The companion dog – a life with defects and diseases

Many companion dogs are bred for a life with genetic defects and illnesses due to breed standards not compatible with a functional exterior.

The companion dog – a life with defects and diseases

Companion dogs are bred for company to humans and/or to compete at dog shows – as opposed to working dogs, shepherd dogs and hunting dogs (sporting dogs).

See NRK TV1 (in Norwegian): “Selskapshunder får mange sykdommer” (Companion dogs contract a variety of illnesses). 

The health and welfare problems of companion dog breeds are a result of intentional breeding for a breed specific exterior, which in itself may be unhealthy, or is leading to induced hereditary disorders. The dogs that win prizes for their looks at dog shows are those most often selected as breeding animals for the next generations. Among these dogs, some cannot run without becoming short-winded, some cannot give birth without complications, some have trouble walking – others have serious eye problems or so heavily furrowed skin that they contract skin diseases.

_ Et premieringssystem med stor vektlegging av utseende vist på utstillinger legger ikke et godt grunnlag for en sunn avl, sier avlsprofessor Odd Vangen ved NMBU – Norges miljø- og biovitenskapelige universitet.

_ Et premieringssystem med stor vektlegging av utseende vist på utstillinger legger ikke et godt grunnlag for en sunn avl, sier avlsprofessor Odd Vangen ved NMBU – Norges miljø- og biovitenskapelige universitet.

Janne Karin Brodin

Professor Vangen chairs the Advisory Committee at the Norwegian Gene Resource Centre for farm animals, which follow the developments in both small as well as large breeds. The aim is that breeding should be sustainable, including maintaining genetic diversity and preventing genetic disorders.


Inbreeding reduces vitality

Inbreeding has been much utilized in dog breeding because it leads to uniformity and a homogenous breed – and a uniform exterior has been the start of most dog breeds. However, standardizing the conformation through inbreeding has two important negative consequences;

One is the fact that inbreeding (mating relatives) – leads to diseases. Inbreeding increases the risks of hereditary diseases. Inbreeding leads to an accumulation of single genes (often recessive) that can be lethal or semi-lethal in double dose. Secondly, inbreeding depression leads to reduced performance, fertility and health.

The consequences of inbreeding are increasing health problems and genetic disorders within several breeds, says Vangen.

In an article in the daily paper “Dagens Næringsliv” from 2009, representatives of the Norwegian Kennel Club (NKK) state that  “With a good grasp of genetics, kinship and health in a dog, its offspring and its forefathers, line breeding can be a good tool for reinforcing healthy and functional traits, such as a good temperament and an anatomically correct exterior.”

Vangen strongly disagrees. He claims that the statement is self-contradictory.

Line breeding is in fact a form of inbreeding – the result is the same, he says. According to the article, when NKK uses the term linear breeding, they refer to the mating of relatives from the third generation onwards – i.e. mating cousins with each other.


Gene frizzle

A British study on the 50 most popular British dog breeds showed that a disposition for a large variety of disorders was present in some breeds, and a large number of breeds showed a disposition for specific disorders.

A total of 301 inherited disorders are mentioned in this study. As many as 71 per cent of these diseases are recessive, meaning that the disease carrying genes do not lead to illness when they occur as only one of a pair of genes. Low metabolism and eye diseases are among the disorders that affect the largest number of breeds.

The most illness prone breeds and the number of diseases the breed is susceptible to are:

  • German shepherd – 58
  • Golden retriever – 50
  • Boxer – 45
  • Labrador retriever – 44
  • English Springer Spaniel – 42

Miniature poodle, English springer spaniel, Miniature dachshound , Pug dog, English bulldog and basset hound are others of the 50 most popular breeds where breeding for exterior directly leads to more diseases. Doberman and Grand Danois are other breeds where breeding for exterior increases the possibilities for diseases.  

With such a high incidence of predisposition for disease, it is evident that inbreeding dramatically increases the likelihood that the disease carrying genes will occur in both genes in a pair and lead to de facto disease, says Vangen.

Breeding for race specific exterior gone off the rails

The other negative result is dogs that actually become ill due to faulty breeding for the breed specific exterior. Exterior – or looks – include traits which are inheritable, and changing the exterior through breeding gets results relatively quickly. This is both for good and for bad, because these traits are so highly inheritable. When the breeding goals are going in the wrong direction, and a faulty exterior brings with it such a large increase in disorders, this development is more for “bad” than for “good”, says Vangen.

In another section of the British study on the 50 most popular dog breeds, we find this list of dogs where the breeding for the breed specific exterior leads to the highest incidence of disease:

  • German shepherd
  • Boxer
  • Miniature poodle
  • Golden retriever
  • English Springer Spaniel
  • Labrador retriever
  • Miniature dachshound
  • Pug dog
  • Bulldog
  • Basset Hound

Out of 396 inheritable diseases, more than 21 per cent are due directly or indirectly to selection for exterior.

In the large dog breeds, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and skeletal-muscular diseases are among the most common. In the small dog breeds, the big issues are respiratory problems and disorders of the sensory nervous system (nerves that transmit signals to the central nervous system).


Cruelty to animals

Vangen holds that the breeding of certain dog breeds is so extreme, and the animals become vulnerable to such serious diseases, that the whole thing verges on cruelty to animals.

There are breeds that are so inbred that they should have been crossed out a long time ago. In those cases, breeding for exterior has certainly gone too far. Looking at certain breeds (before-and-after illustrations) it is easy to see how wrong one can go as far as functionality is concerned. Some breeds are completely defective, such as Shar Pei and British bulldog, says Vangen.

Some breed standards display a lack of recognition of the issues. The standard for Pug dogs is that the dog’s tail should be as curly as possible, with a tightly curled tail over the hip even though this is in fact an indication of a disposition for – or of an already occurred – deformation of the spine. We must put this type of problem on the agenda, says Vangen.


Why does breeding continue along the same (old) lines?

In dog breeding, loyalty to the international breed standard is a problem. There are rules for ethical breeding of production animals such as cattle and pigs, and according to Odd Vangen the rules for dog breeding should be no less strict.

In large areas of dog breeding – not only in Norway, but in many countries – it is difficult to achieve recognition of these ethical rules. There is a clear lack of knowledge about breeding. There are exceptions, but in general, it seems that dog breeding has never grasped the negative aspects of mating relatives, whether it is called inbreeding, linear breeding or breeding for a breed specific exterior.

The various clubs for pedigree dogs and the Norwegian Kennel Club (NKK) want to emphasize health, temperament (behavior) and performance traits. However, if one is to be able to control and breed for these traits, they must be registered and included in the selection of breeding dogs. To do this, it is necessary to use registration systems and tools for selection of the various traits – and this is largely not the case, says Professor Vangen.

The NKK’s basic rules for ethical breeding and rearing (in Norwegian) state that “The breeder’s selection and combination of breeding animals form the basis for the development of the dog breeds”.

What is missing is an overall, integrated scientifically based leadership with emphasis on all the traits that need to be included in a sustainable breeding program for dogs, Vangen points out.


Have the knowledge they need

In answer to Vangen’s claim that Norwegian dog breeding is lacking competence and expertise, NKK say to NRK (the Norwegian Broadcasting System) that they have the knowledge that they need, but admit that not all is quite as it should be. We can help create attitudes and an awareness that increases breeding using strong and healthy dogs, says Trine Hage, CeO of NKK to Norwegian Broadcasting. Furthermore, she holds that dog breeding is governed by dog buyers’ preferences. The buyer has incredible power. What is it about us humans that makes us think it is cool that the dog’s head is so big that the mother cannot give birth in the natural way? We are working flat out to counter the development, says Hage to Norwegian Broadcasting.


Law on animal welfare

The Norwegian Law on animal welfare, §25 on breeding, says:

Breeding shall promote traits that lead to robust animals with good function and health.

Breeding, including genetic engineering, shall not be used to:

  1. Change hereditary traits in a manner that affects the physical or mental functions of animals in a negative way, or that continues such hereditary traits.
  2. Reduce an animal’s possibility to practice normal behavior

Animals with hereditary traits according to paragraph 2 shall not be used in further breeding activities.


Working dogs are selected for a wider set of traits

The difference in the breeding of companion dogs and of working dogs is that the working dog must function in other areas in order to be included as a breeding dog. Unlike companion dogs, working dogs must achieve on hunting tests and other practical tests in order to be awarded a prize. Some working dogs clubs have developed databases of traits where they register the dogs’ performance on hunting and other behavioral or obedience tests, and use the results as part of the criteria for the selection of new breeding animals. This means that the exterior is not so important in the ranking of breeding dogs.


The breeding of dogs must change

The most successful farm animal breeds are those where the breeding organizations own the males. Where dogs are concerned, individual people own the males. This often leads to a conflict of interests between those who manage the overall breeding goals and those who own the males and have a financial interest in seeing that the most popular and award-winning males are intensively used for breeding, says Vangen.


Importing the same genes

In farm animal breeding, importing breeding animals or genes from other populations is a normal way of introducing new genetic variation into the population. Many dog breeds are also international and there is significant import of breeding animals. That should decrease kinship – but sadly, that is not the case.

The problem is that it is more or less close relatives that are imported, i.e. the same popular genetic material. The tendency is that the same popular lines are imported repeatedly. In the breeding plans for farm animal breeding, we look for the genes we need to import in order to increase the genetic variation and improve important traits, says Vangen.

Dog Health Groups Report from 2012 shows that the majority of the 100 investigated breeds have a population size that falls below the recommended minimum needed to maintain a low degree of inbreeding.


Some are taking action

Some breeds are now addressing behavioral traits, but it is too little and too slow compared to the threat of breeding for exterior, Vangen opines.

The collie is a positive example. Due to the films about Lassie, this breed became immensely popular in the 50s and 60s. However, intensive breeding without any selection resulted in nervous, anxious dogs who were afraid to move across a floor.

The selection of breeding animals did not improve by the fact that the dogs were placed on tables for inspections at dog shows, without possibilities to show natural movements or behavior, says Vangen.

Since the spring of 2010, there has been a close co-operation between SLU (the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences) and the Swedish collie club. In a doctoral thesis at SLU, indexes for mentality were developed. These indexes are now used by collie breeders to breed more functional dogs. A scientific article shows that fear is inheritable by 13 to 25 per cent. More than 200 collie dogs are now being tested each year in Sweden. The goal: to reduce fear as an inherited trait.

This is a good example of what is possible if one really wants to improve breeding, Vangen concludes.

Published 19. April 2016 - 12:54 - Updated 16. January 2019 - 15:10