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Breeding Paradox

Topics at the conference, co-sponsored by the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy, the University of Pennsylvania Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society, and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), covered a range of canine health issues, from puppy mills to the evolution of dogs as household pets. But most of its focus was on the prevalence of genetic disorders and diseases that have come to afflict certain breeds.

There are Cavalier King Charles Spaniels whose brains outgrow their tiny skulls. Dachshunds, due in part to breeders’ focus on elongating them, are now prone to back problems. Great Danes, in the process of being made greater, have developed weak hearts and joint problems. English Bulldogs have trouble breathing and are prone to heat stroke. Collies suffer from genetic eye trouble. Shar-Peis suffer from congenital skin and eye problems. Dalmatians — 100 percent of those registered with the AKC — carry a gene mutation that can lead to bladder stones.

The list, unfortunately, goes on. Recessive genes are the main culprit, but as it has throughout the history of turning wolves into hundreds of different dog breeds, human whimsy plays a role as well.

Breeding close relatives, over-reliance on a single sire, shrinking gene pools and closed registries are some of the sources of the problems. They are fueled by a somewhat outdated emphasis on “purity”; breed standards and their interpretation by dog show judges; and the tendency of breeders — often in response to perceived public demand — to exaggerate a breed’s characteristics, making the small smaller, the big bigger and the wrinkly wrinklier.

To some, what has transpired — even if there’s no clear villain, even though it’s subtle, even though it has been stretched out (Dachshund-like) over time — is tantamount to abuse.

Perhaps the biggest dog-welfare issue in America is the reckless breeding of purebred dogs, which produces an incredible laundry list of inherited disorders, congenital health problems and welfare concerns for the animals,” Wayne Pacelle, HSUS president and CEO wrote in his blog just before the conference began.

Jemima Harrison, producer of “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” and one of the conference’s featured speakers, doesn’t see eye to eye with Pacelle, or the HSUS, on many points, but she agrees on that one.

In an interview, Harrison said, “It’s not as obvious an abuse as someone taking an iron bar and smashing a dog’s head in, or raising it in a puppy mill, but I do think it’s abuse nonetheless. The iron bar is more obvious, but I think it’s a slower, more insidious abuse to breed a dog knowing that you are condemning it to a lifelong painful problem.”

Subtlety was not the path Harrison chose for her documentary. She admits that “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” was “a bit of a sledgehammer.” She purposely chose to feature the most powerful and, as in the case of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, most heart wrenching cases in the documentary.

Cavaliers are prone to syringomyelia, a condition in which fluid-filled cavities occur within the spinal cord near the brain. In severe cases, a dog’s brain swells beyond the space provided by its skull, leaving no options but pain, euthanasia or risky surgery in which the skull is opened to give the brain some room. Some studies have indicated that, due to its prevalence in the breed’s gene pool, 30 to 70 percent of Cavaliers will develop the condition.

In reality, the condition is not the most common genetic ailment of Cavaliers, but it is the most painful, and the most painful to watch. Harrison makes no secret of the fact that, aware as she was of other exposés over the years that didn’t lead to sustained interest or significant change; she was wanted to make an impact.

She succeeded, due perhaps to the documentary’s powerful images or the compelling evidence it presented. Maybe video gets through to us more effectively than the written word. Or maybe it aired at the right place at the right time.

“I think it worked because we were on prime-time television, on BBC One, the top channel,” she said. “Some people said it was sensationalized and belabored the point, but I think people recognized the essential truth of it.”

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