Part 2 - Extremely beautiful - extremely sick ... - A critical look at dog breeding

by Sandra LindbergJanuary 18, 2023

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

The conditions of dog breeding and the influence and importance of dog breeding associations on the development of dog breeds and their health were described in detail in part 1. Now it's about how dog breeders, veterinarians, puppy buyers and so-called condition judges at dog shows contribute to the fact that so many dogs are bred to be extremely sick, while at the same time claiming to be extremely beautiful. Only knowledge of the causes enables a turn for the better. The second part of the two-part article by the renowned animal breeding and genetics expert, Univ.-Prof. Dr. Irene Sommerfeld-Stur.

Certainly one of the biggest problems in dog breeding are the dog breeders themselves. They come in the same individual diversity as their dogs. And yet they have a lot in common with each other. The most important similarity is certainly the emotional bond with the dog. Nothing bad in the first place, we all love our dogs and it would be sad if that wasn't the case. If it weren't for the huge rose-colored glasses that cloud the view of your own dog. And that doesn't allow this dog's flaws to be seen soberly and realistically in the same way as its assets.

A special problem arises from the fact that most breeders only have one dog, mostly a bitch. This means that there is no real selection option for the individual breeder. Because if it turns out that this one bitch is not suitable for breeding, for whatever reason, then strictly speaking this means a breeding ban for the lifetime of this bitch for the owner. Only very few breeders can part with the bitch in such a case or take a second one. And since the desire to breed is in most cases strongly emotionally motivated, a decision is often made in favor of breeding.

Bad result difficult to accept

Humanly, this can even be understood quite well in many cases. Let's imagine the following scenario. Someone has a very beautiful and very loving Labrador Retriever. The bitch has a very pleasant nature, is easy to train, the whole family loves her. She is healthy and lively, romps around in the garden with the children, accompanies the family on long hikes, everyone is happy with her. Because she is such a great bitch, the desire to have a litter with her arises. You want to do everything right, register with a breed association, go to the necessary dog shows and do the prescribed breeding tests. And then it happens: the X-ray results show HD-C, i.e. moderate hip dysplasia, which means the end of breeding. The problem is that the owners can hardly understand this finding. Because the dog is healthy, shows no signs of lameness. The owners are dependent on the statement of the veterinarian, who made his diagnosis on the basis of an X-ray, which the non-medical owners can hardly do anything with. If the dog were lame or otherwise showing any symptoms, it would probably be easier for the owners to accept a breeding disqualification.

Disease diagnosis despite (for the time being) missing symptoms

The acceptance of a finding by the breeder is often made more difficult by the fact that the result of a screening examination is in many cases not an "incontrovertible" result. Because if one and the same dog is examined by another vet, it can easily happen that the result is different. This can be worse or better than the original result. And apart from the fact that different results are not exactly conducive to the owners' trust in the diagnosis methodology, it is understandable if a dog owner who would like to breed with his dog is inclined to believe the findings that are more favorable for him.

However, it is one of the "pitfalls" inherent in the system of breeding screening tests that in most cases the dogs do not show any symptoms at the time of the test. This applies to the various joint diseases as well as to many eye diseases, heart diseases, etc. Breeding screening tests correspond to so-called early diagnosis, i.e. diagnosis before the clinical manifestation of a disease. This also makes sense in the breeding context, because it is all about recognizing carriers of a disease as early as possible in order to prevent them from being used in breeding.

One method for all breeds?

False negative and false positive findings can never be completely prevented in the context of veterinary diagnostics. In the field of screening diagnostics, however, its consequences do not only affect the individual dog. Because incorrect diagnoses can have consequences for the next generations, both through an unjustified exclusion from breeding and through an unjustified breeding use of a dog.

Another problem arises from the ongoing improvements in the diagnostic methods used, which are able to detect ever finer deviations. And in this context, the legitimate question arises as to how far a recognizable but minor deviation from the norm is actually relevant to the disease. The question to be considered is to what extent the reference values usually used as a measure for the norm have the same validity for every breed. For example, a recent study (LAWRENCE et al, 2013) showed that there are major differences between breeds with regard to the reference ranges of haematological parameters, which should be taken into account when assessing a finding. In the field of HD screening diagnostics, the question would also be of interest, for example, to what extent the Norberg-Olssen angle of 105 degrees, which is assumed to be the standard value for all breeds, is actually valid for all breeds.

Bullying against honest breeders?

However, breeders who are unsettled by unclear findings are not the only ones who make efficient selection against genetic diseases more difficult. There are also breeders who deliberately and without emotional justification disregard reasons for their own dog's exclusion from breeding. In these cases, the background is either financial or the desire for the prestige of a successful breeder does not allow admitting that one's own dog has a genetic health problem. It is these breeders who try at all costs to prevent buyers of a puppy with a genetic disease from openly reporting this disease. And the other breeders, who openly report illnesses in their kennel, describe them as polluters who would talk the breed sick and thus make it difficult to sell puppies. Such breeders do not stop at active cover-ups and concealments of genetic defects. And they don't stop at active bullying of other breeders who openly deal with diseases of a breed. The sad consequence of this bullying is often resignation on the part of those affected. Because you have to consider that for a breeder the breeding association and its activities are often part of the social environment, the loss of which can also have far-reaching emotional consequences.

Concealment of genetic defects

There are many technical possibilities for genetic obfuscation. From more cosmetic manipulations such as hair dyeing, to the gluing of young dogs' ears, which is common in some breeds, to achieve a breed-typical tipped ear, for example, to veterinary interventions such as the fitting of mouthguards to correct canine crowding or surgical measures such as the Correction of eyelid malformations up to the drug preparation of a dog for a character test. Modern veterinary medicine today offers innumerable possibilities for the treatment of genetic diseases, which can be very beneficial for the individual dog. In the breeding context, however, it must be considered that veterinary treatment is always aimed at the phenotype, the genotype remains unchanged.

Sugarcoating health problems

And then there are those breeders who sugarcoat their breed's health issues or simply ignore them. Then the desperate rattling of a noseless Pug is interpreted as charming "chatting", the inflamed conjunctiva of the eyelids of the so-called checkered eye, popular in some breeds, is explained as an innocent look, or the deafness of some white or piebald dogs is accepted with approval in order to meet the breed standard correspond to.

There are also serious committed breeders

However, it should not be concealed that there are also other breeders. Those who genuinely care about the breeding improvement of a breed, those who have experience and knowledge and make every effort to gather information about their dogs genetic environment and then make their breeding decisions to the best of their knowledge and belief. Breeders who use every opportunity for training and further education and who read everything they can get their hands on in terms of specialist literature. And who use all available options for diagnosing genetic diseases and do committed persuasive work in their association. They exist, these breeders, I wish there were more of them.

The vets

The role of veterinarians in genetic diagnostics is based on their respective expertise in evaluating clinical findings. However, it should not be overlooked that the same quality criteria apply to breeding screening tests as to any other form of diagnosis. Thus, both the requirement for a high repeatability and the requirement for a high validity of the diagnostic methods must be made. Because the already mentioned problem of the often different findings of one and the same dog by different veterinarians leads to uncertainty among breeders and thus often to a lack of acceptance of a diagnostic procedure. And since dog breeders' associations are not subject to any legal regulation, it is up to the breeders to decide by majority whether or not to use a screening method that is offered.

Here, too, it should not be concealed that veterinarians who work in the field of breeding screening diagnostics have in most cases completed special training and there are specialized working groups for most areas that offer training and further training and that regularly check the quality of the diagnostics .

But veterinarians are also involved in breeding activities in their curative activities. In some cases, they are even a kind of "accomplice" when it comes to concealing genetic defects through appropriate therapy. It would be desirable, therefore, if any veterinarian treating a genetic condition would strongly advise the pet owner that the treatment can only cure the dog's phenotype, not its genotype. And that the breeding use of a cured but genetically affected dog even represents a violation of the Animal Welfare Act.

As already mentioned several times, veterinarians also play a very important role in the field of dog breeding today. They are the ones who are responsible for the area of screening diagnostics for hereditary diseases, and they are the ones who then also treat all diseases that occur. It sounds cynical to say that the veterinary profession practically profits from breeders' mistakes, but the fact is that a very large proportion of the veterinary clientele have health problems that have a genetic basis.

The Puppy Buyers

It is the puppy buyers who ultimately have to pay for the genetic diseases of their dogs. They are the ones who have to pay the vet bills, they are the ones who must manage the day-to-day life of a sick or disabled dog, and they are the ones who must mourn the untimely loss of a short-lived dog. But they are also the ones who have the information about genetic diseases and thus also the opportunity to pass this information on.

I know many breeders who try again and again, more or less in vain, to obtain information from the owners about the health of the dogs they breed. It becomes particularly difficult when the information is linked to the need for a veterinary examination. There are breeders who add the cost of an HD examination to the purchase price when selling their puppies, with the assurance that this amount will be repaid if an HD diagnosis is presented. But even such measures are only partially effective. Because for the puppy buyer who does not want to breed himself, in most cases only the recognizable state of health of his dog is of interest. Most dog buyers are not aware of the importance that a screening result has for the breeder and thus also for the entire breeding population. But only a breeder who has as much information as possible about his offspring can also implement this knowledge in an appropriate breeding strategy.

The second function of the puppy buyer arises even before buying a puppy. I'm always amazed that people who study brochures and test reports for days or weeks before buying a car or a washing machine and seek advice from all sorts of sources often spontaneously get a dog or without having informed themselves accordingly. If more dog buyers found out about breed-specific diseases and health risks before buying, it would become more difficult for many breeders to sell their puppies and the motivation to breed healthy dogs would increase. Because in this respect, the same rules apply to dog breeding as to any other branch of production - what cannot be sold will eventually no longer be produced.

Puppy buyers also play an important role in combating genetic defects in breeding. And in two respects.

When breeds become fashionable

More often, however, the exact opposite happens when a breed becomes fashionable. There are many reasons for that. Starting with Lassie Syndrome, which was caused by the Collie in a film series from the 1950s, to breeds such as Bassets, Dalmatians, Retrievers, West Highland White Terriers and others that became known and loved through films or advertising . The consequences are always the same. The demand for dogs of the respective breed increases and with it the prices in general also increase. And breeders of the respective breed understandably want to benefit from the increased demand. And with that, breeding is increasing, often disregarding health-related selection criteria. You can't really blame the breeders here. Because if it's not the association breeders who serve the demand, then it's unorganized breeders, in the worst case mass breeders, often from abroad, who produce puppies of the breeds that are currently in demand without any consideration of genetic and behavioral science and at much cheaper prices, than the reputable breeder is able to put on the market. Dog buyers realize that the low price is only cheap at first glance when the veterinary bills skyrocket or the cute puppy develops into an anxious and insecure problem dog due to insufficient socialization.

The judges

Judges have to base their evaluation on the breed standard. However, most standard descriptions are not very precise and leave a lot of leeway for an individual interpretation by the show judge. And although form judges, in contrast to breeders, have to go through a very complex and factual training before they can judge independently, in many cases personal taste seems to override the knowledge learned. Because otherwise the many extreme excesses in pedigree dog breeding would hardly be possible. Perhaps it would also be desirable if a little more veterinary content was integrated into the training of the judges, so that every judge who puts a dog with obviously health-related breed characteristics at the top is also aware of what he is doing to the dogs of this breed.

Human and interpersonal aspects play a role that should not be underestimated. Judges also want to exercise their function, and they can only do that if they are also invited to dog shows. A judge who too often goes against the breeding intentions of a breeding association will no longer be invited.

The show judges also have a very significant influence on the development of a dog breed. They are the ones who decide which dog wins a show competition and which dog is put down. And they are the ones who decide in the long term in which direction a breed will develop. The sometimes extreme changes that some breeds have undergone over the past few decades would not have been possible without breed judges who preferred extreme variants of a breed.

And so the circle closes

Association structures - people - human and interpersonal. The problem is always at the other end of the leash. What applies to keeping and training dogs also applies to dog breeding. It is therefore also the people who would have it in their hands to take other, better paths and thus give the breeding of healthy pedigree dogs a chance.

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.