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The Purebred Paradox, Part 3

Is the quest for the "perfect" dog driving a genetic health crisis?

All Animals magazine, May/June 2010

  • View a PDF of this story here. The HSUS

  • Due to prolific production to meet public demand, the most coveted dogs tend to have the most genetic disorders. Brand X Pictures/Fotostock

  • Anyone seeking a healthy purebred should avoid purchasing from pet stores, which provide a big market for puppy mill-bred dogs. Kathy Milani/The HSUS

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Breeding Discontent 

The AKC and its member breed clubs have devoted considerable effort to improving the health of purebreds, in part by funding research to find the genetic markers tied to certain disorders. In 1995, the AKC launched the AKC Canine Health Foundation, a charitable organization that raises funds to support canine health research; the AKC gives the foundation $1 million in annual funding.

Dedicated breeders have also made significant strides, says veterinarian Fran Smith, citing the success in correcting a disorder known as collie eye anomaly. “In order to have that pretty collie head shape, it doesn’t leave as much room in the skull for a particular eye shape,” says Smith, who serves on the AKC’s Canine Health and Welfare Advisory Panel and is president of the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals. “But collie breeders—the serious collie breeders—have made a huge impact in selecting for dogs who have the correct eye shape without that eye problem.”

But the test for collie eye anomaly was developed only five years ago, and plenty of collies were bred before then. Many have been afflicted with retinal disease; many still end up blind.

Smith doesn’t blame written breed standards as much as people’s interpretation of those standards. What needs correcting, she says, is “this idea that if one wrinkle is good, then 12 wrinkles is better. If a 4-pound Chihuahua is good, then a 1-pound Chihuahua would be spectacular.” It’s a trend that even prompted Consumer Reports to issue a warning in 2003, telling readers that the “demand for ever-more-perfect purebred dogs has concentrated bad recessive genes and turned many pets into medical nightmares.”

Many of the disorders affecting dogs aren’t as visually dramatic as the scenes of yelping and pain shown in the British documentary, says Stephanie Shain, senior director of The HSUS’s Puppy Mills Campaign. But they’re no less awful when they lead to shorter, less comfortable lives for the dogs. “[This is about] the dog who’s going to die when she’s 8 rather than when she’s 12,” says Shain. “It’s the dog who’s not going to be with her person for as long as she should be.”

In the end, genetic tests are one of the only ways puppy buyers can protect themselves; the Canine Health Information Center, jointly sponsored by the AKC and the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, serves as a central repository for information about dogs who’ve been screened for genetic disease; its database is accessible to consumers and breeders. Consumers can also check AKC registration papers for health certification numbers indicating that a puppy’s parents have been tested.

Responsible breeders who value breed health over profits have an interest in accurate testing and reporting. But there’s nothing to compel less conscientious hobbyists and commercial puppy millers who would rather avoid the costs.

But many puppy buyers aren’t likely to find such proof: Plenty of disorders aren’t even detectable yet, and the AKC does not require breeders to test for those that are.

Responsible breeders who value breed health over profits have an interest in accurate testing and reporting. But there’s nothing to compel less conscientious hobbyists and commercial puppy millers who would rather avoid the costs.

Moreover, the AKC has not publicized any plans to encourage its member clubs to update their breed standards, and the organization continues to register puppies from the matings of closely related dogs.

The latter allowance is especially problematic, Bateson says. He notes that the immune systems of inbred dogs do not function as well, “which explains why pedigree dogs run up such large veterinary bills and are twice as likely to get cancer as outbred dogs.”

The issue goes beyond inbreeding. Quality control is an important part of any good business but is largely absent from dog breeding, says Jerold Bell, clinical associate professor of genetics at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, who serves on the AKC’s Canine Health and Welfare Advisory Panel.

The AKC is unlikely to make testing mandatory, Bell notes, adding that such a requirement would drive less responsible breeders to simply register their puppies elsewhere: “They won’t miss a beat in terms of what they’re doing.”

Recent history has proven his point. In 2000, the AKC instituted a requirement that any male dog bred more than seven times would have to have a $40 DNA test. The policy inspired a boycott of AKC registration by breeders in Iowa and Missouri, two states where puppy mills thrive. The Iowa Pet Breeders Association urged members to register dogs through alternative organizations, according to news reports.

With the rise of these competing registries over the past few decades, the AKC—still the nation’s most prestigious—has observed a change in the perceived value of its name.

“Before, AKC represented purebreds and everyone wanted an AKC puppy,” says Bell. “But now you don’t need AKC to be purebred.” He believes that if the AKC continues to encourage testing and to push the message that AKC-registered dogs are healthy and screened, the organization will be able to rebrand itself as the registry for healthy purebreds.

A Moral Tightrope

But for all the effort the AKC devotes to that messaging, the organization shies away from the kind of tangible consumer advice offered by experts like James Serpell, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine who has long studied the effect of genetics on dog behavior.

“Step one,” Serpell says, “is never buy a puppy from a pet store. … What people don’t realize is that you can buy a registered pedigree dog from a pet store [that] … was bred and produced at a puppy mill where there is virtually no regulation of breeding practices whatsoever.”

The AKC’s website provides helpful guidance for making more informed choices, advising pet seekers to find responsible breeders. The group also recommends that breeders meet and screen potential buyers—a practice that suggests a commitment to ensuring the dogs end up in loving homes.

But even as the AKC preaches good behavior, its practice of courting registrations from “high volume breeders” undermines the advice. This revenue source drives the organization to stop short of advising people to avoid pet stores, most of which don’t screen buyers and frequently sell dogs from puppy mills that subject parent animals to lifelong confinement in barren cages. And the AKC’s promotions encourage more such breeding: In April, for example, it launched “Dollar Deal Days,” which allows breeders who register 11 litters or more in nine months to register the 11th for only a dollar.

Some AKC members have fought to reduce the influence of puppy millers. The minutes of a September 2006 meeting document a skirmish. Patricia Laurans, a representative from the German Wirehaired Pointer Club of America, questioned the AKC’s plan to form a relationship with Petland, a pet store chain largely supplied by the Hunte Corporation, a large puppy broker.  In 2009, Petland was investigated by The HSUS and sued by consumers who had bought sick dogs.

“I would like to call attention to every single Parent club’s … code of ethics that says we will not sell to pet stores,” Laurans was quoted as saying in the transcript. “I would like to call attention to the fact that, from my humble belief, we are selling our birthright for a few shekels.”

The most thorough response came from David Merriam, a representative from the Duluth Kennel Club and vice chairman of the AKC’s board of directors, who pointed out that the AKC’s coffers had long been lined with money from breeders of all sorts. As long ago as 1981, 96 percent of the group’s income came from registrations. “That money did not come only from the Fanciers or the Sport,” he said. “That money came from all the dogs … which means it was the backyard breeders, and it was the commercial breeders.”

If he applied his personal standards, he said, the AKC’s registry—and consequently its revenue—would be tremendously reduced, resulting in significant reductions of the organization’s services. “I think if we go that direction, the American Kennel Club will not exist 100 years from today,” Merriam said.

In spite of his warning, the delegates voted to recommend that the AKC board drop its pursuit of an official relationship with Petland.  

But since then, there have been signs that puppy mill money has proved too tempting. The AKC is opposing a ballot initiative in Missouri that would crack down on puppy mills by requiring higher standards of care and limiting the allowable number of breeding dogs to 50. What’s more, in 2009, an anti-puppy mill activist obtained a description of an AKC-copyrighted software program designed for use in pet stores. The program, Puppy Registration & Inventory Management Extranet, was intended to make it as easy and seamless as possible for stores to sell AKC registration along with dogs.

The document ended up in the hands of The Dog Press, a web publication for dog breeders and fanciers that lamented the ease with which users of the program would be able to obtain AKC registration for pet store puppies—and to process their “returns.”

“Customers have 21 days in which to return the puppy and that too is easily handled through the PRIME program,” wrote The Dog Press. “Gone is the breeder-instilled commitment to a new puppy. Gone is the traditional breeder support. The sales-aid return policy can lead to unnecessary stress, mismanage [sic], or abuse of puppies.”

When editor-in-chief Barbara Andrews queried the AKC about whether the software was in use, a club official called it an “internal business matter” and declined further comment, according to The Dog Press. (The AKC declined to answer specific questions posed by All Animals as well, though officials did refer us to veterinarians Bell and Smith, who serve in an advisory capacity to the organization.)

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