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."
"I'm heartened by the reaction to the film," Jemima Harrison, the producer, said. "We always knew that what we were doing was going to have a huge impact. Our fear was that it would have a huge temporary impact."
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.
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: www.akcdoghealth.com"
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."
Such so-called puppy mills, or high-volume breeders, produce up to 400,000 pedigree dogs every year, according to the ASPCA. In some, the conditions are terrible and dogs aren't screened for disease.
"Some of these dogs are only 8-months when they're first bred," Bob Baker of the ASPCA's Anti-Cruelty Unit said as he walked among dozens of dogs he says were rescued from a puppy mill and are waiting to be adopted at the society's headquarters in New York City. "And many of them, by the time they're 5 years of age, they're burnt out. And the breeders take them out and shoot them."
Baker, who often goes undercover to investigate conditions in puppy mills, said that the dogs are often treated like livestock. "Greed takes over," he said.
According to the ASPCA, around 25 percent of pedigree dogs bought in the United States every year come from puppy mills or unscrupulous backyard breeders. The ASPCA claims that every single dog bought from a pet store, not direct from a breeder, comes from a breeder they would deem "irresponsible."
ASPCA president Sayres said, "A responsible breeder would no more sell their puppies through a pet shop than a responsible parent would sell their children on eBay."
The ASPCA and the Kennel Club do carry out inspections on breeders, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is the ultimate authority over large-scale puppy breeders.
Putting Health Before History
But health problems are not confined to the puppy mill dogs. In Philadelphia, Dougie the French Bulldog, bought from an apparently reputable breeder, cost his owner $4,500 for an operation to correct a severe breathing problem.
"I tried to look for the best of the litter," owner Lauren Brown said. "But, obviously, with him we couldn't predict."
The ASPCA said its main concern is abandoned dogs. According to its figures, up to 4 million are destroyed every year because they can't find a home. For the ASPCA, dog shows and pure bred health issues are a low priority, but still a concern.
"Yes, some of the dog show stuff is silly and some of it is definitely detrimental to the health and welfare of dogs," Sayres said. But Sayres does not want to see a vitriolic battle, such as the one now being waged in Britain. "I'm much more solution oriented," he said. "And I think that has to come from a dialogue."
Dr. Lisa Esposito, a volunteer from the Veterinary Medical Association of New York City who was on duty at Westminster agreed. "I think [there should be] some dialogue concerning the standard," she said. "For example, the tight tails, the tight nostrils."
Serpell at the University of Pennsylvania advocates cross breeding: Sacrificing purity for health. Why not cross a Boston with another terrier, he says, give it a slightly longer snout, let it breathe more easily?
"It would still have the basic features of the Boston Terrier," he said. "It wouldn't have such a squashed face."
Burns, aka "Terrierman," said, "Let their faces come out a little bit. They don't have to have a lot of muzzle to be able to breathe. But they have to have some. That's all it is. Give the dog a little bit of face."
And, in Philadelphia, Brown, the French Bulldog owner and vet student, has had similar thoughts. "I think that would be met with a lot of resistance," she said. "But, overall, I think, in time, the health issue would win over history. I think it would be better for the breed. I would like to see that happen."