In continuation with SAWS’s breeding month, on the 15th of March 2021, SAWS welcomed the Dog Breeding Reform Group (DBRG)’s very own Dr. Emma Milne MRCVS, a reputable author and animal welfarist, for a talk to uncover whether the current standards for dog breeds cause suffering. This talk welcomed RVC students, staff as well as other members of the DBRG. Emma’s talk focused firstly on discussing the health complications of specific breeds caused by the current breed standards, then Emma considered what species and breeds are affected by brachycephaly, and finally explored the ethical dilemmas surrounding breed standards.
Health complications of the current standards for specific breeds:
1- Neapolitan Mastiff
Neopolitan mastiffs are permitted to have some loose skin over their bodies including their head.
2- Shar pei
Current breed standards for Shar peis is as follows: eyes must be almond shaped with a growing expression. Function of eyeball or lid cannot be disturbed by surrounding skin, folds or hair in any way. Any sign of irritation of eyeball, conjunctiva or eyelids is deemed highly undesirable for this breed. Free from entropion (a condition in which the eyelid is rolled inward against the eyeball, typically caused by muscle spasm or by inflammation or scarring of the conjunctiva, and resulting in irritation of the eye by the lashes). The muzzle must be padded. Some changes in the standards of this breed include changes from the old standard, which included fine wrinkles on forehead and cheeks continuing to form dewlaps, while the new standard for Shar peis now limits this to moderate wrinkling on the forehead and on the cheeks.
The old breed standard for dachshunds included having a long, fully muscled body. The new standard has changed this to only having a moderately long body, which is fully muscled. The body of the dog should sufficiently clear off the ground to allow free movement (i.e. should ideally not scuff the ground with its chest as it walks).
4- English Bull Terrier
Breed standards for English Bull Terriers include a downfaced, egg-shaped head. Viewed from front, the egg-shaped head must be completely filled, its surace free from hollows or indentations. The nose should be black and bent downwards at the tip.
5- German Shepherd
There are striking differences between the hind legs of the working/police dogs and those of the show ring (see image below). Notably, the hind legs of working German shepherds are much longer than those of show and therefore their backs are straight and not angled down. German shepherds commonly suffer from hip dysplasia which is an incurable and painful disease for dogs. Working German Shepherds have a powerful, well muscled build, with a weather resistant coat. In 2016, there was a change made to breed standard of German Shepherds, in that they must be capable of standing comfortably and calmly, freely and unsupported in any way.
Emma mentioned in her talk that “brachycephaly is the direct result of the stupidity of man”, underlying the key issue of selective breeding. These extreme conformations which lead to seriously debilitating and chronic diseases in brachycephalic dogs, would not exist in the wild and frequently require veterinary attention. Currently, show breed standards for “flat-faced” dogs state that respiratory distress is highly undesirable. However, it is almost impossible for flat faced dogs not to experience respiratory distress as these dogs are specifically bred to have pansy-like sweet faces, short noses with big eyes as well as short square bodies - giving them a cuddly teddy bear-like look. The show breed standard for pugs for instance, requires the dogs to carry a certain amount of fat, meaning that a lean pug is undesirable. This not only adds the complications of being overweight to a body which is already struggling to cope, but also normalises the idea that these dogs are ‘meant to be’ overweight.
One of the first brachycephalic complications that people tend to think about is Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS), however this is not the only complication that these dogs suffer from. Other complications include multiple GI diseases, heat intolerance, exophthalmos, corneal trauma, dry eye, skin fold pyoderma, hemivertebrae, IVDD, multiple myelopathies, chondrodystrophy, obesity, 100% dental malocclusion, congenital cardiac disease, syringomyelia, and the inability to reproduce, to name just a few. Additionally, it is not just dogs that can be brachycephalic and suffer from these conditions, but also cats, horses and rabbits.
What have we done?
Emma went on to explain that by only being concerned with appearances, we have created animals that could not and would not exist in nature. If we breed dogs for appearances, then health and temperament can never be a priority. Breeds do not occur in nature, instead they are a man-made concept. In fact, some breeds are now only viable through veterinary intervention, including reproduction. Many breed enthusiasts claim that it is impossible to get rid of certain breeds and that breeds are unable to be changed. However, as Emma pointed out, if some breeds are only viable through veterinary intervention, they would die out if they did not receive this intervention. Additionally, we have only had many of these breeds for the last 20 to 100 years and already they have changed dramatically, therefore it is possible to reverse the process.
What are the ethical dilemmas and how will this impact vets in practice?
The ethical dilemmas that result from the current breed standards impact veterinarians in practice in a number of ways. Accidental mating, persian show cats with nystagmus, bulldog c-section timing, tail docking, ear cropping - are examples of these. The solutions to these problems are not simple. For instance, one the one hand, if practices stopped accepting these breeds, these animals would be denied the health care they need through no fault of their own. On the other hand, if veterinarians continued to allow elective c-sections on bulldogs, and perform surgeries to unblock the airways of brachycephalic dogs this could lead to intense compassion fatigue in many veterinarians for whom these procedures go against what they feel is morally right..
What should we do?
Firstly, it is important to remember that it is the species that is important and not the breeds. We must start prioritising health and temperament above appearances. We should prevent more breeds from being created, as this creates selective pressure on already existing breeds. Some breeds will need to cease as a single species cannot tolerate hundreds of vastly different morphologies. Emma suggested that a complete and independent veterinary overhaul of breed standards is needed, in order to place the health of these dogs above appearances. The Kennel Club should introduce mandatory health testing and vastly improve as well as broaden vet checks done on these dogs. The Kennel Club should also cease to register, recognise or show the worst affected breeds until the breed clubs have appreciably improved their health and introduce a minimum breeding age to prevent dogs commencing breeding too young. Ultimately, limits on what constitutes a healthy dog, cat, rabbit etc. need to be set.
What could vets do?
Vets need to be clearer with owners and breeders about the complications of breeds that have these conformational complications. Additionally, making reproductive services such as elective c-section and artificial insemination (unless for genetic diversity) professional misconduct will help prevent breeding dog breeds that should not exist. All pet deformities should also be recorded on clinical records. Vets need to invest more time and effort into ‘pre-purchase’ education. Too often, owners come to the vets after purchasing a new puppy and are miss-informed about the care their pets will need by breeders. If vets were able to speak with owners before they bought their pet, they may help them make better informed decisions. Vets will also need to collaborate more with insurance companies. Many of these conditions should not be covered. For instance, if insurance companies did not pay for dachshund spines or BOAS, the demand for these dogs may drop as they become more expensive to keep. Vets should also not be ‘part of the problem’ and lead by example by avoiding keeping animals that suffer from their extreme conformational morphologies.
“The concept of the breed standard based on morphology alone is a major cause of suffering” - Emma Milne. Overall the aim of this talk was to give a snapshot of the complications current breed standards cause in dogs, but also the complications this has on veterinarian professionals, and offers some creative insights in how to tackle these issues.