Breeding Paradox

Can dog-breeding practices be changed?
By John Woestendiek, September 2011, Updated June 2015

As a cynical outsider might snobbishly see it, Americans have the attention span of an Irish Setter, the intellectual curiosity of an Afghan Hound, the turf-guarding ferocity of a German Shepherd and the hungry greed of a Labrador Retriever. Count up all the beings besmirched by those insults — the dogs, the Americans and perhaps most of all, the Americans who breed those dogs — and you’d have the makings of an army, and an angry one at that. But consider the possibility that, while grossly stereotyping, it contains some underlying kernels of truth, at least when it comes to human foibles. That might give you a better understanding of why the issue of genetic health problems in purebreds caused by inbreeding has never led to more than ripples on the pond of public consciousness in the U.S.

In 2008, the documentary “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” aired on BBC, showcasing the devastating health problems that have resulted from breeding closely related purebred dogs in the United Kingdom. Along with an accompanying push by animal welfare organizations, it prompted a wave of changes and led to re-examination of the appearance-above-all value system many dog fanciers, breeders and kennel clubs have long held dear.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., hundreds of genetic disorders afflict an estimated five million purebred dogs, resulting in close to $1 billion a year in veterinary expenses and incalculable amounts of pain to dogs and their owners. Here, outside of kennel club and breed club circles, the issue has rated little more than a blip on the dog lover’s radar screen, sometimes rising to the forefront, but rarely staying there.

In an attempt to import the debate to U.S. shores — or, in the view of some suspicious breeders, to fire “the first salvo” in an attack on the purebred dog-breeding industry — the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) convened “The Purebred Paradox” earlier this year. The April conference featured many of the same players who brought the issue out of the shadows and onto center stage in Great Britain. It wasn’t hugely attended, or hugely reported on. Nonetheless, the two-day conference at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., led to some serious and, despite the sensitivities involved, even civil discussions of purebred health issues. From the hazards of limiting and closing gene pools to the folly of turning breeds into caricatures of themselves, with exaggerated features that often make their lives miserable and their births difficult: many of the hard topics were on the table.


Sign up for our newsletter and stay in the know.

Email Address:

“It’s extraordinary that we should have bred animals that the only way they can be born is through C-section,” Sir Patrick Bateson said in the conference’s keynote address. Bateson served as chairman of the independent review of dog-breeding practices in the UK that came about in the wake of “Pedigree Dogs Exposed.”

Bateson, emeritus professor of ethology at Cambridge University and president of the Zoological Society of London, was referring to the “brachycephalic” breeds — English Bulldogs and others with wide heads and shortened snouts, many of whom can’t be born naturally and go through life with breathing problems. In the UK, he said, nine of 10 Boston Terrier births require Cesareans.

In his talk, Bateson suggested the inauguration of a public education campaign and better policing of unscrupulous breeders in America. He took pains to point out — as did several other speakers — that he wasn’t proposing people should no longer breed dogs, only that the industry, and dogs, could benefit from increased regulation.

“We have to realize that human breeders are as different from each other as dogs are from each other,” he noted. “Many breeders care enormously about the science and care about their animals. Some don’t know about the science but do care about the animals. And some neither know nor care. There are all types.”

Topics at the conference, co-sponsored by the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy, the University of Pennsylvania Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society, and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), covered a range of canine health issues, from puppy mills to the evolution of dogs as household pets. But most of its focus was on the prevalence of genetic disorders and diseases that have come to afflict certain breeds.

There are Cavalier King Charles Spaniels whose brains outgrow their tiny skulls. Dachshunds, due in part to breeders’ focus on elongating them, are now prone to back problems. Great Danes, in the process of being made greater, have developed weak hearts and joint problems. English Bulldogs have trouble breathing and are prone to heat stroke. Collies suffer from genetic eye trouble. Shar-Peis suffer from congenital skin and eye problems. Dalmatians — 100 percent of those registered with the AKC — carry a gene mutation that can lead to bladder stones.

The list, unfortunately, goes on. Recessive genes are the main culprit, but as it has throughout the history of turning wolves into hundreds of different dog breeds, human whimsy plays a role as well.

Breeding close relatives, over-reliance on a single sire, shrinking gene pools and closed registries are some of the sources of the problems. They are fueled by a somewhat outdated emphasis on “purity”; breed standards and their interpretation by dog show judges; and the tendency of breeders — often in response to perceived public demand — to exaggerate a breed’s characteristics, making the small smaller, the big bigger and the wrinkly wrinklier.

To some, what has transpired — even if there’s no clear villain, even though it’s subtle, even though it has been stretched out (Dachshund-like) over time — is tantamount to abuse.

Perhaps the biggest dog-welfare issue in America is the reckless breeding of purebred dogs, which produces an incredible laundry list of inherited disorders, congenital health problems and welfare concerns for the animals,” Wayne Pacelle, HSUS president and CEO wrote in his blog just before the conference began.

Jemima Harrison, producer of “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” and one of the conference’s featured speakers, doesn’t see eye to eye with Pacelle, or the HSUS, on many points, but she agrees on that one.

In an interview, Harrison said, “It’s not as obvious an abuse as someone taking an iron bar and smashing a dog’s head in, or raising it in a puppy mill, but I do think it’s abuse nonetheless. The iron bar is more obvious, but I think it’s a slower, more insidious abuse to breed a dog knowing that you are condemning it to a lifelong painful problem.”

Subtlety was not the path Harrison chose for her documentary. She admits that “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” was “a bit of a sledgehammer.” She purposely chose to feature the most powerful and, as in the case of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, most heart wrenching cases in the documentary.

Cavaliers are prone to syringomyelia, a condition in which fluid-filled cavities occur within the spinal cord near the brain. In severe cases, a dog’s brain swells beyond the space provided by its skull, leaving no options but pain, euthanasia or risky surgery in which the skull is opened to give the brain some room. Some studies have indicated that, due to its prevalence in the breed’s gene pool, 30 to 70 percent of Cavaliers will develop the condition.

In reality, the condition is not the most common genetic ailment of Cavaliers, but it is the most painful, and the most painful to watch. Harrison makes no secret of the fact that, aware as she was of other exposés over the years that didn’t lead to sustained interest or significant change; she was wanted to make an impact.

She succeeded, due perhaps to the documentary’s powerful images or the compelling evidence it presented. Maybe video gets through to us more effectively than the written word. Or maybe it aired at the right place at the right time.

“I think it worked because we were on prime-time television, on BBC One, the top channel,” she said. “Some people said it was sensationalized and belabored the point, but I think people recognized the essential truth of it.”

The Kennel Club in Britain initially discounted much of what Harrison reported. But after a private panel upheld nearly all of the documentary’s findings and organizations like the RSPCA and the Dogs Trust got behind the cause, a few small steps were made; since then, in increments, more have been taken.

Britain’s Kennel Club has banned the registration of puppies from closely related parents (such as fathers and daughters) and many breed standards, which describe what an ideal specimen of the breed should be, have been revised so to emphasize health and soundness more than appearance. Some extreme physical features that were once rewarded in the show ring are now penalized.

The new Pekingese standard, Harrison noted in an interview, specifies that a “muzzle must be evident.” Despite resistance from some breed groups to the rewritten standards, she said, “it was decided the Pekingese ought to have a bit of face in order to be able to breathe.” Harrison says the Kennel Club has introduced an unprecedented number of measures aimed at improving purebred health and welfare. “There is a welcome change of tone in the world of pedigree dogs and some real evidence at Crufts this year that judges were rewarding more moderate dogs (although very clearly not in every breed),” she noted on her continuing blog, which is also called Pedigree Dogs Exposed.

Therein could be another clue as to why the issue has stayed alive in the UK. Most journalists, documentary makers and book writers, after taking on an issue, leave it behind and move on. Harrison has remained on top of it, to the point of being commissioned by the BBC to make a follow-up film assessing the progress that has been made since the first one aired.

For multiple reasons, after the wakeup call Harrison issued, the public didn’t roll over and go back to sleep. But as she notes, hers was hardly the first warning about the dangers of inbreeding: “I looked back at who had tried to raise the alarm on purebred dogs, and we found people trying to do that going back as far as 1962, and even way beyond that — in Roman times.”

In the U.S., it has happened somewhat regularly since 1990.

That year, an article by Mark Derr came out in The Atlantic. The cover of the magazine featured a yellow Lab with a mouthful of cash. The piece was titled, “The Politics of Dogs: How greed and AKC policies are endangering the health and quality of American dogs.”

Derr’s 1997 book, Dog’s Best Friend, probed even more deeply into American dog culture and the dangers of inbreeding. In his conclusion, he notes, “In essence, the inbreeding of animals for appearance alone and the mass production of puppies to feed consumer demand have led to an epidemic of genetic disorders, and the loss of temperamental soundness and working ability in most purebred dogs recognized by the AKC.”

The prevalence of health problems in purebreds made the cover of Time magazine in 2001, in an article written by Michael Lemonick, titled, “A Terrible Beauty.”

“The appalling truth,” it said, “is that as many as 25 percent of the 20 million purebred dogs in America — one in four animals — are afflicted with a serious genetic problem. German Shepherds, for example, run an even higher risk of hip dysplasia than do Golden Retrievers. Labrador Retrievers are prone to dwarfing … Newfoundlands can drop dead from cardiac arrests. Chinese Shar-Peis, the wrinkly dogs that don’t seem to fit into their skin, have congenital skin disorders.”

In 2003, Consumer Reports concluded, “The demand for ever-moreperfect purebred dogs has concentrated bad recessive genes and turned many pets into medical nightmares.” And in 2010, All Animals, an HSUS publication, produced a comprehensive report on the genetic health problems of purebreds, “The Purebred Paradox: Is the quest for the ‘perfect’ dog driving a genetic health crisis?”

Given that media coverage, you’d think the issue would at least be up there with dog-fighting. But, among the general dog-loving populace, it doesn’t seem to have secured a hold. That’s not to imply that no one is doing anything. Scientists are studying it, respectable breeders are trying to stay on top of it and some breed groups have made it a priority. The American Kennel Club has funneled millions of dollars to research projects.

Yet, some still say the response pales in comparison to the problem, and that, on top of research, some reinvention may be called for — of dog shows, of our ideas surrounding the “purity” of purebreds, and even of the venerable American Kennel Club.

The AKC sent no official representative to the April conference, though two people who had served on AKC boards or advisory panels attended. Traditionally, the organization has sidestepped most media inquiries on the topic. (AKC officials declined requests for interviews for this story, providing instead a copy of its “Canine Health Fact Sheet.”)

“Both in Europe and here, kennel clubs are doing a very fine job of putting their heads in the sand over this and hoping, if they keep a low profile, people will ignore it,” James Serpell, director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society based at the University of Pennsylvania, said in an interview before the conference.

Serpell, who helped coordinate the event, said the AKC declined invitations. “Considering the goal of the conference, it’s really rather shortsighted,” he said in an interview. “The conference is not about banning pedigreed dogs, as some extreme blogs are suggesting, but ways of improving the situation, which is causing a lot of animal suffering and a lot of owner suffering as well. When you in good faith buy a puppy that becomes ill down the road, that’s a terrible experience. It is shattering, emotionally gut-wrenching and enormously expensive.”

The nonprofit American Kennel Club, founded in 1884, has among its core values to “protect the health and well-being of all dogs” and “advance canine health.” It notes that since its founding in 1995, the AKC Canine Health Foundation has provided $25 million to more than 560 research projects at 75 vet schools and research institutes worldwide to improve the health of all dogs. It has also, in conjunction with the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, established the Canine Health Information Center to encourage health testing by breeders and improve breeding programs.

But it’s the steps not taken and the traditions unchanged that concern those who see the organization as contributing to the problem even as it contributes to research.

What more could it be doing? Critics say the AKC could mandate health testing, rather than encourage it; work with breed clubs to establish standards that emphasize health and vitality; impose restrictions on inbreeding, prohibiting the mating of immediate relatives; and, anathema as the idea may be to some, consider permitting “crossbreeding,” or mating purebreds with dogs outside the breed, to broaden the gene pool and improve health.

On top of that, some suggest fundamental changes in dog shows, transforming them from “beauty contests” to more performance-based events that honor the various breeds’ disappearing working heritage. At such shows, dogs who exhibit extreme physical characteristics would be penalized rather than rewarded. And dogs who are paying for their “look” by living lives of discomfort — as was apparently the case in the UK with the 2003 Crufts champion, a Pekingese who had to be photographed sitting on ice blocks because he was so prone to overheating — should have no place in them.

The view that AKC policies are adding to the problem of genetic health issues in purebreds has kept some breed clubs from pursuing AKC recognition. The Jack Russell Terrier Club of America is one of them. Jack Russell Terriers are not one of AKC’s 173 recognized breeds, and the club doesn’t want them to be.

The club is “emphatically opposed to recognition of the Jack Russell Terrier by any kennel club or all-breed registry,” according to its website. “Recognition, it is believed, will be detrimental to the preservation of the Jack Russell as the sound, intelligent strain of working terrier it has been for more than 100 years … Inbreeding and breeding for the show ring will change the physical and mental structure of the dog. It will lose its purpose and its original character, as well as its mental and physical soundness, and will become something entirely different … whatever suits the whim of those controlling that variant of the terrier.”

The association prohibits the breeding of father to daughter, mother to son, and brother to sister because of the genetic health problems that can arise. And unlike the AKC-approved standard for the similar Parson Russell Terrier, its standards for the Jack Russell afford a great amount of leeway in appearance.

There is no “ideal,” the website says. “The ‘ideal’ is what suits their owner for what they want/need to do with their terrier. That is the uniqueness of this diverse terrier. The diversity … is what makes the Jack Russell Terrier suitable for a variety of working and performance abilities — in contrast with the narrow, cosmetic breed standards of many show breeds.”

One of the most black-and-white examples of what a closed registry can lead to can be found in the Dalmatian.

Registries, or stud books, are traditionally closed by the AKC once a dog breed is officially recognized, or shortly thereafter. That means no new stock enters the line and the gene pool is closed. By definition, every new AKCregistered member of that breed who is born is related to an existing member.

Because mutated genes can be recessive, or skip a generation — physical signs don’t always show up and tests have only recently been developed to detect them — dogs carrying a gene mutation can unknowingly be bred, and commonly have been, spreading the disorder further. Over time, that can lead to mutated genes being passed through the population to the point that a majority of a breed’s registered members are affected.

All AKC Dalmatians now carry a version of a mutated gene that predisposes them to bladder stones, known as “urate stones,” which are sometimes treatable, sometimes fatal.

In 1973, Robert Schaible, PhD, a geneticist and breeder of Dalmatians, saw a solution to the problem. He crossed a Dalmatian with a Pointer, a similar and closely related breed, and produced offspring that, though their spots were initially less defined, looked like Dalmatians and carried the normal gene for uric acid production.

The offspring and their descendants were backcrossed to purebred Dalmatians for many generations, resulting in dogs who, some insist, are now indistinguishable from purebred Dalmatians. But are they purebred Dalmatians?

For more than three decades, that point has been argued. In 1981, four generations after the backcross, the Dalmatian Club of America’s board of directors sought and was granted AKC registration for two descendants of Schaible’s project, known as Low Uric Acid Dalmatians. When the club’s membership found out, there was an uproar, and the AKC refused to register any offspring that contained Pointer blood.

In 2006, and again in 2008, the club’s membership voted against registering the dogs.

Meanwhile, Dr. Schaible has continued breeding Low Uric Acid, or LUA, Dalmatians (, who are accepted for registration by the United Kennel Club and, as of last year, were recognized as purebreds by the Kennel Club in Britain. The AKC has yet to officially accept them, but the AKC’s Health & Welfare Advisory Committee, in a report, concluded it should.

“Because the introduction of the low uric acid dogs into the AKC registry gives Dalmatian breeders a scientifically sound method of voluntarily reducing the incidence of the condition, this committee strongly recommends some controlled program of acceptance of these dogs. Where the strict health and welfare of the breed is the over-riding concern, no other argument can be made.”

Within the Dalmatian Club of America, an intense debate continues. “Allow us to produce Dalmatians that can ingest levels of protein considered optimal for the species. Allow us to breed Dalmatians that can live normal healthy lives in the average pet household employing normal husbandry practices for pet dogs,” concluded a report representing those in favor of bringing LUA Dalmatians into the ranks. “The club suffered from bad PR [public relations] in the past over deafness and temperament issues. We believe that if the public learns we actually voted to deny acceptance of Dals with a gene which corrects such a well-known, serious defect in the breed, the club will be irreparably tarnished — and rightly so.”

A paper representing the other side argues that the extent of the disorder is not fully known, it can often be addressed with new drug therapies and it hasn’t been proven that introducing LUA Dalmatians will totally solve the problem. “Dogs have 99 percent of their genes in common. … It’s the remaining 1 percent of the canine genome that separates them into distinctly different breeds,” the report reads. “That is not a little matter to someone who dedicates a big part of their life to preserving and caring for a particular breed. What appears as a miniscule fraction of the canine genome is a huge percentage of what distinguishes our breed from others. As protectors of our breed, it is our duty to guard those factors that make a Dalmatian a Dalmatian, and with facts, not unproven theories.”

In a way, the purebred dilemma goes to the very core of our thinking about dogs, and the generally accepted view that man has dominion over them. We shaped them, based at first on the work we wanted them to do. We placed them in neat categories and then took steps to keep those categories pure. Some see that pursuit as arbitrary and anachronistic; some see it as honorable. But rare is the person who doesn’t see the amazing diversity of breeds that resulted as worth preserving, treasuring and fighting for.

While the genetic health problems of purebreds may not be a high-profile issue for the general public, it is among breeders and the scores of breed clubs. To many of their members, organizations like HSUS have no place in the debate. Whatever agreement may exist in terms of a common cause — healthy animals — is undermined in America by a lack of trust among many of those who breed dogs and some animal welfare organizations.

Many breeders see HSUS as intent on bringing a halt to dog breeding, if not pet ownership. That point of view is based on actions HSUS has taken against large-scale and neglectful breeders and the organization’s stance when it comes to puppy mills, spaying and neutering, and the sales of dogs in stores. Those who accuse HSUS of having a hidden agenda also point to a statement attributed to HSUS President Pacelle.

“We have no problem with the extinction of domestic animals. They are creations of human selective breeding,” he was quoted as saying 14 years ago, before he joined the organization. Pacelle says he was misquoted, and that the remark was taken out of context. (He was talking about cattle.)

The “Purebred Paradox” conference ended with a call to bridge the rift between those who breed dogs and those who identify themselves as members of animal welfare organizations.

“We are going to have to heal that fissure before we can heal the dogs that we all know and love,” said the final speaker, Stephen L. Zawistowski, science advisor of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

His comment had a shallow ring to Sharyn Hutchens, legislative liaison for the Virginia Federation of Dog Clubs and Breeders, who blogged about the conference, which was attended by only a handful of breeders.

She called his remarks “inspiring and reasonable and, sadly, totally unrealistic considering that if the goals of the AR [animal rights] world were achieved, there would be no more breeding. But it sounded real nice and if you didn’t know the history of the disagreements between breeders and the animal rights movement, you’d have thought this conference was sincerely about doing what’s best for dogs and working together to solve problems.”

Hutchens, while acknowledging that the conference was informative, polite and not the breeder-bashing fest she feared, still viewed it as HSUS sticking its nose where it didn’t belong. “Nothing the animal rights organizations can do will help, unless they would like to make a contribution to the AKC Canine Health Foundation or fund a parent club health study.”

“I have no illusions — and neither should other breeders — that this will be the end of HSUS’s interest in purebred dogs,” she wrote. “Those of us who have been fighting the animal rights movement for the past 10 years have always said that after the commercial breeders, they’d be targeting show breeders. This is the first salvo.”

Even Jemima Harrison, who disagrees with HSUS on several issues, says she had second thoughts about attending — partly out of fear of being seen as “in league” with HSUS, partly because conferences are, after all, just conferences. “Will a conference make America roll over and sort out its pedigree dog problem? No.”

Then again, as HSUS sees it, one has to start, or restart, somewhere, and if there’s any issue dog lovers should be able to get together on, it’s this one.

“Every dog lover,” Pacelle noted, “should be on the same page … and no one — least of all those in the world of the dog fancy — should settle for anything less than the highest health standards for the animals we love so much.”

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 66: Sept/Oct 2011

© CSA Images

John Woestendiek is a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter who also writes and produces the popular site ohmidog! He’s a 35-year veteran of newspapers, including the Baltimore Sun. His book Dog, Inc. covered the dog-cloning industry.