For those that missed it, it certainly won’t be the last they hear of it. Last night’s BBC documentary about the Kennel Club and the health of pedigree dogs has kicked off a real debate in the UK.
The BBC Documentary: Pedigree Dogs Exposed
The documentary was the result of two year’s investigation by the BBC and talked about how the ‘ideal breed standards’ documented by the Kennel Club, and the competitive nature of breeders who compete in dog shows, such as Crufts, run by the Kennel Club, have resulted in in-bred, unhealthy pedigree dogs.
The BBC stated that the Kennel Club has, whether knowingly or not, encouraged a certain culture of ‘in-breeding’ by specifying physical attributes within its ‘ideal’ breed standards. These state what is supposedly good in a breed. In some breeds, they are not too bad, but one example from the documentary last night was highlighted, which showed how these specifications can ultimately result in poor health.
Many people are familiar with a pug. A trait considered desirable in a showdog pug is the tail, which should, according to the Kennel Club, curl over its back. If it curls into a double curl, then that is even better. As shown in the BBC, competitive breeders have inbred dogs to make this more pronounced. With an x-ray, the documentary showed that pugs with a good curl on the tail also have a curved spine, causing health issues.
Indeed, they showed a picture of how the pug was a hundred years ago and how it is now. The difference was astounding. They used to have a proper snout whereas now their face is so flat they bump into things and hurt their eyes very easily. This flat face also causes them breathing problems to the extent that some airlines won’t allow them on flights for their own safety.
None of these health problems can be good and I am certain that nobody could argue this to the contrary.
The Kennel Club’s Response
Today, the Kennel Club has published its response, and defence, to the documentary and they made some fair points.
The Kennel Club felt the BBC only criticised and left viewers under the false impression that all pedigree dogs are riddled with poor health, which is untrue. They also say that the BBC missed the opportunity to put forward constructive proposals. It was shocked by the imagery on the programme and accepts some of the points raised.
However, in their defence, the Kennel Club points out that it is not a legal body and hence can only work through persuasion and in conjunction with other bodies, such as the British Veterinary Association and The Animal Health Trust, breeders, and the general public. It states it is working with breeders and that 90 per cent of pedigree dogs live and long and healthy life.
It defends the dog shows, saying that dog show judges are instructed not to award to any dogs where features are prominent enough to jeopardise the dog’s quality of life and winning dogs should be fit and healthy. Their breed standards are adjusted regularly and aim to avoid any exaggerated features.
They say they have recently introduced several new initiatives to encourage this, including their Accredited Breeder scheme, developing health screening for dogs including eye tests and hip scoring and helping breeders and dog clubs ensure that all dogs are fit and healthy, and to tackle unnecessarily exaggerated features. They call this scheme ‘fit for function – fit for life’ and it is designed to ensure all dogs are able to see, walk and breathe freely.
The Kennel Club also reminded the public that they cannot make changes overnight and are working against a legacy of more than 100 years.
You can read the full response from the Kennel Club on their website.
What Can Be Done?
Personally, I have owned pedigree dogs most of my life. I have also bred them as pets, although I have never been too bothered about meeting a particular ‘standard’ nor have I entered any dogs in dog shows. I do know others who own Crufts Champions in a particular breed though, and so here is my own personal viewpoint on this matter.
The discussion now surely has to be what we can do about this.
Personally, I don’t believe the Kennel Club should be abandoned. Despite its faults, of which I agree there are some, it also does much to promote the welfare of dogs in this country, both pedigree and mongrel. It is the only official dog clue with a real influence and capable of representing dog owners in legislative matters and more.
However, I seriously think they should re-visit all their dog breed standards. For example, their dog breed standard states that a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel should have a small head. With the history of Crufts-winning spaniels having a small head, breeders have inbred to get them as small as possible and now, they often suffer from neurological diseases because their heads are too small for their brains, meaning many suffer unimaginable pain from diseases such as syringomyelia. The programme interviewed the owner of one spaniel, a past winner of Crufts, with the disease. Surely a breed standard should say ‘the head should be between X and X’, rather than ‘small’, because that would stop breeders from trying to combine genetics to produce a head as small as possible.
It’s all very well the Kennel Club saying it does want to avoid exaggerated features but breeding and genetics takes a long time to adjust so maybe it’s taken a hundred years for them to be able to compare photographs and realise what their breed standards are gradually producing.
Secondly, they should bring in compulsory health screening before puppies can be registered with the Kennel Club – but keep the cost affordable. Since being diagnosed, the above-mentioned spaniel has reportedly still been used as a stud dog to sire 36 litters. I don’t call that a responsible breeder. The Kennel Club stated it was worried that breeders might ‘go underground’. I think that’s nonsense. I think they’re worried about losing business to the likes of the DLRC (Dog Lovers Registration Club), and yes, maybe they would to an extent, however, many breeders want to show their dogs and they can only do that if they are KC registered dogs. In addition, many pet owners still see a KC registered puppy as a sign of quality, although that may change anyway if something is not seen to be done quickly after this documentary, and so KC registered puppies generally fetch more money – another incentive to ensure puppies are health tested. If health screening is affordable, people will do it. Pedigree puppies are expensive anyway and people still pay the money because they want to know that they’re getting the breed they want, whether that’s because of the temperament, training or just for sentimental reasons.
So, should we all rush out and just buy mongrels in future?
Most people just want a pedigree pet because they want to know the sort of dog he’ll grow into. Mongrels are great in many ways. Due to the large gene pool, they’re generally more intelligent, but that does not stop them from having just as many health issues as a pedigree dog. In fact, you can get some rather unanticipated problems with a mongrel.
Firstly, you could take on a tiny pup to discover that his grandfather was a Great Dane and he grows much bigger than your lifestyle can cope with.
Other unknown throwbacks from his family tree can mean you can end up with temperament issue, stubbornness in training or health issues. Pedigree breeders do tend to know what is in their dog’s family tree.
And what would we do with the puppies? If we neutered them all, the dog population would drop substantially. However, who would buy mongrel puppies or take them on? If I had a gorgeous mongrel dog, from whom all I know would want a puppy, I would be hard pushed to find a suitable dog to mate her with. Puppies from a mongrel are never the same as either parent; there is just too much in the gene pool.
So what can the Kennel Club do? Is it possible to legislate in-breeding?
We should not forget that the documentary was designed to dramatise the situation and attract viewers. The programme even drew upon a dog genetics study from the Imperial College to underline its criticisms of dog breeding, and yet failed to acknowledge that this study was funded by the Kennel Club and is part of its commitment to dog health research.
The results of this study provide the Kennel Club with an important scientific platform to help it gain the support of breeders to tackle key health issues where they need to be tackled.
The public are more discerning now when choosing a puppy than they used to be. Most already know to ensure that they can see the mother, and if possible both parents, when purchasing a pedigree puppy.
In a similar way, they need to learn how to spot a good breeder. I must criticise the Kennel Club’s Accredited Dog Breeder scheme here, because I don’t think it goes anywhere near far enough. To become an accredited dog breeder, they simply have to participate in the required health screening, which is few and far between. There is nothing to say what they have to do according to the results, so they can still breed from stock that fails the test. Dogs must be identified by microchip, tattoo or DNA profiling, and prospective owners have to be given an advice leaflet. It is still a work in progress, I appreciate that, but it doesn’t seem to have moved much since it started and few people are aware of the scheme.
Most dog breeders tend to provide a family tree with the new puppy, which would show if the dog parents are related in the last 3 to 5 generations, certainly whether mum and son have been bred together as one gentleman stated on the BBC documentary last night.
Potential owners should also check how many of the names on the family tree are in red. If the names are in red, they are names of dogs that were a champion at Kennel Club dog shows. If there are quite a few, then the breeder should possibly be quizzed a little more and the family tree checked carefully for inbreeding.
There has been mention that the BBC will now be discussing the issue of broadcasting Crufts with the Kennel Club. After 42 years of broadcasting Crufts on the BBC, they say it will stop unless the Kennel Club does something about the dogs health. If they stop broadcasting it, someone else will, but if this is true, you have to admire them for standing their ground.
There are also rumours that the Queen, famed for her love of dogs, will end her association with the Kennel Club as well. Again, I think this is unlikely to happen as the Queen tends not to get involved but boy, will the Kennel Club be in trouble if that happens.
Will People Stop Buying Pedigree Puppies?
Personally, I imagine there were not too many pedigree puppies sold today, but in the long run I don’t think this BBC programme will stop people from buying them. Instead, I hope it raises awareness about health issues and that the Kennel Club will now work with dog breeders to encourage them to stop inbreeding. The only way to stop it is to change the dog shows that these people are trying to win. I certainly hope that the Kennel Club immediately re-assess what it deems to be good qualities in a dog and its breed standards.
Your Thoughts for Man’s Best Friend
As you can no doubt tell by the length of this article, the subject of dog breeding and dog health is not only one that raises the hackles (excuse the pun) of many members of the general public but a difficult and complicated issue. Please feel free to share your thoughts.