I recently watched the BBC documentary from a few years back, called “Pedigree Dogs Exposed”. In a nutshell, it explains the problems faced by pedigree dogs and their owners, and delves into the ongoing moral debate into whether we have the right to manipulate a species for (in most cases) our own enjoyment or leisure. It was one of the most shocking things I’ve seen in a while and seriously called to question my views of the whole industry!
Before watching the program, I spent a week in one of of Goddard’s 24 hour hospitals. Being quite a big one, it had a specialist who happened to deal with syringomyelia cases. Little did I know at the time that she featured several times on this programme! Her job is very relevant to the debate, as syringomyelia is a hereditory disease that affects at least one third of Cavalier Spaniels and also Chihuahuas. And that is saying something, seeing as they are one of the UK’s most popular pets. One of the first things shown on screen was one of these spaniels with a severe form of the condition, which causes the brain to be too small for the skull. The brain can therefore not expand and contract naturally as it should with every heartbeat, which causes a buildup of pressure and thus intense headaches. This much was clear from the video: the poor dog was displaying the commonly seen twitching of the head, rubbing his head agains the floor and howling. What was really shocking was the specialist’s explanation, which went something along the lines of “If you hit a dog to create the pain caused by syringomyelia you would certainly prosecuted, yet breeding Cavaliers who are known to have the disease is not prosecutable, yet in doing so owners are knowingly allowing more dogs to be in pain in the future”.
And that really sums up the problem- not only is it partly the fault of humans that such diseases emerged (because we bred the heads to be smaller for our shallow aesthetic appreciation, against evolution), but I think the truly disgusting fact is that people continue to inbreed these and other such dogs. The winner of the cavalier dog show in Woucester admitted on the programme that she knew that her dog had the condition, yet went on to breed from her. If that isn’t selfish then I don’t know what is. Similarly, the Pekingese who won Krufts in the year of the documentary had a soft palette problem which meant that it’s frantic breathing caused it to overheat so it had to be sat on an ice pack while receiving the award. Despite the knowledge of this heritable condition, the owner bred something like 18 litters from it.
What was really interesting was learning why this has not been stopped. Following complaints and pressure, the Kennel Club minorly adjusted their guidelines so that dogs had to be deemed “healthy” to win dog shows such as Krufts, along with a few other minor adjustments to the ideal breeds guidelines. Sadly, however, the reason that they refuse to do more is for financial reasons: the dog trade is huge, and dog shows etc make a lot of money. Therefore, if it were made illegal to breed dogs such that they might inherit these conditions (which is true to some extent for most ideal breeds these days), then the aforementioned organisations would loose money because people would breed them outside of the system. So, effectively, thousands of people are compromising animal welfare for their own pride, treating their animals as prized possessions. I really had no idea it was this bad.
Of course, not all pedigree dog owners have this attitude. In fact, there are campaigns ongoing by owners of cavs, for instance, to reduce and eliminate the problem. It just really shocked me how materialistic the whole industry is; a dog should be a companion and loved regardless of whether or not it has a ridge or screwtail. Obviously a vet should treat whatever comes through the door equally, so pay no regard to whether the owners were responsible for breeding a sick dog… Yet hopefully in time attitudes will change, inbreeding will be reduced, and the unnecessary pain of animals will diminish, because it really does seem as shame that human materialism is compromising the health and wellbeing of innocent animals.