Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Greatest Animal Welfare Scandal of our Time

One of the highlights of the year for US dog lovers is the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show held each February at Madison Square Garden in New York City. It is considered by many to be the most prestigious dog show in the world next to Crufts in the UK. I like dogs very much but admittedly not enough to own one. I’m lucky if I can take care of myself let alone a dog!

But that doesn’t stop me from enjoying other people’s dogs on the annual telecast that concluded last Tuesday. I root for my favorite breeds on TV along with the spectators at the show.

But the inquisitive part of me wondered about a number of things surrounding these dog shows. One of those was how the winners were picked. I know that it’s not about whether one breed is better than another. That would be like deciding whether vanilla or chocolate ice cream is objectively better. Instead it’s about judging how closely a vanilla ice cream meets its own standard of excellence compared to how closely the chocolate ice cream meets its own standard of excellence. And so it is with dog breeds at these shows.

So at least in theory, every breed has an equal chance of winning. But the history of the show has examples of breeds that have been frequent winners along with many breeds than have never won despite being part of the show for over a century. What’s with that?

So a judge of a group of different breeds literally has to remember every detail of the extensively detailed breed standards of each of a couple dozen dogs he or she has to judge to be able to pick a winner. Can they really do that?

Even more incredible is the best of breed judging which is not normally shown on the telecasts but you can check out the Golden Retriever judging
in this video link. Here the judge has to pick a winner from a group of forty dogs who practically look like clones of one another. If the dogs were separated from their handlers and put into a group, one can’t help but wonder how many of the handlers would be able to pick out their own dog?

But most important is the issue of why so many of those dogs within a breed look like clones of one another. The answer is that the dogs are bred to all have the same physical attributes as those in the published standard for that breed. Whichever dog comes closest to that standard is normally declared the winner. But the big problem with this is that
inbreeding is often used to set the physical characteristics of the dogs to be able to compete in these shows. And especially when overdone, the health of many of these breeds has been severely compromised.

A 2008 BBC investigative documentary,
Pedigree Dogs Exposed is an emotionally gripping story of what they call “the greatest animal welfare scandal of our time”.

The one hour video can be viewed online by opening
this link.

The dogs are falling apart. And the number of genetic problems are increasing at a frightening pace.

We are in effect, breeding them to death.

People are carrying out breeding which would be first of all entirely illegal in humans and secondly is absolutely insane from the point of view of the health of the animals. In some breeds they are paying a terrible price in genetic disease.
One of the breeds examined is the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel which was estimated to have as much as one third of the breed affected by syringomyelia, which occurs as a result of the skull being too small for the brain which can result in agonizing pain for the dog.

In addtion, they have an incidence of heart disease about 20-25 times as much as other breeds.

By the time they are 5, half of all Cavaliers will have a heart murmur…By the time they are 10 or 11, almost all Cavailiers will have a heart murmur of some description.
The excellent Animal Planet series,
Dogs 101 describes the mitral heart disease of this breed in some detail but doesn’t mention anything about syringomyelia.

And the documentary goes into how many other breeds are suffering similar fates.

Much of the blame for all of this is given to the existence of dog shows. In addtion to breeding more for appearance (which wins dog shows) than health concerns, a number of dog show winners with genetic health problems have been known to produce many offspring because of the lucrative amount of money that champions can bring in breeding fees.

There is nothing wrong per se with breeding purebred dogs for physical traits. This preserves the identity of each of the breeds. The problem is when the health and vitality of the breeds are neglected in favor of physical standards that win dog shows.

But in fairness, the blame must also go to those who mass produce puppies not for the love of the breed but instead to satisfy the demand for some of the most popular breeds.

Most likely, breed standards used in dog shows will have to be relaxed somewhat to allow more healthy dogs to enhance the genetic pool. And health standards at dog shows have to be enforced to not allow dogs who clearly have health problems to compete.

All it takes is enough people who truly care about the welfare of these animals to speak out and do something!


Brien Palmer said...

Tony, I could not agree more with you. There was an article on this topic in The Atlantic some time back, as well. This whole business is a bit distasteful, like the little-girl beauty contests.

Anonymous said...

I recently put down my 9 yr old Aust. sheppherd ,micardal heart failure, my first Aussie was befor they were AKC acknowledged and lived to be 19. My new Aussie's 9mo. old littermates were bought from a breeder who will not register with the AKC for the reasons you mentioned, I hope to have better luck. Ernie