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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

Is This How We Treat Our Best Friend?

If a person walked up to a dog on the street and intentionally hit it with a tire iron in the face, breaking its nose and causing permanent damage, that person could be charged with animal cruelty in any state in the union. Depending on the circumstances of the case, it could easily be a felony charge. Yet dog breeders – including “hobby” breeders – do equivalent acts of cruelty every day, to millions of dogs every year, with no consequences.

I’m talking about dog breeders who deliberately and intentionally breed to produce severe genetic deformities, with full knowledge that the animals they are creating will live pain-filled, compromised, and often short lives. One very common example of the type of deformity I’m talking about is brachycephalia. The word brachycephalia means “short head.” Brachycephalic dogs have a shortened skull and a short, often almost non-existent muzzle. This produces a look that many people think is cute. Some of the popular brachycephalic breeds are the Pug, Pekingese, French Bulldog, English Bulldog, Shih Tzu, Lhasa Apso, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Brachycephalia is also a problem in the breeding of cats, although mercifully less so than in the breeding of dogs.

There are so many serious health problems created by brachycephalia that I hardly know where to start. The short skull means that the eyes don’t have enough room to sit normally in their sockets. This produces the protruding look that is considered cute, but it also makes the eyes more prone to pop out of their sockets, and it makes the eyes in general more likely to be injured because they have less bone around them.

It gets worse. The changes to the brachycephalic dog’s nose and airway are what really makes their lives miserable. We all know that one of the main ways a dog experiences the world is through scent. The brachycephalic dog is much less able to enjoy this sensory experience because he hardly has any muzzle. The short muzzle also gravely affects the dog’s ability to control its body temperature. Dogs control their body temperature by panting to circulate air through their mouths. In the distorted mouth of the brachycephalic dog this air circulation is greatly reduced, with the consequence that the dog easily overheats. A mutt can run after a tennis ball on a summer day, jump up and catch it, and run back to his person. It is hard to imagine a fully brachycephalic dog being able to do this simple thing. Even if he could, he would quickly get overheated and have to stop.

The deformities of the skull in the brachycephalic dog mean that the airway is narrowed and compromised, with all the structures that a normal dog has in its throat squished together in a smaller space. This narrowed airway means that brachycephalic dogs often struggle to breathe, sometimes resembling people with COPD. The brachycephalic dog has to work at breathing, which is supposed to be a natural function that the dog doesn’t even have to think about. The labored breathing of the brachycephalic dog can, over time, cause the larynx to collapse, obstructing the airway and causing severe respiratory distress or death. Laryngeal collapse can happen as early as 4 months of age in brachycephalic breeds.

The deformed airway causes many secondary problems beyond the primary problem of breathing. Brachycephalic dogs are prone to sleep apnea. Their attempts to get enough oxygen by gulping air may lead to vomiting and regurgitation. Brachycephalic dogs are at risk every time they have anesthesia because the narrowed and compromised airway makes it more difficult to ensure a good oxygen supply both during and after surgery. The unavoidable manipulation of the airway during intubation, as well as the stress associated with surgery, can cause serious complications. Because the muzzles of brachycephalic dogs are so short, their teeth do not have room to grow normally. That means that these dogs often have severe dental problems. But because of the dangers of anesthesia it is difficult to treat their dental problems or even to do routine dental cleaning.

Brachycephalic dogs differ in the extent of their symptoms. But even dogs that have fewer symptoms such as wheezing, gasping, and heat intolerance will still experience a greatly diminished quality of life, as they by definition do not experience life the way a normal dog does.

In my opinion, deliberately breeding dogs with deformities this severe constitutes animal cruelty. Today we pride ourselves on thinking of our cats and dogs as family members. Pets are like children to many people. Imagine if there was a genetics-engineering company that offered parents an opportunity to make “cuter” children at the cost of compromising their health and their lives. Everyone would be horrified, and if anyone ever actually tried to do that they would be arrested and put in jail. The idea is so absurd that it is hard to even imagine. Yet dog breeders do the equivalent thing every time they breed one brachycephalic dog to another, and no one says a word.

In fact, dog breeders have been working hard to make the problem even worse. In just the last 50 years the skull of the British bulldog, for example, has been radically shortened by selective breeding. One particularly gruesome result of the continued breeding for shortened heads is the greatly increased incidence of syringomyelia in brachycephalic dogs, particularly in the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. In these dogs the back of the skull has been so shortened by deliberate breeding that there is not enough room for the brain. The brain in affected dogs is squeezed and affects the flow of cerebrospinal fluid. The syndrome is perhaps best known for the intense pain that it causes its victims. It may progress to paralysis. By some estimates the problem is present in up to half of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. It is scary to think of the pain these dogs may be suffering even when they do not have overt symptoms of the disease.  What is wrong with people who deliberately breed these dogs?

Brachycephalia may be the most obvious example of deliberate animal cruelty in dog breeding, but there are many other examples. The giant dog breeds have their own problems, including a greatly reduced life span. The dog’s circulatory system did not evolve to be able to support the height and weight of the giant breeds, and so their expected life span is barely half that of a normal dog. An Irish Wolfhound’s life expectancy is about 7 years, compared to 14 years or so for small mutts. The German Shepherd Dog of today looks bizarre to most people because of the extreme angulation in its rear legs, which makes the dogs unable to stand normally. Many breeds have such extreme hair growth that they require constant grooming to be able to live a normal life.

Ironically, the breeding of deformed dogs is more due to hobby “show” breeders than it is to commercial breeders. Show breeders will tell you how different they are from commercial breeders, arguing that commercial breeders just care about making money whereas they care about “improving the breed.” What really happens is this. Hobby breeders are in the dog show “sport” for the purpose of winning trophies and recognition. They breed dogs that they think will appeal to dog show judges. Most dog show judges seem to pay little attention to health, and instead they reward extremes of what they call “type,” which is what most of us would call “deviation from what a normal dog looks like.” These deviations are encouraged by the written standards for breeds. This leads to a vicious circle where, in order to win the coveted trophies, dog breeders produce dogs that deviate further and further from the norm in an effort to catch the eye of the judge. For example, the breed standard for the Akita calls for “much substance and heavy bone.” The result of this standard is that at any dog show you can see Akitas who have so much “substance” that they don’t trot, they trundle.

We need to start prosecuting the deliberate breeding of deformed dogs for the crime that it is, particularly in the case of clear-cut and obvious genetic deformities like brachycephalia. Brachycephalic dogs are not “cute.” They are handicapped by their deformity and they suffer — sometimes unimaginably so in the case of those who have syringomyelia.

We cannot prevent all deformities and birth defects, but we can certainly stop people from deliberately creating deformities. I don’t know whether hobby breeders really believe that they are “improving” breeds or whether they are so blinded by the gleam from their trophies that they can’t see what’s in front of their face. But whatever their motives, they need to be forced to stop. We need to take the decision out of their hands. The kind of animal cruelty they practice should not be allowed in a civilized country.



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