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.