Last week, a bloodhound named Trumpet won Best in Show at Westminster, after the usual spectacle: The presumably pampered pooches were paraded before a cheering crowd of dog enthusiasts. For some, such dog shows can feel like a celebration of the special relationship we share with our canine companions. However, there is a disconnect.
The attention given to pure-bred dogs can perpetuate misconceptions about breeding and dog health and welfare. For instance, due to selective breeding that reinforces particular genetic traits, ever-popular golden retrievers are at high risk of dying from cancer (roughly 50%) and approximately 73% suffer with hip dysplasia. Ninety percent of Cavalier King Charles spaniels, another prized dog breed, end up with serious heart disease by age 10. Doberman pinschers often end up with dilated cardiomyopathy (58.2%), a lethal form of heart disease that’s extremely common among these dogs.
And then there are bloodhounds like Trumpet. Bloodhounds are famous for being scent dogs, easily recognized by their size and skin hanging in deep folds on their face and neck. But these exaggerated deep skin folds come at a cost. Eyelids are meant to protect eyes, but if the lids are too loose, they actually catch bacteria and irritants. Some bloodhounds suffer from chronic eye irritation from the slackness of their eyelids. These exaggerated skin folds may also predispose these dogs to chronic skin and ear infections. And like most over-bred large dogs, bloodhounds are prone to hip and elbow dysplasia as well as cardiac disease. The chances of getting a healthy pet are even worse if the pet is purchased from a puppy mill; puppy mills do not screen breeding animals for genetic issues and are quick to cash in on trendy breeds that make the news.
The true costs of bred traits can be extensive, involving not just hefty vet bills, but the health, well-being and even the very lives of these dogs. If you have experienced any of these serious medical issues with your own beloved dogs, you know how heartbreaking it is. You know how much the dog can suffer and how expensive the veterinary bills can get as you struggle to treat these often painful and life-altering conditions. Much of this heartbreak is avoidable if dog owners, veterinary professionals and dog breeders collectively take a stand against breeding practices that have promoted extreme traits in dogs over their overall health and well-being.
A very short history of dog breeding
Dogs were selectively bred for thousands of years to fulfill functions such as herding, hunting, tracking, retrieving and guarding. Form and function were breeders’ top priority, with their focus on anatomical and physiological traits that promoted those functions.
As the years went by, more dogs were bred simply to be companions, and breeders started to selectively focus on looks desired by prospective dog owners as well as “standards” created by organizations such as the American Kennel Club and The Kennel Club in the UK.
The veterinary profession issued some cautionary warnings regarding this health-threatening trend. As early as 1967, the World Small Animal Veterinary Association committee appointed to consider breed standards in relation to the health and welfare of dogs stated: “‘Concern for the health and welfare of dogs demands that breed standards should not include requirements and recommendations that hinder physiological function of organs and parts of the body.” Unfortunately, these warnings were largely ignored.
Today, we see the explosion in popularity of breeds with extreme traits. That, combined with a lack of awareness among consumers and lack of genetic testing by large-scale, inhumane commercial breeders (puppy mills), as well as the internet sites and pet stores that sell these animals, has become a perfect storm that compromises dog welfare. As a poignant New York Times Magazine article put it years ago: “Inbreeding and other reckless breeding practices may not be as bloody as dogfighting or as painful to look at as puppy mills, but they may ultimately cause even more harm to the well-being of dogs." That point was made over a decade ago, yet these practices continue. For instance, experts have been sounding the alarm about the health of English bulldogs for years; a new study released earlier this month cautions against buying English bulldogs because their bred traits pose dangers to their lives. And French bulldogs, a very popular breed also known as Frenchies, suffer from numerous health issues that are related to deliberate breeding of exaggerated characteristics, including a life-threatening condition that leaves the dogs struggling to breathe. The life expectancy of French bulldogs is now a startling 4.5 years, according to new research from the UK’s Royal Veterinary College.
What you can do
While so many people turned their attention to the Westminster dog show taking place just outside New York City, many shelters and rescues are meanwhile struggling with an overwhelming number of dogs needing homes. Many are at or above capacity, especially with larger dogs. The best thing you can do when seeking a pet is to consider adopting from your local animal shelter, where there are many puppies and dogs waiting to be adopted, including many mixed breed dogs who may have the hybrid vigor that translates into a healthier and longer life. Giving a homeless dog a new family is a far better option than purchasing from a pet store, whose dogs are almost always sourced from puppy mills.
If you’ve had experience with acquiring a breed with characteristics that caused health problems, you can help by sharing your story. Encourage your friends and family educate themselves before getting a new puppy or adult dog, including learning more about the health and behavioral history of any breed they may be considering. Be sure that any breeder has had pre-breeding screening tests done on their dogs to minimize the risk that health problems, heartbreak and high vet bills lie in their future.
Never buy a puppy or dog sight unseen. Reputable breeders do not sell or ship their puppies to pet stores or to strangers they meet online. Additionally, ask questions about the health history of the parents and the puppy. Ask for proof of health screenings and veterinary care. This resource can help distinguish reputable breeders from cruel puppy mills or other problematic sources.
If you bought a puppy that turned out to have health problems, you can speak out for dogs by reporting it to the breeder. If the breeder does not address the issue, you can report the problem to the local animal health authorities and to the Humane Society of the United States through our Puppy Buyer Complaint Form.
Follow Kitty Block on Twitter @HSUSKittyBlock.