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Breeding Paradox

The Kennel Club in Britain initially discounted much of what Harrison reported. But after a private panel upheld nearly all of the documentary’s findings and organizations like the RSPCA and the Dogs Trust got behind the cause, a few small steps were made; since then, in increments, more have been taken.

Britain’s Kennel Club has banned the registration of puppies from closely related parents (such as fathers and daughters) and many breed standards, which describe what an ideal specimen of the breed should be, have been revised so to emphasize health and soundness more than appearance. Some extreme physical features that were once rewarded in the show ring are now penalized.

The new Pekingese standard, Harrison noted in an interview, specifies that a “muzzle must be evident.” Despite resistance from some breed groups to the rewritten standards, she said, “it was decided the Pekingese ought to have a bit of face in order to be able to breathe.” Harrison says the Kennel Club has introduced an unprecedented number of measures aimed at improving purebred health and welfare. “There is a welcome change of tone in the world of pedigree dogs and some real evidence at Crufts this year that judges were rewarding more moderate dogs (although very clearly not in every breed),” she noted on her continuing blog, which is also called Pedigree Dogs Exposed.

Therein could be another clue as to why the issue has stayed alive in the UK. Most journalists, documentary makers and book writers, after taking on an issue, leave it behind and move on. Harrison has remained on top of it, to the point of being commissioned by the BBC to make a follow-up film assessing the progress that has been made since the first one aired.

For multiple reasons, after the wakeup call Harrison issued, the public didn’t roll over and go back to sleep. But as she notes, hers was hardly the first warning about the dangers of inbreeding: “I looked back at who had tried to raise the alarm on purebred dogs, and we found people trying to do that going back as far as 1962, and even way beyond that — in Roman times.”

In the U.S., it has happened somewhat regularly since 1990.

That year, an article by Mark Derr came out in The Atlantic. The cover of the magazine featured a yellow Lab with a mouthful of cash. The piece was titled, “The Politics of Dogs: How greed and AKC policies are endangering the health and quality of American dogs.”

Derr’s 1997 book, Dog’s Best Friend, probed even more deeply into American dog culture and the dangers of inbreeding. In his conclusion, he notes, “In essence, the inbreeding of animals for appearance alone and the mass production of puppies to feed consumer demand have led to an epidemic of genetic disorders, and the loss of temperamental soundness and working ability in most purebred dogs recognized by the AKC.”

The prevalence of health problems in purebreds made the cover of Time magazine in 2001, in an article written by Michael Lemonick, titled, “A Terrible Beauty.”

“The appalling truth,” it said, “is that as many as 25 percent of the 20 million purebred dogs in America — one in four animals — are afflicted with a serious genetic problem. German Shepherds, for example, run an even higher risk of hip dysplasia than do Golden Retrievers. Labrador Retrievers are prone to dwarfing … Newfoundlands can drop dead from cardiac arrests. Chinese Shar-Peis, the wrinkly dogs that don’t seem to fit into their skin, have congenital skin disorders.”

In 2003, Consumer Reports concluded, “The demand for ever-moreperfect purebred dogs has concentrated bad recessive genes and turned many pets into medical nightmares.” And in 2010, All Animals, an HSUS publication, produced a comprehensive report on the genetic health problems of purebreds, “The Purebred Paradox: Is the quest for the ‘perfect’ dog driving a genetic health crisis?”

Given that media coverage, you’d think the issue would at least be up there with dog-fighting. But, among the general dog-loving populace, it doesn’t seem to have secured a hold. That’s not to imply that no one is doing anything. Scientists are studying it, respectable breeders are trying to stay on top of it and some breed groups have made it a priority. The American Kennel Club has funneled millions of dollars to research projects.


John Woestendiek is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, editor of the website Ohmidog! and author of Dog, Inc.: How a Collection of Visionaries, Rebels, Eccentrics and Their Pets Launched the Commercial Dog Cloning Industry.


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