Background: In 2008 the BBC released a documentary produced by Jemima Harrison, called Pedigree Dogs Exposed. (PDE) The premise of the documentary is that breeding practices, breed standards (or their interpretations), and judging practices are seriously compromising the health of purebred dogs. (Note: In England, a dog registered with the Kennel Club is called a pedigree dog. In the US, we use the term purebred for any dog of pure parentage.) The program generated such a public outcry that the Kennel Club made some major changes: reviewed all breed standards and altered some of them. It also made changes in judging practices, put restrictions on the number of c-sections bitches could have, and prohibited extremely close inbreeding. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) presented a conference on the topic last month called The Purebred Paradox: On the Health and Welfare of Pedigree Dogs.)
With the support of the Virginia Federation of Dog Clubs and Breeders Alice Harrington and I attended the Purebred Paradox conference April 28-29 in Washington, DC. We discussed long and hard whether to attend -- since it was hosted by HSUS, we obviously were not interested in supporting the conference. But we felt someone needed to go to find out what was said. AKC had decided not to participate, which was the right decision for them. AKC and the parent clubs have much invested in improving the health of our dogs and the discussion and action is ongoing. Nothing the animal rights organizations can do will help, unless they would like to make a contribution to the AKC Canine Health Foundation or fund a parent club health study. That is not likely to happen. However, if they're going to be discussing the health of purebred dogs, we need to know what they're saying. So in the end, our decision was to go. It was not the first HSUS conference we've attended, and unfortunately, it won't be the last.
Mostly, however, we were pleasantly surprised by the content of this one. The agenda was full, but some of the subjects were obviously "filler" and were only very tangentially related to the genetic problems of purebreds. The strictly on-topic presentations were fairly sparse.
First a few notes:
-- We counted only about 60 people in the auditorium, and as far as we know, fewer than ten were actually breeders. The others were: 17 speakers, Matthew Stander from Dog News, a double handful of veterinarians (including Gail Golab from AVMA and Dr. Patty Khuly, who writes the Fully Vetted blog) a couple of vet students, two or three experts in assistance dog training, two or three rescuers, two UKC folks, and a slew of HSUS staff, including John Goodwin. (I was told that HSUS staff received free registration and were encouraged to attend.)
-- Thuogh AKC was not officially represented, Patty Haines, former AKC board member and a practicing veterinarian, spoke about the role of parent clubs and how the breed standards are written and controlled in the US (The Kennel Club in England owns the standards). Also at least three AKC club delegates were in the audience.
-- Though we had some AR speakers the first day, the AR slant was not much in evidence. Most of the presentations were largely factual. More on this later
-- The final speaker was from Best Friends with the usual "evils of puppy mills" rant, so we ended on a much less pleasant note than we began.
-- Jemima Harrison struck me as a sincere person who cares deeply about this subject. I like her. While I still cannot agree with the sensationalist aspects of "Pedigree Dogs Exposed," I do understand now why the sensationalism was there. More on that later, too.
-- In addition to the predictable RSPCA, HSUS, etc representatives, speakers included geneticists, veterinarians, behaviorists, and scientists. Some had an AR haze around them but most did not
The bottom line delivered by most (not all) speakers: Every living being has some genetic disease and dogs are no exception. Mixed breeds have about as much as purebreds, especially designer breeds, since they are usually mixes of breeds that share the same genetic defects. Genetic disease is made worse by some common breeding practices:
-- Inbreeding, which includes linebreeding
-- Use of popular sires
-- Breeding for exaggerated characteristics that affect health or soundness
-- Acceptance by breeders of genetic disease as unavoidable (e.g., breeds frequently affected by cancer at young ages)
-- About a dozen breeds are considered to be in serious trouble and I think we can look for focused attention on their problems, both in the press and possibly from other sources. They are, as well as I can remember: German shepherd dog, pug, Pekingese, Cavalier King Charles spaniel, boxer, all the mastiffs, Chinese sharpei, dachshund, English bulldog, Bernese mountain dog, flat coat retriever. In addition, the other brachycephelic breeds, others with lots of wrinkles, the giant breeds, and the achondroplastic breeds will also be targeted.
-- Nothing legislative was mentioned specifically.
Several of the speakers were excellent. Some seemed to be there to fill out the agenda and their topics had little directly to do with the seminar topic.
SUMMARY OF THE PRESENTATIONS
Introduction was by Andrew Rowan, president and CEO, Humane Society International; chief international officer and chief scientific officer, HSUS. You have to give Dr. Rowan credit. He set the tone as nonconfrontational and I detected no anti-breeder bias whatsoever. He pointed out the huge reduction in euthanasia since 1970 (90 percent) and also asked the question that if the US population needs nine million puppies a year, where are they going to come from? Dr. Rowan's comments really got the meeting off to a good start and I would have had a hard time placing him at HSUS and HSI if I had not read his bio.
Context and Unifying Principles: Science and Policy
Senior policy adviser and special assistant to the President/CEO of HSUS. His bio says he "works on a wide range of strategic, policy, program, and communications priorities for HSUS and its affiliated entities.
The crux of his comments is that HSUS is "trying to build networks with government agencies and NGOs" (non-governmental agencies)
Problems of dog-breeding and what to do about them
The keynote speaker was Sir Patrick Bateson, president of the Zoological Society of London and author of the Independent Inquiry into Dog Breeding (2010) He was entertaining and funny and the first of many to tell us about the silver fox study.
His own inquiry covered all types of breeders in Britain and his findings were that the welfare problems in dog breeding come down to:
-- negligence (he's talking about substandard breeders)
-- breeding dogs with genetic problems
-- artificial selection for extremes and judges rewarding extremes
-- puppy sales to unsuitable homes (wrong breed for the situation)
He holds high coefficients of inbreeding responsible for reduced fertility, developmental abnormalities, lower birth weight, higher infant mortality, shorter lifespan, and loss of immune function.
Bateson talked about the problems of c-sections and stated some pretty amazing statistics. The one that floored me was that Boston Terriers have a 92.3% caesarian rate in England.
The way forward, according to Bateson includes:
-- providing the best available science to breeders
-- rewarding good breeders and recognizing their efforts to improve health
-- educating the public about what constitutes good welfare/good breeding and appropriate behavior (I assume he means behavior of specific breeds)
-- helping the public find good breeders
-- placing more emphasis on microchipping
-- and (here it comes) providing backstop of effective regulation
He stated that all three studies that followed PDE had advised setting up an "independent advisory council," which has been done in Britain -- Sheila Crispin, described as a "leading expert in the field of dog welfare" is the chairman.
He concluded that breeding brings a great deal of personal satisfaction to humans, but the "cost in welfare to dogs has not been very happy." He says he does not want breeding stopped, but we need some quality assurance.
Breed risks for disease in purebred dogs
Brenda Bonnett, BSc, DVM
Her complete bio (I am quoting the whole thing because she was an excellent speaker, non AR, and extremely informative) "After years as tenured faculty in the Department of Population Medicine, Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, Brenda is now a Consulting Epidemiologist and currently Lead Scientist for the Morris Animal Foundation Canine Longitudinal Health Project. Her research has involved numerous species and disciplines, with a focus on companion animals, population-based research utilizing secondary data sources (most notably a large veterinary insurance database in Sweden), human-animal interactions and medical communication."
The research we heard about has been primarily based on that insurance database -- Why Sweden? Because our pet insurance companies won't share their information due to "privacy concerns." Her studies were based on facts, she did not condemn breeders, and she asked very interesting questions:
-- Which causes of death are acceptable? How about for humans? We all die of something. Obviously causes of death that do not cause a great deal of suffering are best.
-- Are there acceptable levels of disease within a breed?
-- How do we promote acceptable breeding practices and keep the good breeders?
-- How do we create collaboration rather than confrontation (among organizations, but individual people as well)
-- Is it okay for us to create/enhance breeds to suit our purposes? (She answered this one: Yes, that is what domestication is all about) What are the limits? Who decides the limits?
A few interesting points:
Mixed breeds are at slightly less risk of genetic disease but they're at a higher risk of injury. Conditions causing death of purebreds and crossbreeds are not very different in Sweden, however, she pointed out that most crossbreds in Sweden are purpose-bred and/or a mix of two purebreds. They don't have the "Heinz 57" dogs we have here.
Eighty percent of pet owners in Sweden have pet insurance.
The insurance companies provide "breed profiles" free to the Swedish breed clubs so they can see what their breeds are dying of. You'll have to get your browser to translate if you don't read Swedish and apparently you can order the profiles from the site.
Sweden is establishing (or has established -- my notes fail me) a "Breed Specific Breeding Strategy." It is kennel cub and breed club driven -- no legislation or government involvement. The breed clubs must provide a description of the issues their dogs face and outline what is being done to address them. Problems are evaluated: common? high risk? severe/fatal? age of onset? control? prevention?
Efficacy of hip dysplasia screening: An animal welfare imperative
Gail K. Smith, VMD, PhD
Dr. Smith is Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery in the Department of Clinical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, School of Veterinary Medicine. In 1993 he founded PennHIP (the University of Pennsylvania Hip Improvement Program).
Maybe I'm a little cynical but the main take-away message I got from Dr. Smith's address was that 1) he thinks PennHip is way better than OFA and 2) artificial selection has had little to no effect on hip dysplasia, and 3) as a rule, greyhounds do not get osteoarthritis
Brachycephalic airway syndrome: Etiology, treatment, and prevention
John R. Lewis, VMD, FAVD, DAVDC
This was a graphic and interesting talk on the problems our brachycephalic breeds face due to their shortened (or nonexistent!) muzzles--brachycephalic airway syndrome. Dr. Lewis made the comment that the market for designer breeds might be partially driven by health concerns of pet owners -- as he said, the puggle does give the pug more muzzle. (I've heard that theory before, "hybrid vigor" being a reason people flock to the designer breeds) We saw some graphic slides of various problems -- from narrow nostrils to elongated soft palate to everted laryngeal saccules. As someone who has never owned brachycephalic dogs, I found this presentation interesting and somewhat alarming. He said we have reduced the muzzle until there is not enough room in it for the soft tissue. But as with many of the "facts" presented at this conference, no indication was given of what percentage of dogs are affected with breathing difficulties or whether breeders are working to address these problems.
The RSPCA report on purebred dog breeding: Conformational selection and inbreeding in dog breeds
David R. Sargan, MA, PhD
Director of Life Sciences Graduate Education for the University of Cambridge. He has worked as a geneticist in mutation discovery and genomics in the dog for the last twenty years--completed work on lens luxation and on a second locus causing PRA in the Miniature Long Haired Dachshund. His lab is now working on breed predispostions to cancer. One of the two lead authors of the RSPCA report Pedigree dog breeding in the UK: A major welfare concern? and on UK’s Advisory Council on the Welfare Issues of Dog Breeding.
Dr. Sargan runs a genetic disease database website where he lists about 500 canine genetic disease.
A few of the points he made:
-- Irish Wolfhounds are about 15% larger than they were 100 years ago
-- Problems in giant breeds include dysplasia, osteosarcoma, cardiomyopathy and bloat/torsion
-- Brachycephalic breeds have trouble with overheating, breathing, whelping problems, cardiac and eating difficulties.
-- He also talked about problems in the achondroplastic (dwarf) breeds, mostly relating to their length of back and weight (in Bassets specifically)
-- Dr. Sargan mentioned the toy breeds, but my notes are incomplete at that point.
Canine Genetics, Behavior and the role of the parent club
Patricia H. Haines, DVM
Patty is a practicing veterinarian who previously served multiple terms on the AKC board of directors. She has bred and competed with purebred dogs at AKC events for over 40 years. She is VP of the Ohio Veterinary Medicine Association.
Patty was personable, an excellent speaker, and calmly explained the differences in dog breeding in the UK and Europe and the US. In England, the Kennel Club owns the standards, so they are able to make changes. Here, each standard is owned by a parent club, so it is much, much more difficult to make major (or even minor!) changes to them. She explained that since most purebreds in the US are not registered, the influence the AKC can have on their breeders is minimal. She talked about the different types of breeders (casual, commercial, and "parent club breeder") and the codes of ethics of parent clubs. Patty also pointed out the tremendous amount of money that has been put into studying and addressing the health problems of purebred dogs, adding that the health and welfare of our dogs remains a major concern of good breeders.
Canine behavioral genetics: State of the art
Linda van den Berg, PhD
A cum laude graduate of Utrecht University, the Netherlands, Dr. van den Berg started her scientific career with a study of the genetics of aggressive behavior in Golden Retrievers. This included the development of tools to measure subtypes of canine aggression and the molecular genetic study of genes involved in serotonergic neurotransmission.
Another interesting talk focusing on the problems of reduced genetic diversity in purebreds. Dr. van den Berg pointed to small founder populations, genetic bottlenecks caused by war or economic depression, genetic drift. use of popular sires, and inbreeding. She talked extensively about the heritability of behavioral traits and one of the more interesting comments she made was that problem behavior is usually normal behavior carried to an extreme or in inappropriate settings.
Unintended consequences of breeding for conformation: Owner-directed aggression in English Springer Spaniels
Ilana Reisner, DVM, PhD, DACVB
Dr. Ilana Reisner received her DVM from the Oregon State University College of Veterinary Medicine, and a PhD in behavioral physiology from Cornell. She is a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, and is currently Assistant Professor of Behavioral Medicine at the School of Veterinary Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania and Director of the Veterinary Behavior Clinic at Penn’s Matthew J. Ryan Veterinary Hospital, which sees primarily dogs and cats referred by veterinarians for behavior problems ranging from anxiety disorders to aggression.
Dr. Reisner was one of the best speakers, entertaining and informative. She talked mostly about genetics and aggression in dogs, with an emphasis on rage syndrome (I don't believe she used that term though. I'm pretty sure she just referred to "owner directed aggression.) She pointed out that anecdotally, rage was associated with one kennel (thus indicating a genetic basis) but that in reality, it was not exclusively that kennel. She also mentioned that Springers are not the dogs she sees most often for aggression.
An interesting panel discussion followed, with questions from cards handed in by the audience. Main points I took away from the discussion were:
-- Education is absolutely key. Pet buyers must be educated, as must breeders and veterinarians. If we are the make progress with the real problems in purebred dogs, it is critical that breeders are not vilified.
-- Sweden has an extremely different situation from ours. The Swedish Kennel Club was described as "very strict." There are no pet stores, the breed clubs strongly encourage fostering and mentoring new breeders, there are few mixed breed dogs and most of those are intentional crosses. Out of 75,000 puppies, 60,000 are registered with the kennel club. They do have a problem with imported dogs.
-- Veterinarians need education about genetic defects. Many have become complacent and just say, "Oh, well, that's common in your breed."
-- Sir Bateson recommends an independent advisory committee, similar to the one in Great Britain
-- The parent clubs must be involved and it is very important not to attack breeders
-- Recommendations include opening the stud books for breeds with serious problems, prevent the registration of inbred dogs, and increase imports
Alice and I did not attend the $60-a-plate vegan dinner that night.
Pedigree Dogs Exposed: The Aftermath
Jemima Harrison, Producer
Ms. Harrison is a writer and independent television producer. She directed the 2008 BBC documentary, Pedigree Dogs Exposed, and recently started a blog of the same name at
She has owned purebred dogs all her life and says she is not an animal rights advocate. I believe her, though her documentary gave them a whole lot of ammunition against breeding.
I expected not to like Jemima Harrison. After all, she produced a documentary which made breeders in England look like uncaring louts, ridiculed the Kennel Club, and emphasized the worst of the health issues we have faced in purebred dogs. What's to like? But after listening to her talk, I understood her a little better and actually found myself liking her. She does love dogs. There is no doubt of that. I believe her intentions were sincere. She really wants to see purebred dogs healthier.
Pedigree Dogs Exposed was sensationalistic and one-sided. She did not include the tremendous efforts good breeders have made to address these problems and she didn't interview the many good people who breed and show dogs in England and who do consider health first in their breeding decisions. She focused on severe cases of syringomyelia in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels when these severe cases are fairly rare because it is heartbreaking to see one of these little dogs writhing in pain. Much more so than seeing one with mitral valve disease, which kills many more Cavaliers than does syringomyelia, but less dramatically.
Jemima started out her presentation by telling us that PDE had three years' research behind it and that it was "intended to be powerful," She said that previous attempts to get the Kennel Club to address the problems in breeding for exaggeration had failed. She actually showed a 1987 video clip of the KC saying that yes, they were going to take the health-affecting exaggerated features out of all the standards, but she says it never happened. She said it was these unfulfilled promises that made her decide the film had to be "powerful" in order to have any effect.
Though she said, contrary to what I'd heard, she did not become interested in this subject because of the early death of her own Flat Coated Retriever (who lived to an unusually old age and may still be alive), but she was very affected by a study of a cohort of 170 Flat Coats -- 53,6 percent of them died of cancer before the age of ten. I'm sorry I don't have details about this study, but I'm sure Jemima would furnish them if anyone needs to follow up. Remember, these are just my notes from the conference!
Jemima holds four practices/conditions responsible for the spread of genetic defects in purebred dogs.
1) small, closed gene pools
3) use of popular sires
4) breeding for exaggerated traits for the show ring
She pointed out that generally the interpretation of the standard, not the standard itself, causes problems.
Vets have been desensitized, she says. They also don't want to "bite the hand that feeds them" by taking a stand against these common breeding practices, and she believes in England they are heavily influenced by the Kennel Club, which she views as very powerful.
The extensive media coverage PDE received pressured the Kennel Club into making some changes:
-- changes to breed standards
-- a ban on mating of first degree relatives
-- changes in judges' training
(As a matter of fact, beginning next year, gundog judges in Britain have to attend a trial as part of the requirements for judging those dogs.)
Jemima talked also about the practice of culling (killing) for appearance faults. "Being born ridgeless is still the leading cause of death for a Rhodesian Ridgeback in the United States." She asserted that the genes responsible for the ridge are associated with a genetic defect called dermoid sinus, similar to spina bifida in humans. I was unable to find proof of that in some very quick research using Google. She mentioned other breeds that cull for appearance -- Great Danes, Boxers, and a few others. She did say that there is a movement to spay/neuter and place the puppies in pet homes rather than killing them.
Some direct results of PDE:
-- Three studies were commissioned: the Bateson report, one by the RSPCA and one by the Associatee Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare (APGAW).
-- An independent advisory board was set up
-- The Kennel Club has opened its books to dogs of "unverified parentage" on a case by case basis in an attempt to widen the gene pools (she says the effective population size for some breeds is less than 50)
-- There are now vet exams at shows for the 15 high profile breeds
-- Limits on c-sections (I think it's two per bitch)
-- The KC is developing a computer program called Mate Select so breeders can look up health tests and check the COI before making breeding decisions
Jemima would like to see some more stringent rules preventing inbreeding/linebreeding, a limit on the number of times a sire can be used, and less emphasis on appearance in the show ring (as an attempt to address the health problems caused by exaggeration)
According to Jemima, one of her "inspirations" to produce the documentary came from Pat Burns' blog -- Terrierman's Daily Dose. I disagree with a whole lot of Terrierman's "wisdom," but his post on inbreeding is worth reading.
Ethical issues related to selective breeding in dogs
Randall Lockwood, PhD
Prior to joining the ASPCA as Senior Vice President for Anti-Cruelty Initiatives and Legislative Services in 2005, Dr. Lockwood was vice president for research and educational outreach for the Humane Society of the United States.
Lockwood's presentation covered the history of man's relationship with the dog, the concept of dominance and wolf social structure. He said the dominance theory of dog behavior is based on a misunderstanding of how a wolf pack functions. He also went into some detail about how breeding for specific behaviors has resulted in some that are maladaptive and discussed his belief that "specific selection for changes in levels of inter- and intra-specific aggression in dogs, including guarding and fighting breeds, has produced changes with enormous ethical and welfare implications."
The development of dog breeds: Why and how people breed dogs
Frances O. Smith, DVM, PhD
Dr. Smith obtained her degrees from Normandale Community College and in 1986, she became a Diplomate in the American College of Theriogenology. Dr. Smith breeds Labrador Retrievers and is on the board of directors and the health committee chair of the Labrador Retriever Club. She is also president of the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals and a member of the AKC Canine Health and Welfare Advisory Panel.
Dr. Smith's presentation covered the evolution of the dog and reasons for the development of the different breeds. She talked about ethical issues of breeding as well as the different types of breeders and motivations for breeding. She challenged the idea that purebred dogs are unhealthier than mixed breeds. Some of the more interesting points:
-- Hybrid vigor is only possible if you cross a dog with another species (wolf, jackal, etc) The term is incorrectly used when talking about mixed breed dogs. That is heterosis, not the same as hybrid vigor.
-- Behavior traits such as fearfulness are as heritable as coat color and length
-- 90 percent of the dogs registered by AKC come from one-litter breeders
The impact of puppy mills on the welfare of purebred dogs
Frank McMillan, DVM, ACVIM
Dr. McMillan has been the Director of Well-Being Studies at Best Friends Animal Society since October 2007.
He presented an unscientific study mostly on behavioral problems in adult breeding dogs turned pets. Essentially, what he did was ask people who had these dogs to tell him what "unusual behaviors" they had and concluded that these dogs were psychologically damaged by being kept in kennels. To be perfectly honest, I walked out about a quarter of the way into his talk. When I came back right at the end, it had not gotten any better.
Then we got a "Can't we all just get along?" talk from Stephen Zawistowski, science advisor of the ASPCA. It was inspiring and reasonable and sadly, totally unrealistic considering that if the goals of the AR world were achieved, there would be no more breeding. But it sounded real nice and if you didn't know the history of the disagreements between breeders and the animal rights movement, you'd have thought this conference was sincerely about doing what's best for dog and working together to solve problems.
There was a "roundtable" for the speakers after the meeting to which the audience was not invited. I have not heard what came out of that.
All in all, the conference was informative and extremely interesting. I found myself wishing that AKC had sponsored it. For one thing, the attendance would have been triple what it was, and the motivation would have, of course, been beyond question. I have no illusions -- and neither should other breeders -- that this will be the end of HSUS's interest in purebred dogs. Those of us who have been fighting the animal rights movement for the past ten years have always said that after the commercial breeders, they'd be targeting show breeders. This is the first salvo.
Legislative Liaison (with Alice Harrington)
Virginia Federation of Dog Clubs and Breeders