Part 1 - Extremely beautiful - extremely sick ... - A critical look at dog breeding

by Sandra LindbergJanuary 18, 2023
Sandra Lindberg

The following article written by  Univ.-Prof. Dr. Irene Sommerfeld-Sturwas published in the German-language dog magazine WUFF in 2015.

People seem to like it: Dogs – extremely large, extremely small, extremely short-legged, extremely short-nosed, extremely wrinkled, extremely coloured, extremely short-lived … It is the dogs that have to pay for it. They are plagued by joint diseases, heart diseases, metabolic diseases, cancer, skin diseases, eye diseases and much more. And in the worst case, they are so built up that they have to struggle for air their entire lives. What makes people who necessarily love their dogs do all this to them? What do dog breed associations and dog breeders have to do with it? What can you do? An exciting two-part article by the renowned geneticist Univ.-Prof. Dr Irene Sommerfeld-Stur.

If you have been professionally involved in dog breeding and genetics for more than 30 years and observe with concern the increasing accumulation of health problems in almost all pedigree dog populations and also the large number of dogs with behavioural problems, then at some point the question arises, where lies the rub? What is the cause of pedigree dog breeding problems? The genetic conditions in dogs are no different than in cattle, pigs or horses. In these animal species, too, there is the problem of recessive defects, disposition diseases and late-onset diseases - i.e. genetic problems that make it difficult to combat hereditary diseases. Despite this, there are significantly fewer genetic health problems in these animal species. In addition, these massive problems did not exist in dogs in the past. Otherwise the dog would hardly have survived the long time that it has been living alongside humans. So the plethora of health and other problems that dog breeding has to deal with these days must have something to do with the current conditions of dog breeding and arguably with the people who breed. Unlike cattle and pigs, dogs are not livestock. Although the horse is officially one of the farm animals, it has a similar status to the dog for a large proportion of horse owners. Nevertheless, the number of genetic health problems in horses is also limited. So where are the differences?

Performance-oriented selection for „livestock"

The secret lies in the term "livestock". A livestock is an animal that must fulfil a specific use. For cattle and pigs, the desired use relates to meat or milk production, for horses to usability as a riding horse. Each of these uses counts presupposes that the animal that is supposed to provide a corresponding service must be healthy. The service provided is also of great economic importance. The sale of animal products represents the livelihood of farmers. Loss of performance due to illness reduces the company's income and, in the worst case, can even mean the end of a company. In the case of horses, too, reduced performance or loss of performance due to illness poses a financial problem. A sick horse cannot be ridden, but there are still costs for keeping and feeding it. And if a cattle or pig breeder still makes the decision to kill a sick animal relatively easily, this way out is only possible in very difficult cases in horse husbandry. Many sick horses drain the budget and time of their owners for a long time without bringing any benefit to the rider. Health therefore has a very high priority both in the breeding of agricultural livestock and in horse breeding. And since performance and health are closely linked, performance-based selection generally has a positive impact on health as well.

The conditions of dog breeding

With dogs it's a little different. Dogs are not farm animals. Even if I don't want to describe dogs as "useless" in general, in most cases the demands made on dogs are more to be found in the emotional area than in the area of physical performance. Exceptions prove the rule. In this case It is actually the breeds in which physical performance is also taken into account during the selection process that are also positively noticeable from a health point of view. It is not by chance that hunting dogs, for example, have far fewer problems with chronic degenerative joint diseases. And that also explains why the massive accumulation of health problems in dogs has only occurred in the last few years or decades. Because, unlike today, dogs used to be a kind of farm animal. In the long history of the human-dog relationship, only very few people could afford to keeping a dog "just because" for your own enjoyment. Dogs had to perform. They had to protect or herd herds, guard farms, accompany their owners to war or hunts, pull sleighs or milk wagons, and in some cases even earn their raison d'être by fighting with other animals. Targeted selection breeding hardly took place in these times. The selection was mainly based on the fact that dogs that were successful in the expected performance were better cared for and therefore simply had better chances of breeding. Hardly anyone could afford to keep feeding dogs that were no good. They were left to their own devices or killed, reducing their chances of reproducing. This simple but proven selection strategy changed with the introduction of pedigree dog breeding. And that is a very short period compared to the length of time that dogs have been with humans. All the more depressing when you consider what happened genetically to the dogs in this short time. In many breeds, monsters were bred out of a prototype with a functionally adapted physique. Extremely large, extremely small, extremely short-legged, extremely short-nosed, extremely wrinkled, extremely coloured, extremely short-lived. And from large populations with more or less natural selection conditions and extensive random mating, small to the smallest closed populations were made in which inbreeding celebrates sad records. Those who have to pay for it are the dogs. They are plagued by joint diseases, heart diseases, metabolic diseases, cancer, skin diseases, eye diseases and much more. And in the worst case, they are so built up that they have to struggle for air their entire lives. So what makes people who necessarily love their dogs do all this to them? Why is it necessary that the Animal Welfare Act formulate its own ban on torture breeding, which makes the fact of deliberately breeding sick animals a punishable offence? And why is this ban on torturous breeding almost impossible to implement in practice? In the course of my many years of working with dog breeding, I have of course also got to know a lot of breeders. And also a lot of the organisational environment of dog breeding. And I've made observations that can explain some of the problems in dog breeding.

The breeding associations

Dog breeding is organised as an association. Dog breeders are therefore usually members of breed associations and must therefore also adhere to the specifications of these breed associations. And that is one of the roots of the problems. Because in contrast to farm animals, for which the breeding and thus also the structure and organization of the breeding associations is regulated by the Animal Breeding Act and is controlled by the state chambers of agriculture, there is no corresponding law for dog breeding. Dog breeding associations are therefore private associations that are exclusively governed by association law. The submission of an association statute and a notification to the association authority are sufficient to found a breeding association. There is no official qualification test; anyone who wants to can set up a breeding association. That does not mean that dog breeding is determined by individual small associations. There are the big breeding associations, such as the Austrian Cynologists' Association (ÖKV) in Austria or the Association for German Dogs (VDH) in Germany, which in turn are affiliated with the international umbrella organization, the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI). And there are other large and small breed associations, a variety that is not only difficult for dog buyers to keep track of. A number of the smaller breeding associations came into being as so-called dissidence associations when breeders who were dissatisfied with the breeding policy of their association left and founded their own association. All of these associations are private associations, which do not require any special qualifications to be set up. Dissatisfaction with association-controlled breeding strategies is common. However, not every breeder who is critical of the work of his breed association resigns and founds a new association. Many try to assert themselves and implement their own ideas in the breeding association, sometimes with more, sometimes less success. Mostly with less. Because decisions about changes in breeding policy must go through the democratic construct of the association structure. There are member meetings, general meetings, breeding committee meetings and much more. All of these meetings have to be organised, invitations to them have to be given in good time, applications have to be submitted in good time and in many cases it is difficult to see who is allowed to have a say in which decision. The result is that innovations can only be implemented very slowly, if at all. Because if, for example, a vote on the introduction of a genetic test in the annual general meeting was not valid for formal reasons (and that happens more often than you think), then the next vote can only take place a year later, at the next annual meeting. And during this time, the genetic defect that the investigation was intended to contain has time to spread unhindered. Dog breed associations have another inherent problem. While in the breeding associations of farm animals it is primarily trained professionals who are responsible for the creation and implementation of breeding programs, in the dog breeding associations it is the overwhelming majority of lay people. At least as far as appropriate training in the genetic basics of dog breeding is concerned. Because, as already mentioned, no special qualifications are required to set up a breeding association, and the allocation of functions within the framework of a breeding association is generally not primarily based on professional qualifications, but rather on the basis of the willingness of breeders to to take on certain tasks and functions. Because that is also a special feature of dog breeding associations. With few exceptions, all positions are honorary positions. The not inconsiderable work for a breeding association is therefore free of charge and has to be done in addition to the other professional activities. However, it must not be overlooked that honorary posts also bring honour and the possibility of exercising power and influencing and thus the prestige of the officials are useful. Therefore, the motivation to become involved in a breeding association is not always based on idealistic motives. However, it would not be possible to find trained professionals for every responsible function in a breed association. If you only look at the more than 100 association bodies in the ÖKV, then it is obvious that there cannot be that many specialists trained in genetics. Nevertheless, the consequence is that in most cases decisions about breeding measures and breeding strategies are in the hands of laymen. What is remarkable in this context is the fact that permission to run dog schools is now tied to a professional qualification. As welcome as this circumstance is, it would be desirable that in the breeding area, in which the first course for every dog's life is ultimately set, qualification requirements are also made. And these should not be limited to the breeding associations. Because not only the association officials are largely genetic laymen, the same applies to the majority of breeders. And that is the second root of the problems. Because there are no professional quality requirements for dog breeders either, as far as basic genetic knowledge is concerned. Most breeding associations check the local husbandry and rearing conditions before assigning a kennel name, and many breeding associations offer advanced training seminars, and some associations even make attending a first breeder seminar compulsory. But these measures can only be seen as a drop in the bucket, given the scope and complexity of the science of genetics.

In the second part of this article by Univ. Prof. Dr. Irene Sommerfeld-Stur, the other big problem area of breeders is therefore examined.

About the author: Univ. Prof. Dr. Irene Sommerfeld-Stur is an Austrian population geneticist, expert in the field of dog breeding and associate professor at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna.