Breeding Dogs vs. The Horrors of Inbreeding

Spaniel

Photo: BBC America

A GENETIC DISORDER: WHOSE FAULT IS THAT?

In a recent post, I shared the story of Ella, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel suffering from Syringomyelia. This extremely painful and common genetic disorder leaves a Cavalier’s skull too small for her brain.

As I wrote about Ella’s pain, I accepted that Syringomyelia is genetic with the same ease as I accept instances of hip dysplasia. With this ease of acceptance comes a question of hopelessness, “Aren’t dogs just victims to the cruelty of unpredictable biological fate?” This is not the case.

To believe that a dog’s genetic disorder is natural and unavoidable is to accept that Darwin was wrong. He wasn’t. When we open our eyes and embrace the fact that humans are undeniably responsible, only then can we change the outcome for the future of all Ellas.

REMEMBER HIGH SCHOOL BIOLOGY?

We know that offspring health is significantly compromised by matings of close lineage.  In dog breeding, “natural selection” or “survival of the fittest” is hindered by human intervention. As breeding for extreme physical traits continues from small, closed gene pools, more and more dogs are sentenced to suffer from the resulting chronic pain, resperatory issues, heart defects and seizures. It’s time we stop accepting this practice in reputable breeding circles, regardless of limited pairing resources.

THE MISFITS

In the show world, “breed standard” is an oxymoron with serious implications. If a standard requires consistency, somehow we’ve lost site of that. Certain breeds have become wholly unrecognizable when ancestral bone structure is compared, sacrificing proper anatomical function in as few as 50 years. Here are some sad examples:

 

Old vs new bulldog skulls

Photo: Ancient vs. Present Bulldogs from the report: From Perfection to Pathetic Pathology in 100 Years by Stuart Thomson (Click to read the report.)

  • Pugs, Pekingese and English Bulldogs have been consistently bred to have compact faces. Their skulls and jaws have become completely contorted to the point of malfunction and they can no longer breathe with ease.
  • A Pug’s cute and desirable curley tail comes at the cost of a crooked spine and deformed vertebrae.
  • German Shepherds bred for show can barely walk on their hind legs while working class Shepherds with significant strength are considered anatomically incorrect an unworthy of show.
  • Bassett Hounds’ legs are now shorter than ever, leaving them ill equipped to bend without bone issues or bear the tremendous relative weight of their upper body.
  • Most pregnant English Bulldogs can no longer deliver litters without surgical assistance due to their heavier frame and lower center of gravity.

The physical state of the dogs listed above is nowhere near natural and should be far from acceptable. It’s time we observe extreme breeds for what they truly are, sentient beings trapped in a freakishly whimsical physique of celebrated, if failed, human design.

WHAT CONSTITUTES “BEST IN SHOW?”

One would think Best in Show would traditionally celebrate a canine specimen exemplary of health and stature. That is simply not true. In fact, a Pekingese known by Crufts judges to have breathing issues had to be placed on an ice pack when he became the 2003 champion, and yet his many pups were heralded for their prized lineage. Health has little to no bearing on show breed requirements.

Did you know that if Rhodesian Ridgebacks inherit the trademark ridge, the dog is susceptible to Dermoid Sinus? This sinus is an opening  into the skin along the spine that is highly susceptible to painful and sometimes deadly infection. Unbelievably, the “breed standard” deems healthier, ridgeless Ridgebacks (1 born in every 20) to be the lesser valued animal. Ridgeless pups are culled (killed) or spayed and neutered, preventing their healthier traits from reentering the gene pool.

We have to ask ourselves, “Since when is dysfunction correct and who decides?”

PEDIGREE DOGS EXPOSED, A DOCUMENTARY

Pedigree Dogs Exposed, a BBC documentary based on two years of careful research, was released in the US 8 months ago. It investigates the historic influence of the UK Kennel Club on breed specifications and highlights serious pedigree health concerns that many experts agree need to be urgently addressed.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3O0l0f50AAk

As Jemima Harrison, the film’s producer, says:

The reason we made the film, is that we believe pedigree dogs are of tremendous value to society and that something needs to be done to arrest the damage caused by decades of inbreeding and selection for “beauty”. The film is a passionate call for urgent reform to save them before it is too late. To do that, there needs to be urgent reform of breeding practices and dog shows.

If you agree, demand a healthy reform of kennel club and dog show rules. Support breeders who ensure proper down-breeding and provide veterinary health screenings for each of their dogs. Many are equally appalled at extreme show standards. And never, ever buy a pedigree dog from a pet store where the stock likely comes from puppy mills notorious for overbreeding and inbreeding.

THANK YOU TO THOSE WHO BREED RESPONSIBLY

Let’s be very clear. Responsible breeders who consider health first and medically screen to that end must be commended for preserving the breeds we know and love. Many responsible breeders exist, love their dogs like children, and do their damndest to ensure the health of their litters. If you are one of these breeders, I sincerely thank you for all you do to protect the well being of (hu)man’s best friend.

Comments

  1. Great post. That bulldog picture is amazing. Also, I was really surprised to read about the prize-winning Pekingese with the genetic disorder. I don't know much about showing dogs, but it seems like – since it's a breeding award – they should take the overall health and wellness of the animal into account? Or are awards based entirely on physical appearance?

    • Thanks Maggie, although I must admit, I may have been misclassified the affliction of that little Pekingese. (See my adjusted wording above.) While he suffered from breathing distress, even as he was being announced the winner, this is not necessarily considered a genetic disorder. As with the English Bulldog, this a case of breeders manipulating facial framework for a socially constructed and unrealistic version of beauty.

      As for the award requirements, I think there was so much criticism to follow that health is becoming more important. And yet, if you watch the film, you see that a UK Cavalier owner who had been known to treat her dog for Syringomyelia was still entering competitions with the poor dog and winning awards. She just lied about the dog's health straight into the camera.

  2. A couple of corrections here… Danny the Peke who won Crufts had had a procedure to remove excess tissue blocking his airways and causing respiratory distress (bracycephalic airway syndrome, a problem caused by breeding for very flat faces). As far as I'm aware, none of his descendants are epileptic (and we certainly didn't say so in the film). It is very possible, however, that they inherited his breathing problems. Also, about 1 in 20 ridgebacks are born without a ridge (not the other way round).

    Jemima Harrison

    Pedigree Dogs Exposed

    • Hello Jemima,

      Thank you for offering these corrections. My post now reflects the accurate number of Ridgeback births and, while I believe I read about Danny's kin on a discussion board, I am unable to relocate it and have removed the reference. It is entirely possible that I may have confused one story with another and I would never want to cloud these issues with inaccuracy or doubt.

      Thank you, most sincerely, for shining the light on a topic that has been hiding in plain sight for far too long. Your documentary is brilliant.

  3. All these issues from inbreeding makes me exceptionally annoyed, angry, sad… perplexed that we can be so wrapped up in aesthetics that we completely ignore the well being of a creature that is fully capable fo suffering. It is insane and it is cruel.

    I think that we all, on some level, know this. We have to.

    Dogs are not pretty bracelets designed for our delight in pretty and fluffy things. They are alive. They can feel things. They are in our care so we need to CARE for them.

    • Hi Shauna,

      I am intrigued by your point that we somehow know this is cruel. I would agree but for the fact that, when I was a child, I knew expert breeders and judges existed and assumed that they took pride in doing their best possible work, especially with a living being hanging in the balance. I honestly never looked from any other another angle because I thought they knew more than I did, until I watched Pedigree Dogs Exposed..

      By the way, I have to thank Jana Rade from Dawg Business for introducing me to this film. Interestingly, Jana wrote a post back in January about our ability (or lack thereof) to detect a dog's pain and how much they stoically hide.

      http://dawgbusiness.blogspot.com/2010/01/word-on-

      I came across it while writing this post and realized how much our dogs chronically bear before giving us a sign. It makes me hurt for those who suffer in silence from faulty bone structure due to breeding for extremes. Again, how could we know without being educated on why animals hide their pain?

      At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what we may have known on some subconscious level – although I think you're right because it's less than shocking when all the pieces click. What matters is that we certainly know in this moment. When we know, we are held accountable – without excuse. What matters next is what we do with that knowledge.

      • Thank you so much for sharing ella's story. I think what you said about what you do with the knowledge is important. It is so easy to point fingers at people but what also should be said (which I am glad you did) that there are people doing things to help this breed which will help others to do something. I have great respect and I'm thankful for their efforts.

        I think it is a lot of people's first thoughts is to blame the breeder. I do not because she feels terrible and the fact that I can call her is important. She wants her puppies healthy and even though some things can't be avoided, she would welcome ella to take care of her. I just want to say that some breeders look out and want to be involved with their dogs throughout their life.

  4. What a great post! It's so sad what some breeders have done to dogs–and how humans accept that this is natural, normal, and the way it is supposed to be.

  5. I found that whole doc entirely disgusting AND eye opening! The Peke that won Crufts just boggles the mind. It can barely walk, can barely breathe and can't properly regular it's temperature due to it's flat face. I think it had a curved spine, as well.

    Yogi, the Vizsla that won Crufts this year, so far has sired 79 litters of puppies!! It is estimated that 10% of registered vizslas now carry his genetic material. If that's not a recipe for genetic disaster, I don't know what is.

    The number one cause of death in Golden Retrievers and Boxers is cancer. 70 percent of Goldens in the of die of cancer, why are people still buying these dogs as pets? Why aren't breeders & breed clubs doing anything about this?

    Dalmatians suffer from Hyperuricosuria which means the dog has an abnormally high level of uric acid in its urinary system. This leads to painful stones and sludge in the bladder.

    Some breeders "fixed" this problem by outcrossing Dals with Pointers. The outcrosses look just like a "regular" Dal except that they dogs aren't plagued by Hyperuricosuria . The AKC refuses to recognize or register these dogs, the UK Kennel club has just come around and happily, the UKC has not problems registering these dogs. Seriously, what's up with the "Champion of Dogs"?

    I could go on and on with the problems of these "dog clubs", but I have work to do. If you want some interesting reading. Check out a blog post I wrote about dog diseases here;

    If you *really* want to get into serious reading about dog genetics, check out the Terrierman Blog, here;

    http://terriermandotcom.blogspot.com/

    • Wow, Karen.

      The more I learn, the more disgusted I am with the general sense of human superiority and needless intervention on almost every level of existence. Our species is like a bunch of young children who deconstruct things to see how they were put together while lacking the power to reassemble what we destroyed in the process. Life is not an experiment to be tampered with on a whim and yet we play with genetics, the food chain and the environment with reckless abandon.

      I look forward to reading your post as well as the Terrierman Blog. Thanks for sharing!

    • To anyone still reading, visit Karen's link above. The long lists of disease she outlines is astounding and demonstrates the bigger picture at a glance.

  6. Hi,

    We found your blog through the blog hop. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed this post.

    I saw a show on Pedigree dogs (it might have been the same one that you'd posted a link to) and they discussed Syringomyelia. It's really awful.

    One of the issues, aside from the "show quality" standards having no reflection whatsoever on what the breed was originally intended to be used for (the German Shepherd example, plus what Lab or Golden in the show ring could ever work a day in the field?), is also that the more popular breeds are getting more backyard breeders, and breeders of all kinds aren't willing to admit they might have some carriers of diseases.

    For Malamutes, we're having a huge debate/discussion on what to do about chondrodysplasia, one of the main (and easiest preventable) genetic diseases in our breed; basically, dwarfism. A lot of breeders, including ones who have been breeding longer than I've been alive, aren't willing to either test breed their dogs to get a definitive answer as to whether or not they're true carriers, or aren't willing to open up their paperwork because they'd rather keep things like that secret and keep their name untarnished rather than help the breed for the future.

    It's really upsetting because I'm less than half the age of a lot of those breeders. Who's the one that's going to be cleaning up their messes?

  7. Really interesting and sad post. It's terrible that these conditions are perpetuated and worsened by irresponsible breeding.

    http://istillwantmorepuppies.blogspot.com

  8. Kim – This may have been one of the most informative and educational posts I've read in a while. Wow. I knew that the show dogs we see on TV were not bred for natural characteristics, but I had no idea how far it had gone and how many problems dogs have as a result of human intervention and vanity. Thank you for educating all of us on the downside of dog breeding. Poor Ella. She is a victim of more humans attempting to control nature. 🙁

    • Hi Mel,

      I'm so grateful for the conversation this documentary has inspired and my post is just one more means to that end. Thanks for spreading the word, sharing the link on Facebook and Twitter. It is so very much appreciated.

  9. Great article! You're obviously much faster than me (as I plan on writing on the issue also). Great job. Let's hope that getting the word out might change things.

    • Thanks, Jana.

      When you shared this documentary with me, I was entirely overwhelmed by all I had learned. Writing is often my way to make sense of the world, particularly when there is no sense.

      As I wrote, I thought I was late to the party since the film had been out for some time but I knew the the conversation was worth sparking again. It wasn't until after the comments started rolling in that I realized this little space on the internet had become it's own party and that new people were being exposed to the information.

      That said, I look forward to joining YOUR party. I'm so glad you're writing about the topic too. Words wield tremendous power if we use them wisely. I find that, on your blog, you always do.

  10. I am the proud owner of Ella. I would like to first thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers for her. Also I would like to thank Kim and Dawgbusiness.blogspot.com for telling her story and raising awareness and for helping support Ella. This post was great because it mentioned a couple of things I feel are important. I would also like to add somethings specifically about Ella's story.

    I like what you said about it is what you said "What matters is that we certainly know in this moment. When we know, we are held accountable – without excuse. What matters next is what we do with that knowledge." That is so true and important.

    It is really easy to point fingers but there are a lot of people that are helping and they need to be recognized because they are doing something.

    When I told people about Ella, almost everyone blamed her breeder. It is a natural thought but I want to point out that I didn't. The reason why is because she felt so terrible about it and has been supportive. There are a lot of breeders that want to continue contact throughout their puppies lives. If you can no longer care for you Cavalier they would welcome to take them back. They have an interest throughout their lives. There are a lot of things that some breeders are doing which includes scanning their dogs before breeding them. An MRI is not cheap as I know. These breeders need to be supported.

    Before I knew that Ella had Syringomyelia, I was going to send some information about potential health conditions. That is when I met Ollie http://www.fortheloveofollie.com. Through this I was able to recognize some symptoms even before her vet did. That was the main reason for starting my blog. I want others to know about this so hopefully they can be aware and put things together sonner rather than later.

    I know with Ella's story many people had never heard about this condition so even pet owners would not know things like asking breeders if they scan their dogs, etc. Know that there are people and research that is being done to help with this and also need support. It is not just Cavaliers (which Kim mentioned).

    Pedigree Dogs Exposed definately brought awareness about this and included some great information from Dr. Clare Rusbridge who is doing so much!. One thing I wish it talked about was what was being done or what pet owners or potential pet owners could do.

    I know this is a long comment but I really wanted to not only thank everyone who has helped Ella and this site but also mention those that need to also be recognized for their efforts.

    I hope that Ella's story puts a face to this condition but also tells about how I don't blame her breeder. Even after talking about this with some friends or people in my city, someone sent an email about Cavaliers for sell. My friend saw how cute and wanted one (which she did not get) It is easy to see pictures and see how cute they are but we need to make sure to know what questions to ask. If more people know about what questions to ask breeders and recognize symptoms then that would be so helpful.

    You can visit Ella's blog which has some helpful links including one that talks about other breeds that have this. So if you can understand that even seeing Ella go through this, I have no blame. I look to the future and thank people who are now aware, recognize what people are doing, and take this to maybe see that all breeders are not the same. It is hard and sad but knowing people were touched and to continue to follow her and keep Ella in their prayers means so much! When one more person knows about this and her story made a lot more people aware, then maybe if her story did anything it could help another.

    I will always remember Ollie, the people who have helped bring awareness, the people who have prayed for her, the people who have supported her so she will have her MRI tomorrow, which is why I'm up so late 🙂 and just know that this changed my life. I will always think about others that are going through this and will continue to try to help as others have done for me.

    Thank you so much!

    • Annie,

      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and feelings. I’m terribly angry at the system that created this mess yet I’m glad that you can separate your feelings about that from Ella’s breeder. As I said, there are breeders who care and who are trying to make a difference. Still, I’m angry for the dogs who have no control over the bodies they are cast into.

      Your blog and links to more information are so important. I was one of those people you educated about Syringomyelia. Thank you for that.

      I’m so sorry to learn that Ella’s MRI wasn’t good news. The community is here to help you be strong and we wish Ella all the best.

  11. Kim,

    I keep coming back to this for some reason! I think it was very informative to many people and I know that this documentary raised a lot of concern when it was aired. I think with learning about Ella's MRI results and being more active, I have heard another side of the story that was not shared in this film. I think I might do a post on it. One thing that alarms me is that the focus is on "show" dogs. I was reading a thread and someone said that they will only buy a Cavalier from a non-show breeder. The responses I read from a couple of well respected people (non breeders) was that this was exactly what not to do. This is the response that there are many ethical, health focused show breeders but few that are non that will but the effort into testing that is so important for their health. Yes there will always be some that do not do what should be done, but far more that are not involved in the Clubs and the show community.

    Actually I hope this show does not make people think that buying from a non show breeder is better and be careful of what they have been health tested etc. I just hope that it makes people aware to ask questions and aware that health is extremely important to know about.

    Thank you!

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