Thursday, March 4, 2010

Purebred dogs and breed standards

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with breeding purebred dogs. We breed dogs for work, for beauty, for good companionship, and breeding different kinds of dogs for different kinds of jobs is a good idea. I do believe, however, that many breed standards dictate physical limitations which are simply unhealthy for dogs.

There are the obvious ones. Dogs bred to have very flat faces (pugs, bulldogs) simply don't have enough muzzle to breathe with. These dogs are more likely to die of respiratory problems — they have, in fact, been known to simply keel over with no warning. There are the less obvious ones, too. Giant breed dogs are highly prone to gastric dilatation and volvulus (GDV), a frequently lethal condition in which the stomach twists and expands. (Great Danes are so prone to GDV that their owners sometimes opt to have a gastropexy, in which the stomach is stapled down so that it can’t twist, performed prophylactically.) There’s some debate about why Danes are particularly prone to GDV: the depth of their chests? Something about their metabolism due to their large size? But we are sure that large, deep chested dogs are more prone to the problem, and we strongly suspect a causal link.

Personally, I see a difference between issues of this kind, which are tied to the breed standard, and more coincidental problems. My chosen breed, the golden retriever, is prone to cancer. This doesn’t have anything particularly to do with what makes them goldens. It is presumably just some bad genetics that got locked in as part of creating a highly homogeneous population of animals. The trait isn’t tied to what we think of as breed characteristics; theoretically, we could someday breed this cancer-factory trait out of goldens without changing the way they look or act. Flat-faced dogs, on the other hand, are going to have breathing problems until we breed them to be a little less flat-faced.

I hear people lumping the two problems together, though. When a responsible owner is choosing a breed of dog to live with, one of the appropriate things to do to is to read up on potential health problems. then decide if you can live with those problems. It surprises me to see people lumping “respiratory problems with pugs” in with “heart disease in King Charles Cavalier Spaniels.” We choose to breed respiratory problems into the pug. We know exactly what to do to breed it back out. People who choose to purchase dogs with these sorts of preventable physical defects are supporting the problem.

That sounds harsh, so let me add that I recognize that people don’t see it that way. People buy pugs because they are nice dogs, and low-energy dogs, and have cute baby faces. They don’t think of these physical problems as things that are easy to breed out. They think of them as just another problem associated with a particular breed. That’s where I feel veterinarians could do more to educate the public. Veterinarians as a group seem to be cautious about giving value judgements to people. They don’t want to drive their business away (and who can blame them?). But if veterinarians are truly acting as the advocates of animals who cannot advocate for themselves, I believe they should do more to teach people that not all breed problems are hard to solve. Some just require us to value the health of the animal more than what it looks like.

I do sympathize with the love of a particular breed. I love giant breed dogs. Whenever I interact with one in the hospital, I go all gooey. Recently I enrolled a Great Dane in my study, and that was a good night for me, getting to handle a dog larger than some ponies. But I will never buy a giant breed puppy. As much as I love them, I believe we need to reevaluate whether it is ethical to breed dogs that large. I know other dog lovers might make similar decisions, if they better understood the implications of the standards of their preferred breeds.

So what do I think should change?
  • Dog owners should avoid purchasing purebred puppies from breeds which have breed standards dictating significant physical problems.
  • Dog breeders should select dogs for health, and choose not to breed to standards which are inherently unhealthy.
  • Breed clubs should advocate for changes in breed standards, such that standards no longer describe inherently unhealthy physical limitations.
  • Veterinarians should offer more judgements to their clients about the kinds of physical limitations it is morally acceptable to support. Perhaps the AVMA could work with breed clubs to help them identify breed standards which would benefit from change.


  1. Came upon your blog while searching for veterinary ethics and saw this post. (I love your blog's title by the way!) I think a lot of what you're saying is great but there are some bigger picture connections that could be made. How did the breed standards get to the point of brachy dogs collapsing or dwarfism in Bassets or giant breeds having abdominal torsion (personally I think that might be more of a function of what we feed them)? The governing bodies that be not only perpetuate the problem but fueled it. I was a junior handler for Goldens, My mom hobby bred mostly working lines, and in the ring my dog was often laughed at for having such a small coat, among other things. The coat which allowed her to work in deep brush and dry quickly with minimal dirt and debris attached.
    We expect the concept of breed standards and confirmation showing to be a legitimate way to determine breed soundness when in fact it's probably the worst. There are no mandatory tests, screening, or some such thing besides how well some one can present their dog to the heavily biased judge for a minute or two in a beauty pageant where incest is accepted.

    "Dog owners should avoid purchasing purebred puppies from breeds which have breed standards dictating significant physical problems." This is a tall order, and one from which it seems both of our perspectives would dictate, is actually impossible. To my knowledge there is not one breed of dog that does not suffer from significant physical problems. Maybe because it's not the breed itself but the way in which breeding is mandated and controlled by organizations like AKC. As an example, the Golden's breed standard does not denote a confirmation preference for hip dysplasia yet it is a significant, no, major problem in the breed. And how would cancer as you mentioned ever be within a breed standard? Even if you tested for it, the way in which dogs are shown, cancer would most likely never present itself during the age range that most dogs are shown.

    "Perhaps the AVMA could work with breed clubs to help them identify breed standards which would benefit from change." Also, the AVMA has "suggested" many things, many times, to AKC without any changes ever being made. Like tail docking, ear cropping, mutilation procedures that are still sanctioned by AKC much to the AVMA's attempts to recommend otherwise.

  2. "To my knowledge there is not one breed of dog that does not suffer from significant physical problems."

    I agree! I was trying to specify two different kinds of problems. One kind is the unintentional problem -- someone breeds for a golden coat color and happens to get genes for hip dysplasia. They do their best to breed out hip dysplasia while keeping the gold color. That's not the kind of problem I was talking about here, and just to be clear, I have zero problem with responsible breeders who do their best to breed out traits like hip dysplasia while still adhering to the breed standard.

    I was talking about someone who breeds for a flat face, even though the flat face -- the exact attribute they are breeding for -- represents a welfare problem for the dog. That's not an unintended problem like hip dysplasia or an increased risk of cancer; it's something that is being bred for intentionally. And, unlike hip dysplasia, it's actually pretty easy to breed back out. Just start selecting for more muzzle, and the dogs will breathe more easily. It is only adherence to an unreasonable breed standard that prevents that.

    Suggesting that people basically boycott breeds for which the breed standard itself dictates the problem may seem like a tall order (though less tall than you seem to have originally thought -- there are plenty of breeds with healthy breed standards, even if the breed itself has some unintentional problems), but what the hell, I can dream. What really bothers me is that people love breeds like pugs without seeming to recognize the difference between a brachycephalic and a dog with hip dysplasia. I really do believe that if the general public started to perceive the welfare problems inherent in some breed standards, they would start demanding changes. Pugs would look somewhat different, but still be cute, and would breathe a lot better.

    I hear you about the AKC not listening to what the AVMA has to say. You're right, the AVMA is probably not the body to make this change. I'm not sure how this change can be brought about, honestly; I'm just flailing. Because I'm coming from the veterinary perspective, it is natural for me to look to that arena as a place to work for change. Maybe there's a better approach. If someone can think of it, let me know!

    Anyways, thanks so much for your extremely thoughtful comment.

  3. I guess I was trying to illustrate the underlying problem as not any one particular breed standard even if it calls for a brachy dog. At the creation of kennel clubs (and subsequent breed standards) the standards did not call for such confirmations. The dogs at the time didn't look the way they do now. A bulldog two hundred years ago looked like an American Pitbull. It has been the revisions of existing standards and offshoot breeds that have fallen victim to the way in which purebred breeding manifests. The lack of genetic variation (leading to inbreeding depression including increased rates of cancer and dysplasia), no mandatory screening to access health of dogs or minimum outcrossing protocols (like some European breed clubs) that constrains even the most conscientious of breeders.
    There is a term used frequently in the show world, "typie" or "typiness," referring to the way in which a dog's confirmation accentuates the desired standard for that breed. So if you were to look at the silhouette of the dog you would know it was that breed. (One of the main reasons docking and cropping still exist stems from how intrinsic this mindset is within the show world.) This forum of showing for looks without any other consideration dictates that people will constantly try to accentuate the characteristics of a breed to its inevitable detriment. This is not even taking into consideration any of the bias when judging, which is a huge problem, (how often do rare or not so flashy breeds win shows?) not to mention the lack of temperament evaluation (which are kinda in the standards even) among other things.
    I'm sure it sounds radical but I guess having been in the world of dogs in various forms, including veterinary medicine, since I can remember and there is a serious need to evaluate how and why we got to this point.
    'Cause honestly, how did it get so bad?
    It wasn't just a few people, it has become a way of thinking. And if you ask dedicated breeders of rare breed dogs not yet or recently accepted into AKC, they'll all tell you why its better to avoid it. Australian Shepherds (recognized in the early 90s) being an example people reference as a breed heading south fast. Many Aussie breeders won't register with AKC actually.

    Also, not sure if you've ever seen the documentary Purebred Dogs Exposed but it highlights the mindset of how the Kennel Clubs perpetuate these problems.

  4. Great points. Yes, I too really want to know how things got so bad. How did dog fancy get so off track? How can it be brought back on track? Is market demand the way to do it (as I was advocating in this post)? I actually suspect that the breeders have to take their breeds back somehow, that the general public isn't going to have a lot of say in this particular problem. But as I am not a breeder I suspect they are not going to be inclined to take my rantings very seriously. It's something I've been pondering for a while: how does one approach this problem?

    I have heard very good things about Purebred Dogs Exposed but haven't actually watched it yet...