Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Purebred Paradox, part one: Background

In 2008, the BBC aired Pedigree Dogs Exposed, a documentary about breeding practices in purebred dogs. The documentary suggested that health problems are on the increase in purebred dogs, and that many of them are avoidable. Specifically, some problems are due to limited gene pools and unintentional fixing of traits such as predisposition to cancer; others are due to intentional breeding for extreme characteristics like flat faces or heavily wrinkled skin. This documentary triggered a strong reaction from the public, and the beginnings of some changes in how members of the UK breed clubs approach breeding dogs.

It also triggered a negative reaction from the British Kennel Club, and a great deal of controversy. The two sides of the debate are, in my own words:
  • Dog breeds are part of our heritage and are important to us. Each breed has its defining characteristics (the unique color of the golden retriever’s coat, the size and shape of the Great Dane, the jowly face of the English bulldog). These characteristics are what make each breed unique, and should be celebrated and maintained. I’ll call the people on this side of the debate the dog breeders, at risk of a gross overgeneralization.
  • The health of many purebred dogs is endangered both by consequences of inbreeding (such as overrepresentation of genes for cancer in Bernese Mountain dogs) or by breeding for extreme traits (such as the extremely flat face of the pug). We should start prioritizing the health of our purebred dogs over maintenance of breed purity. I’ll call the people on this side of the debate the advocates for change, although many dog breeders take this viewpoint as well.
Last week, I was privileged to attend a conference in Washington, D.C., called The Purebred Paradox: on the health and welfare of purebred dogs. This conference was intended to move the debate, which had begun in the UK, to this side of the ocean. By my estimates, however, more than a quarter of the speakers and attendees hailed from overseas.

One of the unstated goals of the conference seemed to be to get the two sides, breeders and advocates for change, to start a real discussion. In my opinion, the discussion was hampered from the start by the fact that the conference was not organized by breeders, and was by no means neutral ground. Representatives from the breeder camp were underrepresented, and seemed as well to have been selected to be not too controversial. Everyone was very civil, but I didn't feel like anyone’s mind was really changed.

That didn’t stop me from having two of the most enjoyable days I’ve spent in months or even years. About half of the speakers were veterinarians, and vets were very well represented at the conference overall, which surprised me. It has been my observation in veterinary school that veterinarians are as a general rule not greatly worked up by breeding practices — it’s part of the profession’s usual refusal to judge the husbandry decisions of an animal’s owner in public unless truly abusive. Apparently some vets are coming to see some breeding practices as crossing that line into abuse, and are interested in seeing change.

It shouldn’t need saying, but I will say it, just to be super clear: I have nothing against breeding purebred dogs in theory, and there are quite a few extremely responsible, ethical breeders out there — I met a lot of them at this conference. But there are breeders who do seem to be blind to the discomfort that breeding for extreme characteristics can cause dogs, and there are some breeds that I believe cannot be humanely bred under current practices, though could certainly be humanely bred with some conservative modifications to the breed standard (or to interpretations of it). I am not anti-breeder, but I am very much against certain breeding practices.

(To be continued.)

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