Growing up I always wanted to be a vet because I had a natural love for animals. I love my job, but as a vet and animal lover, one of the most frustrating and saddening things is repeatedly seeing dogs suffering from chronic pain or discomfort caused by the breeding of dogs with such extreme, exaggerated features that it actually causes them to suffer throughout their lives.
It will come as a shock to many dog lovers, that the way many of our ‘best friends’ are bred, placing physical appearance above their health and welfare, causes many thousands of dogs to suffer needlessly. This is because pedigree dogs are bred according to a ‘breed standard’ which describes how a certain breed of dog ‘should’ look.
To take just one example of a breed of dog whose physical features have become so exaggerated, the bulldog’s breed standard reads: “Muzzle short, broad, turned upwards and deep from corner of eye to corner of mouth.” Ok, sounds innocent enough, but the upshot of this is a short squashed snout which can have a dramatic impact on the dogs’ welfare. I am yet to meet a bulldog who can breathe with ease particularly in hot weather. It’s also been reported that some 86 per cent of litters of bulldog puppies born must be delivered by caesarean section, as they are bred to have large heads and small hips. This statistic screams that without veterinary intervention the breed would cease to exist through natural selection within a few generations. When faced with this uncomfortable fact, you have to question whether this can possibly be right or whether people breeding them really have their best interests in mind. After all, aren’t we supposed to be a nation of dog lovers?
As a vet it is heartbreaking to see owners, bonded and in love with their new additions only to find out they are going to suffer for their whole lives. I had one client who had bought a pedigree Labrador puppy, paid extra for the longer pedigree certificate, thinking as so many do, that this was somehow a guarantee of health and vigour. At ten months the dog developed an odd way of walking so we x-rayed her hips, as her owner also planned to breed from her. She had severe hip dysplasia and a score of 96, where 106 is the worst they can be.
Her owner was devastated, furious and even lashing out at us for simply breaking the news. He simply couldn’t understand how, once he learned from us about hip scoring for the parents, she could have been sold without her parents having been tested. We had no words of comfort to offer. Vets have long called for compulsory testing before dogs can be bred from but it has fallen on deaf ears at the Kennel Club. Another owner left distraught and another dog destined to suffer because of the breed standard. So please, with this in mind, if you are thinking of getting a puppy or even an older dog, PLEASE talk to your vet first, ask about the AWF/RSPCA puppy contract and do your research. You could avoid a lot of heartache.
Suffering as ‘the norm’
The even more frustrating thing however, is how very normal many perceive these health issues to be as if they have sprung from nowhere and there is absolutely nothing that can be done about them. How many times have you heard the phrase ‘oh it’s just her breed’ when a person is explaining a health concern of their pet? Or for thinking when their dog is snorting while breathing it’s just a cute quirk, when in a human, this would be a serious cause for alarm. It’s not the owners fault of course, but I believe that people have been blindly led to accept that the pain and suffering many pedigree dogs experience due to their looks, is just part of the deal.
It’s this mentality that needs to be flipped on its head. People need to realise that it doesn’t have to be this way, stop with dismissively justifying the suffering of pedigrees and start getting cross about it. Can it be right that many dogs struggle to breathe, walk, play or lead a normal life because their looks have been put before their health? These features were bred in and they just as easily be bred out, but this change must come from the top, an independent review of the Kennel Club’s breed standards is sorely needed to protect the welfare of our pedigrees.
I desperately hope that 50 years from now people will be asking in disbelief, “what, they used to breed dogs who looked like that even though they knew they were likely to suffer, that’s outrageous!” But there’s a long way to go yet…
The Kennel Club often tell us how much they’re doing to help pedigree dogs, but the limited progress which has been made is not enough to tackle this urgent problem. If they were taking this as seriously as they say they are, they would be in support of an independent review of the breed standards, what have they got to hide?
The truth is, they know that an independent review would mean that current breeding practices would need a serious overhaul and that the standards would need to be modified to prevent further damage cause by exaggerated physical features and they don’t want this to happen.
I often receive criticism for speaking out on this issue, as it can be misinterpreted (or perhaps manipulated!) as an ‘attack on pedigree dogs’ themselves but it’s quite the contrary! I am a dog lover through and through. I don’t hate bulldogs or pugs or Basset hounds, I just feel terribly sorry for them. Dogs who suffer due to their looks never asked to be born this way, to be born with such narrow windpipes that simply breathing is a struggle or with such bulbous eyes that constant discomfort and even loss of their eyes is a way of life. So it’s up to the dog lovers of this country to unite and say ‘enough is enough’. There are many who dismiss this cause and tell us to ‘stop banging on about this’ but the welfare of pedigree dogs is worth fighting for however unpopular it may be with certain groups.
For the love of dogs, stand up for pedigrees and join this campaign!
- Emma Milne, Veterinary surgeon