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April 29, 2011

Purebred Dogs: What Price Purity?

Sir Patrick Bateson addresses unhealthy dog breeding practices at The Purebred Paradox conference

  • Sir Patrick Bateson proposed education and regulations to protect purebred dogs from the damaging effects of selective breeding. Anne Hogan/The HSUS

by Carrie Allan

“It’s extraordinary that we should have bred animals that the only way they can be born is through C-section,” said Sir Patrick Bateson, emeritus professor of ethology at Cambridge University and the chair of an independent review of dog breeding practices in the UK that came about in the wake of the furor sparked by the documentary “Purebred Dogs Exposed.”

Bateson was the keynote speaker among a roster of other distinguished speakers and attendees at The Purebred Paradox, a conference held in Washington, D.C., April 28-29, to address the animal health and welfare issues surrounding dog breeding. Topics included a wide range of dog health matters, from the effectiveness of hip dysplasia screening to the role of genetics in canine behavior and the impact of puppy mills on purebred health.

C-section required

Bateson’s remarks about C-sections were pertinent to brachycephalic dog breeds (those whose heads are almost as wide as they are long) such as English bulldogs and Boston terriers. Because of their large heads, more than 90 percent of the latter breed are born via Caesarean, Bateson noted, and the statistics for bulldogs aren’t far behind.

Destructive breeding practices

But it’s not just these dog breeds who have changed over time as a result of breeding to enhance their particular characteristics: the Basset’s legs have gotten shorter; the pug’s face—more smushed. The King Charles Cavalier spaniel’s skull is so small it doesn’t allow the brain to grow and can causing a painful and debilitating condition known as syringomyelia. A variety of breeding practices may be damaging individual animals via exaggerated characteristics and also—through inbreeding—weakening animals’ immunity to diseases.

Bateson made it clear that he was not suggesting that people should no longer breed dogs, and noted the enormous joy and satisfaction many get from doing so. The issue is longstanding and polarizing, he said, “and when that happens, the middle ground gets excluded. I’m not here to say we should ban pedigreed dogs—far from it—but to say there are issues that need to be raised.”

A way forward

He described his vision of a way forward, saying that scientists must work to make the best research available to breeders; that it would be wise to develop a way to reward those breeders who deliver truly high standards of health and welfare; and that more public education would help people select dogs who are more appropriate for them.

Regulating dog breeding

But he also suggested that dog breeding could benefit from regulation—“to ensure that where commitment and goodwill are lacking, animal welfare standards cannot fall below an acceptable minimum.”

“We have to realize that human breeders are as different from each other as dogs are from each other,” he noted. “Many breeders care enormously about the science and care about their animals. Some don’t know about the science but do care about the animals. And some neither know nor care. There are all types.”

The adoption option

The HSUS has always promoted adopting pets. 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.

Wondering whether a pure or mixed breed is right for you? »

Responsible breeders

When you can’t find the dog you’re looking for, 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 responsible breeders to supply dogs to American households.

About the Purebred Paradox conference

This unique conference was cosponsored by The Humane Society of the United States and the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy; the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine; and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.


Carrie Allan is the editor of The HSUS’s"Animal Sheltering Magazine".

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