Imagine a world where your physical appearance was under the complete, ethically unchecked control of other beings. Unhappy with your domed skull and taut skin, they decide to modify your features to be more infantile- they flatten your skull until its too small for your brain and your eyes bulge out. Excessive folds of skin make you hot and uncomfortable, infection breeds in the creases and sags over your face making vision nearly impossible.
If you watched any of the coverage of Crufts this year you might be forgiven in thinking that this scenario was a work of dystopian science fiction. Ninety per cent of the broadcast coverage at the Kennel Club’s inaugural canine beauty pageant was focused on agility, awards for cross-bred and service dogs and obedience training. Unfortunately, away from the carefully crafted media spotlight, the dark underbelly of the Kennel Club’s breed societies is still promoting dogs as ornaments instead of animals.
‘Breed standards’ are sets of conformational benchmarks used by the Kennel Club to judge the value of a dog in competition. They are based purely on physical aesthetic attributes, not on temperament or health. As a result, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are bred with flattened skulls which compress their brainstem, causing upwards of 70 per cent of these dogs to succumb from a painful neurological disease by the age of only five. Bulldogs and Pugs have been bred to have flattened facial structures. Unfortunately, the soft tissues of the face and mouth have failed to shrink sufficiently to adapt to the reduced space, leaving many of these dogs with lifelong airway obstruction disorders.
Aside from promoting the breeding from dogs with inherently unhealthy exaggerated features, selective breeding by its very nature reduces genetic diversity. The vast majority of health problems in pure-bred animals is a product of increased predisposition to disease as a result of inbreeding, not because of exaggerated phenotypes. The pedigree dog industry also encourages irresponsible breeding of animals.
Take the winner of the disease-stricken Cavalier King Charles Spaniel breed category at this year’s competition as an example. Objective veterinary advice is that Cavaliers should not be bred until at least two and half years old and after appropriate testing for inherited disease such as syringomelia. This year, a dog who had sired his first litter of puppies at merely nine months old walked away with the prize.
Crufts has undergone increasing public scrutiny over the last several years. In 2008, the BBC aired a scathing documentary called ‘Pedigree Dogs Exposed’ that resulted in widespread public outcry and the BBC and many sponsors withdrawing support for the competition. Crufts fought back by making amendments to the breed standards, introducing veterinary checks and, seemingly, shifting the majority broadcast coverage away from the controversial ‘dog showing’ aspect of the dog show towards crowd pleasing events like agility.
Despite these changes, Crufts faces annual controversy. Last year allegations of participants poisoning competing dogs soured the event, whereas this year a German Shepherd dog with a severely sloping croup was awarded best of breed, despite being obviously lame in the show ring.
The health problems and suffering caused by pedigree breeding will not be solved by incremental changes in welfare, nor by the Kennel Club deflecting media and public attention away from this ongoing immoral practice. The Kennel Club needs to dissolve breed societies entirely and stop making canine eugenics into a competition.
Breeding an animal purely for aesthetics is fundamentally morally wrong, and Crufts should not encourage it. We should breed dogs for health, for companionship, for service roles, because breeding animals for ‘beauty,’ with the cost of suffering, is immeasurably ugly.
Image credit: Christopher Michel