Working together to promote health over looks
Dog and cat populations are continuing to grow, but so too is the volume of questions being posed amongst the welfare and veterinary worlds surrounding the deteriorating welfare of certain breeds in the wake of breeding for extreme conformations.
We have been working collaboratively with the British Veterinary Association (BVA) to find ways to tackle the issue. BVA Past President Gudrun Ravetz and Dogs Trust Deputy Veterinary Director Runa Hanaghan share insights from recent work to tackle extreme breeding.
Why do we get a pet? Is it for companionship, exercise, creating fond memories? Or is it because of how they look, how ‘cute’ they are?
In a modern day world in which everything is readily available online, very few people are prepared to wait for anything, including a new pet. This impatience has led to people unwittingly turning to unscrupulous breeders to source their new family addition, often with little consideration or research about the breed, its suitability for the family, or its health.
Much of what pet owners do with and for their pets is driven by emotion and isn’t always rational, but when it comes to their health, "cute" or "cool" is not what should be leading our decisions. We need to be more rational as we are dealing with the lives of our pets and their lifelong health and welfare; subjecting them to a reduced quality and/or quantity of life to have a particular look is never acceptable. This was starkly highlighted by BVA’s #BreedtoBreathe campaign to raise awareness about the health issues that many flat-faced dogs suffer from, with the Voice of the Veterinary Profession survey revealing that 56% of the brachycephalic dogs that vets see need treatment for health issues related to how they look, such as breathing difficulties, skin problems, eye ulcers or dental problems.
Animal welfare crisis
Exaggerated features including flat faces, narrowed nostrils, skin folds and prominent/protruding eyes are sadly becoming more popular in pets, and this is having a huge impact on the overall health and wellbeing of the dog and cat population.
BVA has worked most recently with stakeholders such as the Brachycephalic Working Group (BWG) to try and tackle the rise in the popularity of brachycephalic breeds and all of their problems. But it is not just brachycephalic pets that are suffering from health and welfare issues due to their extreme conformation. There is an increasing trend towards breeding other pets with extreme features, for instance, Teacup dogs, Scottish Fold Cats, English lop rabbits, miniature horses and others.
Dogs Trust, through its work as part of BWG, has seen how these features can lead to ailments such as breathing difficulties, recurring skin infections and eye diseases in dogs. Apart from brachycephalic breeds, for instance, dachshunds are an in-demand breed with their own health issues; as the demand for them has continued to grow so too has the prevalence for spinal and neurological issues associated with elongated backs and shorter legs. In recent years the number of these breeds and other fashionable, but flat-faced breeds such as French Bulldogs and English Bulldogs being cared for by the rehoming centres has increased by 293% and 136%, respectively. A proportion of these dogs are handed over due to escalating veterinary bills that are beyond the capabilities of the owners, further demonstrating the lack of research done before getting a dog.
Working together to tackle extreme breeding
Members of the BWG have done an admirable job so far in raising awareness of the issue and have contacted many companies that use extreme breeds in their advertising, with several pledging to avoid using their images in future campaigns. BVA’s guide to responsible use of pets in advertising will also be available very soon.
Earlier this year the topic was discussed in Brussels when key members of the welfare, veterinary and academic worlds gathered to discuss the widespread ramifications of the growing popularity of cats and dogs bred for their extreme conformations. The event was hosted by the EU Dog and Cat Alliance (founded by Dogs Trust), Federation of Veterinarians of Europe (FVE) and the Federation of European Companion Animal Veterinary Association (FECAVA), and both Dogs Trust and BVA presented views on extreme breeding with the audience. Whilst it was clear from the discussions that there is no single solution to the problem, there was a consensus that education is at the very heart of the issue and can have the most impact.
Whilst the event in Brussels concentrated attention on the need for change, we must now continue to build on this momentum to work towards a day when the biggest factor people consider when buying their pet is not what’s fashionable, cute or quirky, but that the new addition to their family will live a long and healthy life.
More to be done
Dogs Trust and BVA want to continue to highlight the problems associated with exaggerated looks and end the suffering of the pets of tomorrow. We need to continually educate people that, for instance, excessively long or arched backs, flat faces and protruding eyes are not ‘normal’ traits in animals. If we can diminish the belief that exaggerated traits are cute and quirky, then we can go some way to raising awareness of the wider implications, both in the short and long term, they have on the health and wellbeing of dogs and cats.
As guardians of animal welfare, it is right that the veterinary profession as a whole addresses the ongoing trend towards extreme conformation in animals, which is why BVA has brought out a policy statement that was passed by BVA’s Council in July. It provides the veterinary profession and other stakeholders with overarching principles that can be applied across species to reduce the negative health and welfare impacts of extreme conformation and achieve healthier future generations of animals.
BVA and Dogs Trust will continue to collaborate with all stakeholders as we have been doing, support a review of breed standards where they exist, review other options such as outcrossing, educate pet owners, breeders and all those involved in using or benefiting from animals, highlight existing legislation and its function in deterring and the proliferation of breeding for extreme conformations that are deleterious to health and welfare and work to stop illegal importation of pets that is driven by demand for extreme breeds.