As a cynical outsider might snobbishly see it, Americans have the attention span of an Irish Setter, the intellectual curiosity of an Afghan Hound, the turf-guarding ferocity of a German Shepherd and the hungry greed of a Labrador Retriever. Count up all the beings besmirched by those insults — the dogs, the Americans and perhaps most of all, the Americans who breed those dogs — and you’d have the makings of an army, and an angry one at that. But consider the possibility that, while grossly stereotyping, it contains some underlying kernels of truth, at least when it comes to human foibles. That might give you a better understanding of why the issue of genetic health problems in purebreds caused by inbreeding has never led to more than ripples on the pond of public consciousness in the U.S.
In 2008, the documentary “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” aired on BBC, showcasing the devastating health problems that have resulted from breeding closely related purebred dogs in the United Kingdom. Along with an accompanying push by animal welfare organizations, it prompted a wave of changes and led to re-examination of the appearance-above-all value system many dog fanciers, breeders and kennel clubs have long held dear.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., hundreds of genetic disorders afflict an estimated five million purebred dogs, resulting in close to $1 billion a year in veterinary expenses and incalculable amounts of pain to dogs and their owners. Here, outside of kennel club and breed club circles, the issue has rated little more than a blip on the dog lover’s radar screen, sometimes rising to the forefront, but rarely staying there.
In an attempt to import the debate to U.S. shores — or, in the view of some suspicious breeders, to fire “the first salvo” in an attack on the purebred dog-breeding industry — the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) convened “The Purebred Paradox” earlier this year. The April conference featured many of the same players who brought the issue out of the shadows and onto center stage in Great Britain. It wasn’t hugely attended, or hugely reported on. Nonetheless, the two-day conference at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., led to some serious and, despite the sensitivities involved, even civil discussions of purebred health issues. From the hazards of limiting and closing gene pools to the folly of turning breeds into caricatures of themselves, with exaggerated features that often make their lives miserable and their births difficult: many of the hard topics were on the table.
“It’s extraordinary that we should have bred animals that the only way they can be born is through C-section,” Sir Patrick Bateson said in the conference’s keynote address. Bateson served as chairman of the independent review of dog-breeding practices in the UK that came about in the wake of “Pedigree Dogs Exposed.”
Bateson, emeritus professor of ethology at Cambridge University and president of the Zoological Society of London, was referring to the “brachycephalic” breeds — English Bulldogs and others with wide heads and shortened snouts, many of whom can’t be born naturally and go through life with breathing problems. In the UK, he said, nine of 10 Boston Terrier births require Cesareans.
In his talk, Bateson suggested the inauguration of a public education campaign and better policing of unscrupulous breeders in America. He took pains to point out — as did several other speakers — that he wasn’t proposing people should no longer breed dogs, only that the industry, and dogs, could benefit from increased regulation.
“We have to realize that human breeders are as different from each other as dogs are from each other,” he noted. “Many breeders care enormously about the science and care about their animals. Some don’t know about the science but do care about the animals. And some neither know nor care. There are all types.”