Here in the U.S., we have a purebred problem: People demand them – millions of them. So someone supplies them via a pet shop, airport, website, breeding kennel, or living room near you. Casual backyard breeders, puppy millers, importers, upscale breed club breeders … someone.
But, as they say, you can’t make and omelet without breaking a few eggs. Herein lies the paradox: We all love dogs. We all want healthy, happy dogs. No responsible breeder wants to breed unhealthy dogs – this we know. But it’s also true that no backyard breeder thinks that anything unhealthy will come of his or her ill-bred dogs’ union. No puppy miller or unscrupulous importer, even, wants to sell you a defective product. It’s bad for business.
Yet plenty of genetically ill-designed animals come from responsible breeders. Puppy millers breed dogs under woefully inadequate conditions. An increasingly alarming percentage of importers ship pups too young to be away from their mothers (much less travel). And the casual backyard breeder is still stuck on having her kids see the miracle of life happen, whatever the cost – or the death toll.
And the consumers? They are willing to buy them, sometimes knowing that what they’re doing is wrong, as when we buy dogs at flea markets because we can’t help ourselves from “saving them.” Other times they buy them not believing there’s anything fundamentally wrong with a Clumber spaniel pup who can’t blink because his eyelids don’t meet. (“Sure he needs surgery. But they all do, right?”)
Because mostly, American consumers have no clue. Consider the relative who recently bought an Internet pup. She was dead set on a difficult breed so I sent her to the breed club so that at least she’d get a good one. But even after I told her how to source a puppy properly, she did the very thing so many new pup owners get suckered into: buying on line. Her rationale? “The waiting lists for that club were so long. And the breeders asked so many questions!” So now she’s really proud she found one from a “great breeder” and that her dog came “all the way from Missouri!” They just. Don’t. Know. (Or care?)
And therein lies the problem: Broken eggs in all shapes and sizes. Some look like a Ragdoll queen in her tenth hour of a dystocia crisis. Others resemble a crateful of dead 6-week-old Frenchies from Ukraine. Still others take on the guise of a clutch of
hydrocephalic Chihuahuas, a spina bifida-riddled litter of bulldog babies, or a giant breed of dog for with the mean lifespan is nestled uncomfortably between 4 and 5 years of age (all hail the Bernese mountain dog).
Bit most eggs aren’t that sloppy when they break. Their yolks don’t always run. That’s because the bulk of the broken eggs in the purebred bowl aren’t those we consider on par with serious welfare offenses. Rather, they’re largely represented by the large body of insidious diseases we’ve come to almost inextricably associate with purebreds. Imagine a Persian without brachycephalic syndrome, a non-chondrodystrophic dachshund or a pug sans ankylosed caudal spine. Yes, breeding purebred pets often means breeding purebred diseases. And even when – strictly speaking- it doesn’t, we all know it doesn’t take much to push a bloodhound’s eyes, a Peke’s nares, a shar-pei’s skin or a ridgeback’s ridge just a little too far.
Then there’s the fraught question of genetic diversity. Fomented by the froth issues of inbreeding, outcrossing, popular sire effects and more, veterinary medicine is chock full of examples demonstrating how high inbreeding coefficients usually yield more then just uncomfortable conformation and a disproportionately high incidence of specific genetic disease entities. They also beget decreased breed thriftiness as evidenced by low litter sizes, shorter life spans, higher incidences of neoplasia and greater prevalence of immunodeficiencies.
This we know. But knowing doesn’t necessarily mean we’re doing much about it. All these thoughts were part of the conversation at April’s Purebred Paradox conference in Washington, D.C. Sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States but attended and presented by a broad swath of the international pet community (including the AKC, UKC, et.al.), this lively meeting addressed not just the suppliers and demanders of purebred (and other purpose-bred) pets but questions, too, the too-limited role of veterinarians.
Sure, a few academic types among us work hard to handle the effects of genetic disease at a higher level, searching for practical ways to mitigate the inheritance of complex genetic disease like hip dysplasia, or tapping more exoteric molecular solutions to the dilemma. But most of us? We’re too busy treating each new genetic disaster that walks through the door to luxuriate in the ability to spend an extra 20 minutes explaining why a new client’s “rare” silver Labrador retriever puppy has horrible skin. I mean, why would we waste our time and risk incurring the client’s ill will on the subject? No one wants to be told they’re a sucker.
And even if we did, how far would it get us toward fixing the purebred supply and demand problem it often seems we’re so incidental to? After all, we come in after the fact so that our only role in this whole issue is a limited threefold:
• As a profession, establishing welfare principles and publicizing position statements that speak to what’s right for purebreds. • In an advisory capacity to prospective pet owners, with whom we presumably hold sway, taking the time to point them in the direction of breed clubs if a purebred puppy is the only avenue they’re willing to pursue. And,
• By speaking of purebred issues in medical terms, we insure that our clients do not mistake the presence of an inherited trait like an elongated soft palate or a disease like degenerative myelopathy for a fact of life with X breed. “This could have been prevented,” is a perfectly apropos statement of fact that we should perhaps employ more frequently in our educational capacity.
But some of you will invariably argue: “Is it our place to get into our clients’ business with respect to their choice of purebred pets?” Well, sure. That is, if you believe it is veterinary medicine’s role to advocate for the health and welfare of animals … and if you happen to abhor the stench of rotten eggs.
The article ends at this point. My personal experience is that it is a rare client that asks for professional advice before acquiring a puppy and an even more rare instance where a client will return a puppy to the breeder even after specific genetic, health, or conformation problems have been pointed out to him/her.