Animals & Money: Horrified by BBC purebreed documentary

The BBC spent two years researching the grim realities of purebred dogs for their documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed, which aired in August. The BBC's big findings were that, much like we've all suspected, lots of pedigree dogs are more likely to be sickly because they're chosen for breeding on cuteness or how tiny their snout can be--not how healthy they are or even how good of a companion.

The show hasn't been shown here yet. (Though it's available in clips here. And you can buy it from the production company.) But expect a big uproar when BBC America does show it. And a big backlash against spending money on purebreds, especially from puppy mills. The Guardian says the "Kennel Club is facing the greatest crisis in its history." That's how big the tidal wave is that about to hit the breeding industry in the U.S.

Already the U.S. dog community is riled up. Patrick Burns, known as TerrierMan, has offered one smart blog after another on breed-specific health problems--both from the documentary and other sources. In England and Australia, the reaction has been intense. The RSPCA and other sponsors pulled out of Crufts, England's fanciest dog show. Now many British dog lovers are pushing for the BBC to stop airing Crufts.

The Kennel Club says the documentary was unfair to them (especially that bit about how dog breeding is like the eugenics program of the Nazis.) They were already working on problem breed standards--small consolation for those who bought their family a puppy doomed to disease in that time. They say most purebreds are totally healthy. So far they've changed the breed standards for the Pekingese, making its face less pushed in.The documentary shows that people who pay hundreds or thousands of dollars more to get a brand name purebred dog are actually getting a dog that stands a fair chance of getting sick and dying younger. What are some of the charges?

  • One in three King Charles Spaniels in England have the neurological disorder Syringomyelia, caused by being bred with too small a skull. The treatment, surgery to open the skull and let the brain expand, is often fatal.
  • The 10,000 pugs in the UK have only the genetic diversity of 50 animals.
  • The ridge on Rhodesian Ridgebacks is a form of spina bifida and the dogs are prone to a skin infection. One in 20 are born without a ridge; breed standards call for those dogs, which are actually healthier, to be culled.
  • Bulldogs are bred with their heads so big they can't give birth naturally.
  • Dachshunds used to have much taller legs proportionally.

RSPCA's chief veterinary adviser, Mark Evans, calls dog shows a "parade of mutants." As dogs have become part of our family instead of workers on our farms, people are naturally getting more uncomfortable with the breeding industry. It doesn't make sense to breed dogs to intricate and arcane standards based on someone from 1850's idea. Dogs primary purpose now is to be our companions. So, if we are going to breed them, it makes sense to breed towards a happy, friendly disposition; good health and longevity; and it probably wouldn't hurt to throw in hypo-allergenic coats. But it's hard--if not impossible--to judge those things in a few hours in a show ring. That's why dog breeds and dog shows are becoming anachronisms.
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