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Nightline re-exposes pedigree problems

ABC News has boldly gone where BBC went before, airing a Nightline episode last night that looked at the world of purebred dogs and dog shows — and how some of the former are suffering for the sake of the latter.

The Nightline segment didn’t really pick up where “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” left off — it was more of a rehash — but it does signify, at least, some attention to a controversial issue that, for the most part, has been far less likely to surface on American shores.

“The Westminster Dog Show is the showpiece for a multi-billion dollar industry, a festival of primped pooches, prestigious prizes and perfect pedigrees. This year’s big winner, a Sussex Spaniel called Stump, became an instant celebrity,” the piece began. “The owners love it. But whether such competitive shows are good for the dogs is debatable.”

A bulldog is the first to be featured, shown being sprayed with a cooling mist backstage at Westminster to keep him from overheating.

“In the heat and the lights of the show, they can overheat and actually go down in five minutes,” one handler said. “They have, instead of a long snout where it’s an open airway, it’s smashed like a Coke can and the breathing has to go through many, many curves and many turns.” ”

The segment explains: “That’s the desired look for a bulldog to win ribbons at dog shows. In other words, it’s a world in which dogs are bred with exaggerated features to please the judges, features that can cause extreme discomfort and serious distress, some veterinarians say.”

The program also looked at genetic problems that plague other breeds, such as Cavalier King Charles spaniels, about half of which will develop a heart valve defect before they turn five, and dalmatians, which are prone to stones that can lead to difficulty urinating.

A German Shepherd breeder explained how show-winning traits can be passed from generation to generation by “line breeding,” a common practice in which dogs are mated with relatives — sometimes even direct relatives, like brother and sister, which is known as inbreeding.

The problem is those show-winning traits aren’t always in the best interest of the dog’s health.

Competitive dog breeding and showing has been a popular sport since it was imported from England more than 130 years ago. The first Westminster Kennel Club show was in 1877.

The American Kennel Club declined to be interviewed for the ABC story, and went so far as to email its members recommending they decline to talk to ABC as well.

In a written statement, the organization said it conducts hundreds of kennel and breeder inspections each year and donates millions of dollars to improve dogs’ heath. In the statement, the AKC says it has “led the charge in regards to advancing canine health, including founding the AKC Canine Health Foundation in 1995. Since that time, $22 million has been given to more than 500 research projects at 74 vet schools and research institutes worldwide to improve the health of all dogs.”

The club and some of its members appear to be circling the wagons, the Nightline piece noted, largely because of a British documentary called “Pedigree Dogs Exposed,” which aired last year. The filmmakers showed dogs in distress, stricken by genetic diseases. They likened pedigree dog breeding to the eugenics principles of Adolf Hitler and questioned the practices of inbreeding and breeding to a “standard.”

The BBC also — after 42 years televising the Crufts dog show in the U.K. — made the decision to stop airing it.

In response,  Britain’s Kennel Club has reviewed its “breed standards,” and Britain’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recently released a report titled, “Pedigree Dog Breeding in the UK: a Major Welfare Concern?” which made the following conclusion:

“Many different breeds now experience compromised welfare. … The desire to produce an unusual, exaggerated or spectacular conformation have often produced dogs which tend towards abnormality.”

In the United States, the American Kennel Club, founded 1884, is the authority. It recognizes 161 breeds, registers purebred dogs, oversees many dog shows and is guardian of the so-called “breed standards.” According to its breed standard, the bulldog must have “very heavy” shoulders, “very short” forelegs, a “very large” skull and an “extremely short” face.

“Characteristics of the breed, say, in the 19th century were much less accentuated than they are now,” said James Serpell, director for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania. “I think it was rather like the cartoonist; you know how a cartoonist can accentuate features of someone’s face and make them look even more like they look.”

The bulldog of today looks very different from the bulldog of 150 years ago. With their exaggerated, show-winning proportions, most Bulldogs can’t even mate on their own. They need the help of a cradle, which can be bought on the Internet, and many Bulldogs can’t give birth naturally because of the size of the puppies’ heads.

(Photo: Stump, the clumber spaniel awarded best in show, 2009, Westminster Kennel Club)


Comment from Mary Haight
Time March 12, 2009 at 7:57 pm

Does anybody know if AKC is doing a pre-emptive interview on how they have not allowed these same practices to dominate American show standards? Would make an interesting investigative series…

Comment from Coeurdlionk9
Time March 13, 2009 at 8:40 am

The AKC has not made any attempt to redact the practice of breeding for extremes in any breed. They are not interested in breeding to a standard of performance, only to a standard of physical beauty. They opened the registry for a few breeds (Basenjis and Dalmations) to correct some serious health issues that were threatening the these breeds into extinction and need to consider it as an option for other endangered breeds as well. It is amazing how many breeds have changed just in teh last 20 years or so to fit a standard of physical attributes that have threatened their health. Cancer in many of the Retriever breeds, orthopedic issues in many of the larger working and herding breeds and the breathing issues in the brachycephalic breeds.

The practice of breeding for looks is ruining breeds. Return to a standard of performance and breeding for longevity as other countries do.

Comment from Chopinski
Time March 16, 2009 at 8:25 am

AKC’s Massachusetts affiliate is fighting a MA state bill to ban convenience devocalization–cutting a dog’s vocal cords only because someone doesn’t like the sound of his barking! They claim this keeps “noisy” dogs from being surrendered, but it’s breeders’ dogs we’ve found in shelters!!!!