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May 20, 2010

The Purebred Paradox, Part 4

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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Soul Searching for Dog Lovers

Many within the AKC and its affiliated breed clubs are obviously committed to the health and welfare of dogs. Yet the organization’s continued attempts to support itself with registration fees from puppy mills surely conflict with its efforts to brand AKC dogs as healthy and sound.

And some purebred lovers who’ve been through the economic and emotional wringer have had enough.

Soon after Karin Shulin of Westlake, Ohio, got her Doberman at a local pet store, she found out that the 6-month old puppy had cardiomyopathy—a common condition in the breed—that had already resulted in a stage 3 heart murmur. “I spent thousands,” says Shulin. “I think I put the new wing on my vet’s house.”

She still has a hard time talking about what happened to Ranger. “Last April he was out playing with my other dogs and he just dropped dead,” she says. “It was horrifying.”

Though Shulin has owned Dobermans since she was a child and has worked with local breed rescue groups, she says she’s “done with purebreds.”

But that’s a hard stance to take if you love the loping gallop of a golden retriever, the pep of a poodle, the fire of a German shepherd. For breed enthusiasts, and for dog lovers who delight in the diversity of the species, all of this may mean some soul-searching.

Some of the ways humans hurt animals are clear and easy to see, but others are more subtle—and more difficult to address. Dogs, perhaps more than any other species, have become entangled in our sense of self. Today, many Americans regard their dogs as substitute children; they can also become symbols of identity or status or power. And there’s likely nothing wrong with that, as long as it doesn’t compromise the animals’ well-being.

Few animals exemplify the dichotomy of the human-canine relationship like the celebrated white bulldogs who have long patrolled the sidelines at University of Georgia football games. The adorably ugly “Ugas” are venerated by Georgia fans and have achieved national fame: In 1997, Uga V appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

But in November 2009, Uga VII died suddenly of a heart attack at age 4. His two most recent predecessors, Uga VI and Uga V, also died of heart failure, though they were much older.

Their health problems were in no way due to poor treatment. Their owners, the Seiler family, provided the dogs with excellent medical care. Ever since Uga II collapsed panting during a hot practice in 1967—an episode the dog survived, but that left him mostly deaf—the family has been particularly careful to attend to the dogs’ health during games, providing them with air-conditioned doghouses and bags of ice to lie on.

These are necessary strategies for caring for a breed gone awry. English bulldogs have trouble breathing and are prone to heat stroke; most can neither mate nor give birth naturally due to the size of their heads. And according to the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, more than 30 percent of bulldogs suffer from elbow dysplasia, and more than 70 percent from hip dysplasia.

But that’s a hard stance to take if you love the loping gallop of a golden retriever, the pep of a poodle, the fire of a German shepherd. For breed enthusiasts, and for dog lovers who delight in the diversity of the species, all of this may mean some soul-searching.

Frank Seiler isn’t overly troubled by the breed’s problems; he and his family have simply learned to treat them. And any dog chosen to take on the mascot role undergoes special surgery to prepare him for the gig.

“We have these dogs operated on when they’re less than 1 year old,” he says. “ … They go in and clear out the breathing passage under gentle anesthesia, and from that point they don’t have breathing problems. They don’t even snore.”

That kind of devotion to helping the dogs live a more normal life is admirable. But should dogs have to go through surgery simply to function as dogs? Is this what we want for our best friends?


Tips for Finding a Healthy Purebred

At The HSUS, we’re big fans of adoption. By going to a local shelter or rescue group, you stand a good chance of both saving a life and finding a purebred—after all, they make up an estimated 25 percent of dogs in shelters.

When you can’t find the dog you’re looking for, however, responsible breeders are another option; they are devoted to their animals’ well-being and committed to placing them in loving homes. And if every shelter dog were adopted and every puppy mill were shuttered, there would still be a need for good breeders to supply dogs to American households.

Whether you decide to get your next dog from a shelter or a breeder who treated her parents like part of the family, here are smart ways to stack the deck in favor of finding a healthy pup.

Do your research. Want a particular kind of dog? Check out the available dog health resources, such as the Canine Health Information Center (www.caninehealthinfo.org) and the Canine Genetic Disease Network (www.caninegeneticdiseases.net), to learn about what disorders your chosen breed may be prone to, as well as what genetic tests are available.

Check with a rescue group. These groups know their favored breeds and are generally forthright about both their great qualities and the challenges they face. Not only will they try to find you a great dog who needs a home; they’ll be able to give you tips on any health issues the breed is prone to.

Choose a responsible breeder. How can you tell? A good breeder lets you check out the place where she’s raising the puppies—frequently, her own home. She socializes her pups and doesn’t place them too early. She asks you lots of questions and is concerned about where her dogs are going. She’s able to provide papers that show not only the pup’s heritage but any genetic screening that was done on his parents. And she makes you promise to bring the dog back if you ever become unable to care for him.

Be realistic. Sometimes, no matter how good a dog’s breeder was, no matter how carefully her parents were screened, she will get sick. There aren’t yet tests for all the genetic disorders out there, so now and then even the best of breeders get a sad surprise (and if one of their puppies does get sick, even years later, they will want to know). For dog owners, it’s good to have some money socked away in case the worst happens—and that goes for owners of purebreds and mutts alike.

Consider adopting an older dog. Millions of adult dogs are in need of homes—and it is often easier to assess the health and temperament of an already mature companion. An added bonus is that these animals are usually housetrained and have passed the destructive teething and hyperactivity stages.

For more information on responsible puppy-buying, go to humanesociety.org/puppy.

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