If you have not seen Benoit Denizet-Lewis’s cover story in this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine about the genetic and hereditary problems that afflict English bulldogs, you must read it. It’s a beautifully written indictment about how breeding for conformation–or exterior characteristics–has quietly emerged as one of the leading dog welfare issues in America. I stand squarely behind my statement in the Times piece: “Inbreeding and other reckless breeding practices may not be as bloody as dogfighting or as painful to look at as puppy mills, but they may ultimately cause even more harm to the well-being of dogs.”
Of course, it’s not just bulldogs, but just about every major breed that has genetically based problems–from Great Danes to Cavalier King Charles spaniels to Labrador retrievers. Some breed groups, like Clumber spaniels and Portuguese water dogs, have done a much better job at breeding for health and welfare, and these breeds are not afflicted with nearly as many problems.
I tackled the subject in my book, The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, Our Call to Defend Them, where I took issue with breeding practices and standards that sacrifice the underlying health and well-being of dogs in order to achieve the perceived ideal exterior design of the dog. And I named names, including the American Kennel Club, and how it’s more about winning in the world of the dog fancy than caring for and protecting the dogs. The irresponsible breeding practices that have become all too common result in chronic pain, diminished quality of life, and shortened lifespans for the dogs. For their owners, it means unending veterinary visits and astronomical pet health care costs. It means worrying about the dog’s health and ultimately the emotional pain of losing a dog who might have otherwise provided love and comfort for more years.
Purebred dog breeding is here to stay, especially if we can succeed in reducing the number of homeless pets coming into shelters and rescue groups. But with breeding comes responsibility; the animals must be kept in humane conditions and they must be bred for underlying health and well-being. That means no puppy mills and it means breeding practices that put the dogs first.