How to breed healthy happy (purebreed) dogs is a HUMAN problem
There has been all sorts of kerfuffle this week about the new laws in Norway – the breeding of bulldogs and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels has been outlawed on animal welfare grounds. To say this has caused a big, stinky uproar would be a vast understatement.
There have been a lot of self-righteous people jumping up and down, saying things like ‘about time this happened, or ‘Let’s hope they ban heaps of other breeds too!’. And there have been a whole lot of outraged breeders, who are behaving as if it’s the end of the world, or that this means that pretty soon, there won’t be any dogs available as pets (or that this will mean that ‘back yard breeding’ and ‘puppy farming’ will explode. Or that this new law will make the welfare of dogs worse. (Really?)
Today I want to take a realistic, sober look at the situation. There is a middle ground, and if we want to save pure breeds some fundamental things are going to have to change (all pure-breeds are genetically doomed without this change, more about that in a minute).
There are two factors in play with the welfare problems that are associated with pure breed dogs.. But first, what are the welfare issues?
They are many, and vary according to which breed we are talking about. One of the most important is the health issues invariably associated with a brachycephalic (flat-faced) head type.
This head shape causes restriction of the airways (to simplify a complex topic)- which is called BOAS (Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome) – click through to the link to dig into the details of this condition.
BOAS is VERY prevalent in brachycephalic dogs – a study showed that 89.9% of French Bulldogs tested were affected by BOAS to some extent, with 53.9% exhibiting clinically relevant disease – these are ugly, ugly numbers.
Brachy dogs are very popular – including French Bulldogs, Bulldogs, Boxers, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Shih Tzus, Boston Terriers, Mastiffs, Pugs, Affenpinscher, Brussels Griffon, Dogue de Bordeaux, Japanese Chin, Lhasa Apso, Brasileiro, and Pekingese.
In the Doberman breed, nearly 60% of all dogs will be diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) by the age of 8 years. This is a genetic disease, due to inbreeding (more on that in a minute).
Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are prone to another disease from skull malformation due to human selection – Syringomyelia (SM). Essentially the skull is too small for the brain, so the brain is pressed down into the brainstem and top of the spinal cord. The underlying condition is called Chiari-like Malformation (CM). The incidence of CM in the CKCS breed is an estimated 95% and current studies suggest that SM is present in more than 50% of dogs with CM with approximately 35% of affected dogs exhibiting clinical signs. Other breeds prone to SM include Brussels Griffon, Maltese, Yorkshire Terrier, Chihuahua, and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier.
Cavvies are also prone to mitral valve disease (leading to chronic heart failure) which is inheritable.
I’ve shared a few of the more obvious, more prevalent genetic/inbreeding or selection for deformed body shape issues that we see in purebred dogs. There are a LOT more – including Hip Dysplasia, OCD joint disease, Entropion of the eyelids, Subaortic Stenosis, Intervertebral Disc Disease, Hypoadrenal Corticism, Atopy, Allergic Dermatitis, Cataracts, Epilepsy, and Portosystemic shunt.
Quite a list, isn’t it? But wait- there’s a whole stack more of breed-specific genetic diseases which I don’t have time to dig into right now. Idiopathic Cocker rage, Grey collie syndrome, Sheltie progressive retinal atrophy, and Canine multiple system degeneration are just a few.
The Purebreed Dogs Problem is…
So – this is the problem, and this is the reason Norway is moving to make it illegal to breed Bulldogs and Cavvies – two of the worst affected breeds in terms of quality of life or suffering. France is presently bringing legislation into their parliament which is a LOT stricter. It’s important to remember that these new laws are framed on a foundation of animal welfare. These animals live a life of suffering, because of the behaviour of humans.
Yes – humans are the problem here, not the dogs, not the breeds. I’d like to take the most compassionate look at why this is that I can. Because it is relatively easy to reverse the problems of breeding unhealthy shapes or types of dogs, and it’s also relatively easy to correct the genetic problems as well.
Let’s consider the example of brachy dogs. To change the shape to make the animals healthier and remove the suffering of BOAS etc., you simply have to select for dogs with a reasonable amount of nose in your breeding programs.
Simple, right? Simple in theory, but far from simple in practice. Breeders and breed fanciers love the type, even though it inevitably causes suffering for the dogs. Part of the reason for this is that the face shape of brachy dogs is similar in proportions to that of human infants, and humans have a hard-wired ‘cute/protective/bonding’ instinct in response to this.
And another important factor is that the shape of breeds is driven by the shape of the dogs who win in the show ring in confirmation shows. This is even aside from the breed standards, which dictate the size and shape of the breed. People want to WIN in the show ring. This leads to a conscious (or unconscious) selection bias to exaggerate the breed characteristics, so the dog will then stand out just that little more in the ring, and then win the coveted blue ribbon.
So the breeds tend to creep to a more and more exaggerated shape that pushes the boundaries of the breed standard more and more extremely. This is quite aside from the fact that many of the breed standards dictate suffering for the whole breed, and need to be changed to make the characteristics less extreme, more normal (think of a village dog type, free-roaming, free breeding, no human selection pressure. THAT is a healthy functional dog shape!)
To be fair, there has been some movement in terms of rewriting breed standards, though in my opinion they are tinkering around the edges and have not changed as much as is needed. Quite apart from that, the entrenched culture in the ring and judges means that even these changes have not had any real impact on changing the shape of these deformed breeds for the better. Not until different shaped, healthier shaped dogs start consistently winning in the ring will we see real, lasting change.
Another factor is what I call ‘Brachy Creep’ – new breeds when they start to be shown in the ring tend to creep into a brachy shape over generations. I see this across all breeds.
So that’s one big fat human factor that must be addressed for meaningful change. However, attacking the breeders and showers of dogs will only make things worse- we absolutely need to find a way to do this constructively, while respecting the deep love and passion these people have for their dogs and breeds. Most breeders honestly believe they are doing everything they can to improve the breed.
Then we come to genetics, inbreeding, lack of genetic diversity, or inbreeding. As soon as the studbook on a given pure breed of dog is closed, the breed’s genetic fate is doomed in the long term. From this point, genetic diversity becomes less and less every generation. This is exacerbated by line breeding (aka inbreeding with intention), heavy selection to male dogs who do well in the show ring, and perhaps paradoxically, culling for genetic disease.
No amount of testing for genetic diseases can cure this structural genetic issue. And genetic testing is the answer by pure breeding associations and breeders. This is their one-shot solution, but sadly, it’s no silver bullet solution. Every dog’s genetics that is removed from the population reduces genetic diversity and causes the eruption of yet more genetic diseases over time. If you want to take a deep dive into the science of this- do drop into the Canine Institute of Biology. Carol Beuchat is an expert on this topic!
There is an answer for these dogs!
All of these genetic issues can be cured relatively quickly and easily – by intelligent crossbreeding to bring in new genetics, and then breeding for type back to the breed in question over the next few generations.
BUT! And it’s a big but. The whole idea that is at the root of all pure breeding is that crossbreeding is the worst possible thing you could ever do- I see this as a kind of canine eugenics mindset. If you crossbreed, you’re ruining the purity, the essence of the breed. This is entirely a human-created construct. An idea. A philosophy, one which many breeders are just a tad fundamentalist about.
I believe pure breeders are going to have to change. They will be forced to by these new laws, and fair enough, because these issues, all of them have been well studied and well understood for many years, and for all that has been done in terms of changing breed standards, etc, nothing much has changed in the mainstream pure breeding and showing world. The shape and health of dogs haven’t shifted for the better – in fact, it’s probably gotten worse!
Now I will give a shout-out to the small numbers of breeders who are implementing breeding programs selecting for healthy body shapes and intelligently crossbreeding to save the immense value of some selected pure breeds. But this must become mainstream, which means significant change.
Change is uncomfortable for humans. And these breeders, these beautiful humans who have so much passion and love for their dogs and the breeds they choose, well, you all need to let go of what you’re used to, and start acting. Because if there isn’t real action, industry-wide, intelligent, meaningful change, we are going to lose a number of beautiful dog breeds in the next 5-10 years, and many more soon after that.
From the human perspective, if you read this and feel attacked, maybe be curious about how much of your ego is bound up in your dog’s success in the show ring. How much of your identity is bound up in the shape of the breeds you love? What unconscious patterns of behaviour are affecting you and stopping you from doing what needs to be done to save so many dogs from lives of serious suffering?
A Frenchie or a Boxer with enough nose to breathe freely is still a Frenchie or a Boxer! A dog in a breed that has had fresh genetics brought in by crossbreeding really doesn’t care. It’s just a dog, doing dog stuff, wagging and sniffing, playing and cuddling with you. And if you can get the breed to the same shape and characteristics with intelligent crossbreeding, while getting rid of genetic disease, it seems like a wise choice, no?
If you want to learn more about how to do all this, check out https://www.instituteofcaninebiology.org/blog/genetic-rescue-or-rehabilitation-restoring-genetic-diversity-to-a-breed – it takes a lot of work to do it properly!
Let’s all come together, bound by our common love for our dogs, and the breeds which we find special, and do what needs to be done! For the sake of our dogs…