Best of Breed? Pedigree Dogs Face Disease

The effect was anything but temporary. After 42 years televising Crufts in the U.K., the world's biggest dog show, the BBC just pulled the plug in protest, Britain's Kennel Club has reviewed its "breed standards," and Britain's Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recently released a report titled, "Pedigree Dog Breeding in the UK: a Major Welfare Concern?"

The report makes the following conclusions: "Many different breeds now experience compromised welfare. ... The desire to produce an unusual, exaggerated or spectacular conformation have often produced dogs which tend towards abnormality."

In the United States, the American Kennel Club, founded 1884, is the authority. It recognizes 161 breeds, registers purebreed dogs, oversees many dog shows and is guardian of the so-called "breed standards."

According to its breed standard, the venerable Bulldog must have "very heavy" shoulders, "very short" forelegs, a "very large" skull and an "extremely short" face.

"Characteristics of the breed, say, in the 19th century were much less accentuated than they are now," said James Serpell, director for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania. "I think it was rather like the cartoonist; you know how a cartoonist can accentuate features of someone's face and make them look even more like they look."

The Bulldog of today looks very different from the Bulldog of 150 years ago. With their exaggerated, show-winning proportions, most Bulldogs can't even mate on their own. They need the help of a cradle, which can be bought on the Internet. Also, many Bulldog bitches can't give birth naturally because the puppies' heads are too big. "They do need to be artificially inseminated, and C-sections," Linda Johnson, a Bulldog breeder at Westminster, said.

Ed Sayres, president of the ASPCA, said, "If an animal can't reproduce, that's obviously a message that it's headed for extinction."

Pedigree dogs face two potential health challenges. The first is breeding them to fit their "breed standard": The Bulldog's large head, for example, and the Boston Terrier's short muzzle, which results in 25 percent of them having difficulty breathing. Some major airlines have, for health reasons, banned Bulldogs, Bostons and other breeds from flying in warm weather.

"Take your own nose and pinch it, then try to breathe," Patrick Burns said of the feeling for a Boston Terrier or Bulldog with breathing problems.

Burns, who hunts in Maryland's fields with terriers of fuzzier pedigree and longer snouts, and blogs voraciously as "Terrierman," is scathingly critical of the dog-show world.

"Most of the breeds don't have a function," he said. "They're not running dogs, they're not catching rabbits. That's fine. There's nothing wrong with that. But if their only function is to be a pet, then they have to put health first."

The other potential issue for pedigree dogs is inherited disease. For example, pure bred Flat-Coated Retrievers have a high incidence of cancer. And line breeding, which some say accentuates the problem, is standard practice for show dogs.

"There's nothing to say that a close breeding on one occasion would produce anything but superior stock, not inferior stock," Tom Bradley, show chairman at Westminster, said.

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