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April 21, 2011

Perhaps the Biggest Dog Welfare Issue of All

For those of us who care about dogs, there is nothing more violent than dogfighting. We know of the misery, especially for the breeding females, produced by the puppy mill industry. We know that euthanasia in shelters is a tragedy we can prevent if we find the will and the creativity to solve the problem.

But 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. In The Bond, I take this issue head-on, calling out the American Kennel Club and other breed registry groups for their mania in valuing the exterior appearance of the animals rather than the underlying health and wellness of the dogs. (I also document their consistent opposition to legislation to crack down on puppy mills and to establish humane care standards for dogs.)

Cavalier King Charles Spaniels
Kathy Milani/The HSUS

On April 28-29, at its inaugural conference, “The Purebred Paradox,” the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy (HSISP) will tackle the subject of purebred dog health and welfare with the help of a distinguished group of scientists, veterinarians, and others with outstanding expertise in the field of canine genetics and health.

The HSISP conference, co-sponsored with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, will focus on the health and welfare problems stemming from poor breeding practices. Inherited diseases, disorders, and body malformations produce shortened life spans, chronic pain, and a diminished quality of life for dogs—and they land the animals, if their owners have the resources, in the hospital for multiple veterinary procedures and for the convalescence required.

Just two weeks ago, Delta followed the lead of many other airlines in not allowing bulldogs to be shipped in cargo, because the dogs simply cannot breathe well with their flattened noses and faces and they are susceptible to death on flights. I love bulldogs, and have known many of these wonderful animals through the years, but they are only the most extreme example of how breeding for certain physical characteristics leaves the animals in a weakened and compromised health circumstance every day, throughout their lives.

Until very recently, the AKC and its British counterpart, the Kennel Club, have had no health and welfare standards in their judging contests, just conformation standards for the breeds. Likewise, there were no restrictions on the practice of breeding together closely related dogs. Under pressure from the RSPCA and other animal-welfare groups, the U.K.-based Kennel Club has taken some good steps toward reform in the last two years, and the AKC needs to do the same. The AKC has been beholden to large-scale commercial breeders that pay license fees for registration, but that conflict must not stop this organization from doing the right thing for dogs. 

In recent years, the AKC has made some meaningful financial investment into research into canine health issues tied to breeding. But this is a dog welfare crisis of the highest order, and now we must see not only the application of this research, but also common-sense principles and an end to unacceptable conformation standards. The AKC has to begin to sync up its rhetoric about caring for dogs with its actions. 

Every dog lover should be on the same page on this issue, and no one—least of all those in the world of the dog fancy—should settle for anything less than the highest health standards for the animals we love so much.

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