Bred to Death

The pursuit of purebred perfection threatens some of our best friends.

Sara PeckJune 9, 2010

French bull dogs—who generally mate through artificial insemination and give birth through Caesarean section—strike a pose for the judges at the 2009 Westminster Kennel Club dog show in New York. (Photo by Timothy A. Clark/AFP/Getty Images)

Amer­i­can pedi­greed dogs, prod­ucts of a large, estab­lished indus­try, aren’t cheap. As pets, they can cost more than $1,000 – and that’s before vet fees. Safe Har­bor Lab Res­cue esti­mates that there are more than 20 mil­lion pure­bred dogs in the Unit­ed States. By pure breed­ing, breed­ers can main­tain and enhance cer­tain traits,” says Pat­ti Strand, a long­time Dal­ma­t­ian breed­er who sits on the board of the Amer­i­can Ken­nel Club (AKC). Unfor­tu­nate­ly, a buy­er can usu­al­ly pre­dict what will kill their pet as well. 

Patti Strand, a Dalmatian breeder and board member of the American Kennel Club, opposes regulation. ‘We live in a free society,’ says Strand. ‘America is a lot different from Europe.’

Thanks to unreg­u­lat­ed inbreed­ing, many dog breeds suf­fer chron­ic dis­eases and con­di­tions. For exam­ple, gold­en retriev­ers die of can­cer about 60 per­cent of the time, accord­ing to the Gold­en Retriev­er Club of Amer­i­ca. Show-style Ger­man Shep­herds are noto­ri­ous for their slump­ing, eas­i­ly dis­joint­ed hips, and pugs’ wheez­ing is the result of a severe facial deformity.

Such ills should not be sur­pris­ing: In some breeds, dogs have a 75 per­cent inbreed­ing coef­fi­cient (the indi­ca­tion of how relat­ed they are), accord­ing to Susan Thor­pe-Var­gas, a breed­er of Samoyeds who holds a Ph.D. in genet­ics. (A broth­er and sis­ter have a coef­fi­cient of 25 per­cent.) The late John Arm­strong, a vet­eri­nar­i­an with the Canine Diver­si­ty Project, report­ed that cer­tain unusu­al­ly inbred lines of poo­dles have an inbreed­ing coef­fi­cient of 70 percent. 

Accord­ing to data from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia school of vet­eri­nary med­i­cine, which pub­lished a study of one heav­i­ly inbred group of inbred bea­gles, three-fourths of pup­pies with a 67 per­cent or high­er coef­fi­cient will die with­in 10 days. The dogs who sur­vive are often sad­dled with genet­ic dis­ease, poor immune sys­tems and short­ened life expectan­cies. It’s killing them. They’ll even­tu­al­ly hit a genet­ic cul-de-sac and be too inbred to repro­duce,” says Thor­pe-Var­gas, author of Genet­ics and Breed­ing Strate­gies: Essays for the Dog Breeder.

In Europe, sev­er­al coun­tries have made efforts to reform breed­ing and com­pet­i­tive show­ing. Ger­man breed­ers must have all mat­ings approved by a breed war­den, which dis­cour­ages inbreed­ing of unsafe pairs. In Britain, the out­cry fol­low­ing the 2008 BBC doc­u­men­tary Pedi­gree Dogs Exposed prompt­ed the Ken­nel Club, the UK’s largest dog reg­istry and gov­ern­ing body, to reg­u­late health screen­ing and breed­ing. It doesn’t have to be like this,” doc­u­men­tary film­mak­er Jemi­ma Har­ri­son wrote in an e‑mail to In These Times. We real­ly can have beau­ti­ful pedi­gree dogs that are not struck down by dis­eases or encum­bered by phys­i­cal hand­i­caps forced on them by us.” 

When looks can kill

The AKC is the largest pedi­gree dog reg­istry in the Unit­ed States. Besides reg­u­lat­ing lit­ter and dog reg­is­tra­tion, it sets the stan­dard” for each breed, a spe­cif­ic set of require­ments for height, weight and build. These stan­dards force breed­ers to assume the role of geneti­cist, try­ing to con­trol for desir­able cos­met­ic traits and weed out those deemed unfa­vor­able by the AKC. 

Some of the most icon­ic canine fea­tures, such as a bull dog’s big head and squat body, are the result of selec­tive breed­ing over many gen­er­a­tions. How­ev­er, adher­ence to these stan­dards is often detri­men­tal to dogs. Many Eng­lish bull dogs, for exam­ple, are unable to mate with­out assis­tance, so breed­ers must resort to cost­ly arti­fi­cial insem­i­na­tion. And because these dogs are bred for their large heads, a Cae­sare­an sec­tion is required 90 per­cent of the time, accord­ing to sev­er­al bull dog breed­ing sites. 

In These Times spoke to three vet­eri­nar­i­ans who dis­put­ed the notion that inbreed­ing is a pri­ma­ry, or even par­tial, cause of pure­bred dogs’ seri­ous health prob­lems. Robert Hutchi­son, an Ohio-based vet­eri­nar­i­an whose work includes arti­fi­cial­ly insem­i­nat­ing show dogs, acknowl­edges that breed­ers do tend toward dif­fer­ent phys­i­cal traits (a large head, short snout, etc.) depend­ing on the most win­ning dogs of the moment. But he con­tends that, although breed­ing for cer­tain traits doesn’t always turn out best for the ani­mals, breed­ers self-cor­rect if they see problems. 

Some breeds, how­ev­er, are clear­ly hurt by AKC stan­dards. Pugs suf­fer from res­pi­ra­to­ry prob­lems because of their pushed-in faces that extend the soft palate into the throat, block­ing air. The AKC stan­dard man­dates that the muz­zle is short, blunt, square, but not upfaced…A pug’s bite should be very slight­ly under­shot.” (The Pug Dog Club of Amer­i­ca did not respond to inter­view requests.) Because pugs can­not breathe well, they can’t eas­i­ly exer­cise and as a result many are obese. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, the Ortho­pe­dic Foun­da­tion for Ani­mals ranked pugs as the sec­ond-worst breed in terms of hip dys­pla­sia, with about 64 per­cent of the dogs affect­ed. Bull dogs rank first, with more than 73 per­cent affected. 

Genet­ic test­ing can rem­e­dy some prob­lems, but not all. Many fatal dis­eases, such as the bleed­ing dis­or­der Von Willebrand’s that occurs in dober­man pin­sch­ers, car­ry a spe­cif­ic genet­ic mark­er. If a dog is a car­ri­er of the gene, it can be spayed or neutered to resist the spread of the condition. 

Yet the AKC allows sick dogs to reg­is­ter, breed and win. Thor­pe-Var­gas advo­cates that reg­istries such as the AKC rewrite pol­i­cy to out­law unhealthy dogs from reg­is­tra­tion. This would bar breed­ers from know­ing­ly pass­ing on dev­as­tat­ing dis­eases and would great­ly pare down the num­ber of affect­ed dogs. 

How­ev­er, AKC spokes­woman Lisa Peter­son says that her orga­ni­za­tion is not a health reg­istry.” Asked about breed­er prac­tices she responds: You sound like you’ve been watch­ing that BBC documentary.” 

To reg­is­ter a dog with the AKC, a breed­er must prove pure pedi­gree lin­eage and pay a $20 fee. For a lit­ter, the fee is $35 plus $2 per pup­py. If a dog with a doc­u­ment­ed genet­ic dis­ease con­tributes to a lit­ter, its pups are wel­comed, even though they may be car­ri­ers. Stud dogs can be bred as many times as their own­er wants, even though this reduces the gene pool of a breed even fur­ther. For­eign dogs, even those who are pedi­greed” or from the breed’s coun­try of ori­gin, are often reject­ed by the AKC as viable mates, which fur­ther lim­its genet­ic diversity.

Dol­lars before dogs

The idea of AKC-man­dat­ed health screen­ing is smart,” says Chica­go vet­eri­nar­i­an Lisa Cieply, but I think you’d have a tough time mak­ing it a require­ment.” How­ev­er, the AKC and many breed­ers vehe­ment­ly defend the lack of reg­u­la­tion, say­ing that most breed­ers are respon­si­ble. Strand, the Dal­ma­t­ian breed­er who sits on the board of the AKC, oppos­es leg­isla­tive reg­u­la­tion in par­tic­u­lar, say­ing that self-reg­u­la­tion by breed­ers is suf­fi­cient. We live in a free soci­ety,” she says. Amer­i­ca is a lot dif­fer­ent from Europe.” 

Steve Par­sons, a dober­man pin­sch­er breed­er based in Utah, is one of the few will­ing to speak out. The AKC is a busi­ness orga­ni­za­tion, and if they start to impose more rules, they’ll have less rev­enue,” Par­sons says. There real­ly are tru­ly respon­si­ble peo­ple who take care of their dogs, but there are a lot of peo­ple who don’t because it will inter­fere with their rev­enue stream.” 

Clubs ded­i­cat­ed to each AKC-rec­og­nized breed (there are more than 150) do try to counter these prob­lems, and many man­date that their mem­bers test par­ents before mat­ing. How­ev­er, Thor­pe-Var­gas says that while some clubs are inter­est­ed in pro­tect­ing their breeds, they have yet to pro­hib­it inbreeding.

The insu­lar men­tal­i­ty pre­vents mean­ing­ful reform, as some breed­ers keep health prob­lems qui­et and con­tin­ue breed­ing from the same trou­bled line, Par­sons says. I’ve been at shows and heard peo­ple ask, Didn’t that dog’s dad die of car­dio [sud­den car­diac arrest com­mon in Dober­mans]?’ They’ll say, Shhh, he doesn’t want any­one to know.’ ” 

Peter­son says that these clubs, along with canine health reg­istries, ensure that breed­ers do not cre­ate a dog with a con­gen­i­tal defect or problem.

Breed clubs wield a great deal of influ­ence with regard to AKC stan­dards. If a club push­es for a change of breed stan­dard or test­ing require­ments, the AKC may respond.

But Par­sons says his fel­low dober­man breed­ers refuse to respect his anti-inbreed­ing posi­tion, and that many clubs will not accept some­one who is out­spo­ken. After Pedi­gree Dogs Exposed was broad­cast, one British breed­er was fired from her posi­tion in a breed club for less-than-sun­ny comments. 

Pro­po­nents of the sta­tus quo are quick to point out that rep­utable breed­ers who belong to clubs are enthu­si­as­tic about test­ing and improv­ing the breed, so there is no need for reg­u­la­tion. But until there is an over­haul of breed­ing stan­dards in the AKC and pure­bred dog com­mu­ni­ty, many breeds will con­tin­ue to be plagued by dis­ease. Thor­pe-Var­gas puts it this way: They say to me, I’ve been doing this for 30 years.’ They don’t know and don’t want to know the harm they’re doing.”

Cor­rec­tions: The orig­i­nal ver­sion of this sto­ry implied that John Arm­strong is still alive. He is not. It also implied that the inbred poo­dles Arm­strong stud­ied, which had an inbreed­ing co-effi­cient of 70 per­cent, are com­mon. In fact Arm­strong chose to study those poo­dles because they were extreme­ly and unusu­al­ly inbred. The sto­ry has also been amend­ed to clar­i­fy that the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia school of vet­eri­nary med­i­cine study focused on one par­tic­u­lar­ly inbred group of beagles.

Editor’s Note: A few minor fac­tu­al corrections/​clarifications have been made to the sto­ry, but In These Times stands by Sara Peck’s sto­ry. Here is Peck’s response to the broad­er crit­i­cisms of her sto­ry offered by read­ers in the com­ments below.

Sara Peck’s response: I real­ized the issue of inbreed­ing would upset some mem­bers of the pure­bred dog com­mu­ni­ty, and am glad a healthy dis­cus­sion about the sto­ry has tak­en place below. My arti­cle was not writ­ten with a click of a mouse,” as one com­menter dis­mis­sive­ly wrote. And no, I did not manip­u­late infor­ma­tion to suit an anti-dog breed­ing agen­da. I grew up with pure­bred dogs and loved all of them, which is why I want­ed to write about this issue.

It is pos­si­ble to have beau­ti­ful purebed dogs with­out genet­ic defor­mi­ties or health prob­lems. But it is unde­ni­able that cer­tain breeds are sad­dled with cer­tain ill­ness­es. What I advo­cate is a restruc­tur­ing of the breed­ing sys­tem to bet­ter serve the best inter­ests of dogs — not the stan­dards of the AKC or dog breed clubs, or the prof­its of the breed­ing industry. 

Dogs are won­der­ful com­pan­ions, and yes, the var­i­ous breed­ing com­mu­ni­ties are ded­i­cat­ed to fund­ing research to help their prized canines. How­ev­er, the cur­rent sys­tem rewards those who make deci­sions genet­i­cal­ly detri­men­tal to the dogs in ques­tion. I hope my arti­cle starts a debate about how we can breed health­i­er dogs, and ensures that future gen­er­a­tions of kids will be able to grow up with healthy ani­mal friends.

Sara Peck, a spring 2010In These Times edi­to­r­i­al intern, is a North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty stu­dent study­ing jour­nal­ism and polit­i­cal science.
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