conjunctivitis that eventually scars over the cornea and blinds them.

The emphasis in dog breeding needs to shift. To minimise rates of inherited disease, closed studbooks may need to be abandoned.There are also calls for each breeding population of dogs to be placed under surveillance, so that new disorders can be tracked as they emerge.

We should also start to celebrate the traits we truly value in dogs. These days, dogs work chiefly as companions in most societies. So temperament is clearly important - "inappropriate" behaviour is the commonest reason for dogs in developed countries to be put down. Dogs that bond easily with people and that cope well with modern living, as typified by high-density urban environments, are likely to have a higher quality of life, as well as serving their owners better.Yet the selection process in the show ring barely reflects temperament - the only behaviour test the show dog has to pass is not biting the judge, and even failing this may be ignored. It is good to see a pilot scheme to promote behavioural traits adapted to contemporary domestic environments currently underway in Australia, with the blessing of the national dog breeding body.

Ultimately, the relationship between dogs and humans may be changing. The notion of a high-quality bond may prevail over the idea that as many homes as possible should have dogs. This is fuelled by the emergence of better indicators of welfare in domestic dogs. Crude measures such as longevity and behavioural wastage (the proportion of dogs abandoned, surrendered or euthanased because of their behaviour) still have merit. But evolving assessment tools from the medical profession are giving veterinarians more sophisticated ways to measure dogs' wellbeing. Perhaps one day breeders will compete in a class for "The dog with the best chance for a high quality of life."

The prospect of further co-evolution is both fascinating and speculative. We cannot say what the domestic dogs of the future will look like because we do not know what the humans of the future will look like, need and therefore value. But under the current framework, pedigree dogs are doomed. The prevalence of inherited disorders will continue to rise unless the rules for breeding are changed to prioritise traits that are compatible with quality of life.

The best dog breeders have the passion to bring about the necessary changes. They are very good at what they do - the problem is that what they currently do is not very good. Welfare charities, veterinary associations and dog breeders must unite in using the latest advances in genetics and epidemiology to develop a new model of dog breeding practice.

This article was first published in the most recent issue of New Scientist (11 October 2008).

Contact: Jake O'Shaughnessy

Phone: +61 2 9351 4312 or 0421 617 861

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