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Thursday, August 7, 2014

Messed-Up Breeds....We're Responsible

My favorite dog breed is the English bulldog. Yes, I know that I'm crazy.  They are prone to so many health problems that I often say that you just about have to be a vet in order to own one.  They have problems with elongated soft palates, narrow nostrils, allergies and skin disorders, eyelid issues, tear gland disorders, hip dysplasia and so many other things it's really pretty ridiculous.  They also can't breed or give birth without human intervention.  But I love they way they look, their personalities, and I grew up working for a vet who bred them, so they're close to my heart.
The original English bulldogs weren't as bad as this.  Their faces weren't as short and they had longer legs. When bull baiting was outlawed some people wanted to preserve the breed and slectively bred to make them into companion pets.  In doing so they deliberately selected for a somewhat different physical appearance, and that ended up leading to predispositions for a number of different disorders.  Because of their health problems and difficulties in breeding, English bulldogs would die out within one or two generations if humans suddenly disappeared.  While we may love them and continue to desire a certain appearance, we have also caused the health problems that lead to so much discomfort.

Bulldogs aren't the only breed that has suffered from humans tinkering with breeding and genetics.  Cocker spaniels are prone to ear infections because we wanted large, floppy, hair ears.  Westhighland white terriers are one of the worst breeds for chronic skin allergies.  Breeds such as German sheperds and Great Danes have a high risk of bloat.  Boxers and cavalier King Charles spaniels are prone to heart disease.  Just about every pure breed has its own set of health problems and tendencies towards certain disorders.  Sometimes this is because we have bred for a specific appearance that ends up increasing risks for diseases.  Other times it is because a particular genetic predisposition happens to go along with the genes for appearance or behavior.  Historically people have bred dogs for appearance and behavior, not for health.  The issue is exacerbated by breeders who are careless and don't care about the quality of the parents, thus leading to higher risks of problems in their puppies.

It doesn't have to be this way.  There are people who are deliberately trying to breed out health problems, leading to Old English bulldogs and king shepherds.  I knew a vet who was working with a geneticist friend to identify genetic markers in Westies, allowing them to pre-screen potentially breeding dogs for allergy tendencies and only breed those who don't have that gene.  Responsible breeders try to screen for common health disorders in the dams and sires, and won't breed dogs that show signs of chronic illness or abnormalities typical for a breed.  There are definitely right ways to breed dogs and allow them to pass on good quality genetics, rather than the mess we have made in many breeds.

If you are considering buying a pure-bred dogs, I would encourage a few things.  First, check with local shelters and breed-specific rescue groups.  You'd be surprised how many pure-bred dogs are in desperate need of homes.  If you do go to a breeder be sure to ask them about health problems in the parents and how they screen for potential problems common to the breed.  And please do NOT purchase dogs or cats from pet stores (that's a rant for another time).  If people adopting or buying dogs are careful about where they get them, we can put more pressure on peole to be more responsible in breeding.  This will never eliminate problems, but it can certainly reduce them.