November 22, 2008
WANT to know what it feels like to be a Pekingese? Pinch your nostrils gently between finger and thumb till the sides almost touch. Then breathe — or try to — through your narrowed airway.
Vets call such semi-collapsed nostrils "stenotic nares", and they are common in dogs such as pugs, bulldogs, Boston terriers and Pekingese, which have been bred to have flat faces. They may look the way that breeders want them to, but their distinctive appearance comes at a high cost: some will suffocate when the constant effort to suck in air collapses their larynxes. These are the kind of pedigree dogs that, according to a growing number of animal welfare advocates, (including the RSPCA here and in the UK), should not be bred despite their popularity.
A show-dog's appearance must conform to an official list of minutely detailed descriptors known as breed standards. These standards, often set many years ago, stipulate everything from head size to angle of the facial profile. The ANKC British bulldog breed standard, for example, states: "The skull should be very large — the larger the better."
But debate is now raging here and overseas over just how much attention should be paid to looks rather than health. Beneath their gleaming coats, show dogs may be suffering an array of health problems (crippling hip and elbow dysplasia, epilepsy, liver abnormalities and heart defects, to name a few) that can be distressing and expensive for owners — and life-threatening for the animals. Concerns have reached such a pitch that it looks as though change may be inevitable in the way that breed standards are administered.
In Britain, in August, a Panorama documentary, Pedigree Dogs Exposed, caused a furore over its main claim: that the august and ancient British Kennel Club was encouraging the breeding of unhealthy dogs. By awarding prizes to beautiful but unsound dogs at its iconic dog show, Crufts, the kennel club was said to be supporting irresponsible and unsustainable breeding practices. The scandal grew when Britain's RSPCA withdrew support for Crufts and the BBC announced that it was reviewing whether to televise the show.
Dogs — from chihuahuas to Irish wolfhounds — are the most varied animal, and breed standards are what ensure that they look so distinctive. Yet within that extraordinary variety lies a paradox: each single breed represents a shrunken gene pool that is sometimes as lacking in diversity as a threatened wild species: the average British pug has less genetic diversity than a giant panda. Left to breed randomly, dogs tend to evolve into a generalised doggy shape that looks a bit like a dingo. The only way to keep a breed looking distinct is to keep breeding relatives together. Health problems surface when inbreeding causes hidden genetic defects to emerge.
More than a century ago, when the first pug breed standard was written, it described the nose as "short". Pugs looked very different in those days: their noses were indeed quite short, but had proper functioning airways. Now, after a century of determined breeding, a pug's nose looks more like a hole in its face.
Dr Matthew Retchford, president of the Australian Small Animal Veterinary Association, says that if an operation is done early, such dogs can survive and breathe more normally. But he says the problems often don't stop there. "You'll examine a pug puppy whose owners have brought it in for routine vaccinations and a check-up and you'll see that that little dog has problems from its nose right down to its tail."
Those can include inability to whelp without help; pugs and bulldogs have big heads, narrow pelvises and usually need caesareans. Dr Paul McGreevy, associate professor in the veterinary science faculty at Sydney University, is pessimistic about the fate of such breeds: "Such animals fail the basic test of fitness for life, which is 'can you be born?' "
He argues that when breed standards were set they had little or no scientific basis and still don't.
After the Panorama documentary, the British Kennel Club went into damage control, responding at first defensively and then with a dramatic u-turn that promised a far-reaching review of its policies. Early last month it announced that, despite vigorous opposition from some breeders, the Pekingese breed standard must now emphasise health and soundness. It is the first of many such changes.
The upheaval is expected to flow on to Australia. The Australian National Kennel Council (which is affiliated with the British club) registers 192 breeds, all with official standards that represent the breeders' ideal dogs. Thus, for example, a pug's standard describes a "blunt, short muzzle", "large … globular" eyes and a tail that is tightly curled, with a double curl being even more desirable. The Panorama program pointed out that such tails reveal a twisting in the dog's spine that can lead to pain and movement problems, even paralysis. The large globular eyes are set in eye sockets made perilously shallow by breeding for a flat face: the eyeballs can pop out if the dog is squeezed tightly or plays roughly.
In October the ANKC announced that Australian standards would be reviewed to reflect a new policy prioritising the health and welfare of all dogs.
Dr Karen Hedberg, chairwoman of the council's national canine health committee, breeds German shepherds (a breed with more than 40 inheritable disorders) and has done extensive research to develop policy on controlling genetic diseases in companion animals. She envisages tackling health problems partly through extensive testing and codes of practice for breeders.
"Certainly where a standard is taken to extremes by some judges and breeders, such as excessive wrinkling of skin, excessive shortening of the nose — these are areas where moderation is called for if this has created health issues."
MCGREEVY wants to see change happening faster and has set up LIDA, an online database, using overseas data, where people can check on the inherited problems they are likely to encounter in a given breed. It gets more than 25,000 hits a month. But he wants more specifically Australian data, and has been looking for research funding. Already about 250 veterinary practices around Australia are contributing information to LIDA, he says, but more is needed. "Requests for funding to monitor disease in the Australian dog population have fallen on deaf ears for the past eight years," he says. He believes that many breeders are resistant to scientific argument.
Hugh Gent, president of the national kennel council, says that such criticism doesn't acknowledge the efforts of responsible breeders. But, he says, there is no obligation for any breeder to belong to the ANKC, which limits its ability to influence Australian dog-breeding practices.
Australia's vast distances and multiplicity of discrete state-based dog organisations compound the difficulty of breeding for healthy diversity. In every state there tend to be small bunches of closely related dogs in any given breed.
Gent acknowledges the difficulties, but insists that the ANKC is prepared to address all concerns over inherited problems. As public awareness of these issues grows, he says that prospective puppy buyers will look to breeders who accept changes that enhance the health and welfare of dogs.
Those for whom the health of their dogs is the priority are already at an advantage. Christina Rafton, a NSW-based breeder of borzois, paid $15,000 in the 1970s to import a healthy bitch from overseas. At the time, she says, the average Australian borzoi's life span was four years; now, largely because of the work and money spent by Rafton, borzois live to 11 or 12. But such investments may be prohibitive for many breeders. Most don't make any profit as it is: pedigree breeding is an expensive hobby undertaken by enthusiasts.
At the moment anyone in Australia can set up as a "pedigree" breeder and sell dogs with "papers". But unless they're ANKC- registered, such papers might simply be a home-made family tree, run off the breeder's printer — and if the dog proves unsound there's nowhere to appeal. Belonging to the nation's peak body gives a breeder prestige and support, but many are opting out; in 1988 there were 92,089 pure-bred dogs registered with the kennel council. By last year the figure had dropped to 64,074.
Some breeders quit altogether, but others became backyarders, selling through the classifieds or the internet to parents, impulse buyers, pet shops — or even supplying breeding stock to the often cruelly managed puppy mills that churn out "designer" breeds: labradoodles, cockapoos, pugaliers and such like. (Meanwhile, RSPCA figures show the organisation has had to put down 23,772 unwanted dogs — pedigree and mutts — in the past 12 months.)
But the shake-up has begun, and it's hard to say where it will end. Will Australian Pekingese start to look more like the ones of a century ago? Victorian Pekingese breeder Juliana Loh says the change will have little impact on her: "I breed first and foremost for healthy dogs, so it doesn't affect me." But old pictures of Pekingese leave her unimpressed. "They used to look more like Tibetan terriers. We've spent a lot of time and effort getting the breed to look the way it does now."
The ANKC is pinning its faith in the review of breed standards as a healthier way of breeding pedigree dogs in Australia. But if Paul McGreevy, the 250 LIDA contributors and the RSPCA are right, it looks as though a great deal of time and effort may be needed to get some pedigree dogs to look the way they used to look before breed standards were written.