March 11, 2009— -- The Westminster Dog Show is the showpiece for a multi-billion dollar industry, a festival of primped pooches, prestigious prizes and perfect pedigrees. This year's big winner, a Sussex Spaniel called Stump, became an instant celebrity.
The owners love it. But whether such competitive shows are good for the dogs is debatable.
Consider the Bulldog ring at Madison Square Garden last month, where the show's smushed-face dogs were getting a cooling spray.
"In the heat and the lights of the show, they can overheat and actually go down in five minutes," one handler said. "They have, instead of a long snout where it's an open airway, it's smashed like a Coke can and the breathing has to go through many, many curves and many turns."
That's the desired look for a Bulldog to win ribbons at dog shows. In other words, it's a world in which dogs are bred with exaggerated features to please the judges, features that can cause extreme discomfort and serious distress, some veterinarians say.
Backstage at the Garden, a German Shepherd breeder explained how show-winning traits can be passed from generation to generation. Something called "line breeding" is common practice. That's breeding, for example, a grandfather with his granddaughter. Mating of direct relatives, or inbreeding, also happens.
"That dog I kept, out of the brother-sister breeding," Susan Legg, the German Shepherd breeder, said. "[It] was one of the best stud dogs I've ever owned and produced over 80 champions."
Competitive dog breeding has been a popular sport since it was imported from England more than 130 years ago. The first Westminster Kennel Club show was in 1877.
"These dogs are some of the most pampered pooches that there are," Tony Carter, a Chinese Shar-Pei owner, said at Westminster.
Every breed has specific genetic defects. "All Cavaliers are carrying the potential for mitral valve disease," said Jennifer Wehking, a breeder of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.
According to the Web site CavalierHealth.org, half of Cavaliers will suffer this heart-valve defect before their fifth birthday.
Similarly, Meg Callea, a Dalmatian breeder at Westminster, said, "We have a very unique stone-forming disease in our breed. It's uric acid, which is very similar to gout in people."
Male dogs that suffer from the condition can't urinate properly.
Breeders and the American Kennel Club have long admitted that pedigree dogs do face health issues. They say they do all they can to tackle them.
The club declined to be interviewed for this story. The organization also e-mailed its members and recommended "politely declining" requests for interviews, although it said in a written statement that the group conducts hundreds of kennel and breeder inspections each year and donates millions of dollars to improve dogs' heath.
The club and some of its members appear to be circling the wagons largely because of a British documentary called "Pedigree Dogs Exposed," which aired last year. The filmmakers showed dogs in distress, allegedly stricken by genetic diseases. They likened pedigree dog breeding to the eugenics principles of Adolf Hitler and questioned the practices of inbreeding and breeding to a "standard."