LOTTIE THE Dalmatian looks like a picture of health, and right enough, there's nothing wrong with her. Yet as a pedigree dog, there are two important facts about her: she has a specific physical appearance (no-one could mistake her for anything but a Dalmatian) and she is more likely than a cross bred dog to suffer from ill health.
Pedigree dog shows reach a peak of activity in the spring every year: last month, a Pekingese called Malachy won Best in Show at the prestigious Westminster Dogs Show in the USA. Last week, Crufts - the biggest dog show in the world - was broadcast around the world from the UK. And next week, the St Patricks Day Dog Show takes place: the traditional flagship event of the Irish Kennel Club.
A few decades ago, pedigree dog shows were universally regarded as a celebration of the best in the dog world. This all changed in 2008, when the BBC documentary "Pedigree Dogs Exposed" asked searching questions about the health of pedigree dogs. The close in-breeding of some breeds has led to a high incidence of many inherited diseases. And a focus on appearance rather than function means that it has become "normal" for some breeds of dog to have anatomical features that cause them discomfort and ill health.
Like many debates in public, the mood has become acrimonious, with both sides making over-the-top statements that are not true. Some campaigners mistakenly seem to believe that all dog breeders are animal-hating, mean-spirited narcissists with no interest in the welfare of dogs. And on the other side, some dog breeders are in complete denial about there being any problem at all in the world of pedigree dogs. As always, the truth gets lost in the fighting.
To be clear about this, there is undeniably a problem with ill health in pedigree dogs. As evidence, it's worth noting that pet insurance companies charge an annual premium for pedigree dogs that's around 50% higher than cross-bred dogs. They do this because their records demonstrate that pedigree dogs are more likely to need veterinary attention. This does not mean that all pedigree dogs are inevitably going to develop serious health problems, but it does mean that if you look at a large population of dogs, statistically speaking, pedigree dogs are more likely to fall ill.
The type of ill health suffered by pedigree dogs falls into two categories: first, inherited disease caused by in-breeding, and second, problems caused by deliberately breeding for a particular anatomical appearance. regardless of the effect on the animals health
Inherited disease is the problem that receives the greatest attention. Pedigree dogs originate from a relatively small number of foundation stock, and if you look at a puppy's five-generation pedigree, it is not unusual to see one dog featuring more than once. This could be the equivalent of having the same great granny on your mother's side and on your father's side. The more inbreeding there is in a dog's ancestors, the more likely the dog is to develop inherited disease.
It's possible to calculate a "coefficient of inbreeding" which more-or-less means the percentage of genes that come from the same individual: this relates directly to the amount of inbreeding. If a clone of an animal was to mate with its own clone, the coefficient of inbreeding would be 100%. A mother-son or father-daughter breeding would result in 25%. To achieve long term good health in pedigree dogs, it's recommended that breeding should not take place unless the percentage is less than 12.5%. Unfortunately, the Kennel Club in the UK still allows the registration and showing of dogs with coefficients of inbreeding as high as 47.5%. It's no wonder that the organisation still finds itself the target of criticism. This type of approach lacks a sense of urgency about slowing the rate of inherited diseases.
Blood tests to check for the genes that cause inherited disease are becoming more available with new technology, as well as other screening methods such as x-rays. These are also helping to reduce the incidence of some diseases, but the fact that dogs that have failed such screening tests are often still allowed to compete in dog shows and subsequently to breed does not inspire confidence in the system.
As well as the problem of inherited disease from too much in-breeding, pedigree dogs suffer from problems due to the exaggerated features that are an integral part of the breed. As an example, Pekingese dogs can find it difficult to breathe because of their scrunched up, flattened noses. Other problems commonly seen include inturned eyelids causing sore eyes and painful dermatitis due to deep creases in the skin (e.g. in Pugs). The only way to solve these problems is to change the "breed specification" so that dogs with built-in problems are no longer rewarded in the show ring. This means changing the wording of the "breed standards" which are the written descriptions that are maintained for breed. The winning dog in a show is the one that most closely matches the breed standard. In fairness, many of the breed standards have been changed in recent years to focus more on health than just looks, but there is still some distance to go.
Many dog breeders and organisations have been working hard to improve the health of pedigree dogs. Progress has been made, but there's plenty more still to be done.