Best of Breed? Pedigree Dogs Face Disease

Many academics disagree. "If they didn't practice all this inbreeding and line breeding to begin with, those genetic diseases wouldn't be a problem," Serpell of the University of Pennsylvania said.

Although the American Kennel Club declined to be interviewed, it did e-mail a statement:

"The American Kennel Club is the nation's leading not-for-profit organization devoted to canine health, breeding and responsible dog ownership. The AKC's breeding policies and high ethical standards have made us the most widely respected registry in the world. Each year, the AKC performs approximately 5,000 kennel and breeder inspections to ensure the proper care and conditions of dogs and has led the charge in regards to advancing canine health, including founding the AKC Canine Health Foundation in 1995. Since that time, $22 million has been given to more than 500 research projects at 74 vet schools and research institutes worldwide to improve the health of all dogs. For More Information Visit:"

Are Mixed-Breed Dogs Better?

With funding from the Canine Health Foundation, vets and researchers have begun isolating disease-causing genes.

"To be fair to the Kennel Club, they are doing quite a lot to try and fix some of the problems that are there," Serpell said. "So they created the AKC Canine Health Foundation. ... But for me, that's a bit like closing the gate after the horse has bolted."

One approach the Kennel Club and others are trying is to first isolate a defective gene, treat the dog that carries it and stop breeding from the dog so the gene isn't passed on.

"I think 95 percent of the people who exhibit dogs here are responsible breeders," Bradley, the Westminster show chairman, said. "They want their dogs to be healthy."

But, as seen at Westminster, not every breeder stops breeding from a dog that they know has a problem. It's not quite that simple.

"I have bred one of my girls to a dog that heard in one ear," Callea, the Dalmatian breeder, said. "And I knew that when I did it. But he was an exceptional dog with a phenomenal temperament and he had a lot of really good things to offer."

But not every breeder will breed with a Dalmatian that hears in only one ear, she said.

"My hearing is real strong on my end," she said. "Otherwise, I wouldn't have done it on that dog."

Many breeders at Westminster raised the million-dollar question: Are mixed breed dogs any healthier?

"The misconception out there is that mutts are healthier," Legg, the German Shepherd breeder, said. "That is not true."

It is a gray area. But the records of a Swedish company that insured 200,000 dogs between 1995 and 2002 found that of the 80 most popular breeds, the dog requiring the most medical care was the pedigree Boxer.

A "mixed breed" category came in at 68. Healthiest was something called a Norbottenspitz, a Scandinavian hunting dog.

Breeders of pedigree dogs say that at least with a pedigree, you know what ailments your breed is susceptible to. You can treat them.

With a mutt, Legg said, "You don't know what's in the blood line, you don't know the temperament behind the dogs, you don't know anything."

Backstage at Westminster, owners and breeders said the problems are not on the show floor.

"The problem isn't with the standard, the problem isn't with any of the breeders in this room," Phoebe Booth, a Bulldog owner, said. "The problem is with people who see the dollar signs and want to market these breeds as commodities."

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