BOOKS: The Price of a Pedigree

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2006:

The Price of a Pedigree:
Dog Breed Standards & Breed-Related Illnesses
Advocates for Animals (10 Queensferry Street, Edinburgh, EH2 4PG,
Scotland, U.K.), 2006. 25 pages, paperback, no price listed.

Members of the dog and cat fancies, as breeders and
exhibitors of purebreds style themselves, like to pretend that there
was a time when the humane community endorsed their obsession with
“improving” dogs by selective inbreeding. Yet there has always been
tension between those who recognize a moral obligation toward all
animals and those who would distinguish between upper and lower
classes, based on pedigree.
From the beginning of humane involvement in animal control,
some fanciers have adopted prime specimens of their favorite breeds
from death row in shelters, while humane workers have struggled with
conflicting emotions–grateful that some animals are saved, but
frustrated that even a biting purebred will almost always have a
better chance of rescue, as a presumed “better” animal, than the
nicest large mongrel or domestic shorthair.

Increasingly since dog and cat sterilization became widely
available, humane workers have come to resent breeding of any kind.
Purebred dogs conspicuously make up 25% to 33% of shelter admissions.
This is well under half the percentage of purebreds in the general
pet population, indicating that purebreds have a better-the-average
chance of staying in homes, but shelter workers almost universally
believe that all dogs could have homes if only breeding could be
Once generally true, this long since became demonstrably
false. Twenty-odd years ago, when most dogs arriving at shelters
were cast-off litters, “pet overpopulation” was an accurate term,
as most shelter dogs were admitted as surplus. Today, in much of
the U.S., most incoming dogs have flunked out of homes. They have
become waste products, yet were not surplus when they were born and
then deliberately bought by someone.
Stopping the supply-and-demand cycle that produces surplus
dogs today requires intervention to keep dogs in homes.
One could accurately argue that breeding often amounts to
practicing planned obsolescence. Producers of purebreds, especially
puppy-millers who raise unsocialized pups by the hundreds or even
thousands, often sell animals with inbred health and behavior
problems, which may result in the dogs or cats being replaced long
before living out their natural lifespan. But producing purebreds is
such a competitive and fragmented field that this could scarcely be
anyone’s deliberate plot.
What is really going on is that the concept of “perfecting”
dogs through selective breeding is inherently self-contradictory.
Breeders purport to seek stable temperament. Yet they also seek
repetitively predictable conformation among dogs who often are at
extreme ends of variability within the species.
In general, the farther the breed standard is from the
generic norms for all dogs, the greater the incidence of genetic
defects and behavioral abnormality.
The humane community has compiled and published lists of the
excesses of fancy-breeding for at least 80 years.
Among the most succinct is the Association of Veterinarians for
Animal Rights’ Guide to Congenital and Heritable Disorders in Dogs,
by Jean Dodds, DVM, originally issued in 1994, updated and reissued
earlier in 2006. It sells for just $1.00, from AVAR, P.O. Box 208,
Davis, CA 95617; <>.
Also of note is a May 2006 report by the Companion Animal
Welfare Council to British minister for environment, food, and
rural affairs Ben Bradshaw. Co-authored by a committee headed by
Universities Federation for Animal Welfare scientific director James
Kirkwood, the CAWC report covers many species, not just dogs, and
recommends banning intensive inbreeding, writes London Times
environment editor Jonathan Leake.
he Price of a Pedigree: Dog Breed Standards & Breed-Related
Illnesses, from Animal Advocates, is likewise oriented toward
possible legislation, and stands out as the most thorough guide to
genetic defects in purebred dogs that ANIMAL PEOPLE has seen (having
not yet seen the CAWC report).
Yet The Price of a Pedigree–and the entire debate–may soon
be outdated. Already a firm called Allerca Lifestyle Pets claims
to have used genetic science to produce cats whose dander is free of
human allergens, and to have sold several hundred of the cats to
buyers in five nations. Similar approaches could rapidly transform
dog breeding.
The second chapter of The Price of a Pedigree, entitled
“Current and future breeding trends,” fails to anticipate that
mapping the dog genome, achieved with a poodle in 2003 and a boxer
in 2005, may at last enable fanciers to combine extremes of
conformation with predictable temperament, while eliminating genetic
This chapter also overlooks the recent emergence of breeders
who are deliberately producing small mixed-breed dogs, to satisfy
the growing numbers of people who believe that mongrels are
healthier, but can no longer find small mongrels in shelters to
In effect, these breeders are back-breeding their lines,
restoring lost diversity whether they intend to or not.
While dog breeding in the 19th and 20th centuries trended
toward ever-increasing specialization and differentiation among dog
lines, dog breeding in the 21st century might go in some directions
that were unimaginable just a few decades ago. For example, genetic
manipulation may give us dogs who easily learn to use litter boxes,
are born sterile, and are resistant to most common in-bred physical
defects. “Improving the breed” may pass from a pursuit of fanciers
to a pursuit of science, backed by pet industry megabucks.
If genetically modified dogs become “improved” enough to
seldom land in shelters, public attitudes toward dogs may shift to
the detriment of shelter dogs and street dogs, who more than ever
may be perceived as inferior.
That is likely to soon be a much bigger problem than the incidence of
inbred physical problems so severe as to cause a dog premature death
or disability.

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