Purebred dogs: A moral minefield

By Peter Fricker, special to the Sun

December 15, 2011


Why do people buy dogs instead of adopting them? A quick check on Petfinder.com, an online database of animals available for adoption, found more than 300 dogs looking for homes in Metro Vancouver. For the cost of an adoption fee of around $250 to $350, one of these shelter dogs could be out of a kennel and into a family home.

Yet, classified advertising websites continue to attract buyers for dogs costing well over $500, with some reaching $3,000. People are apparently willing to pay much more for a privately sold dog because they “can get exactly the dog they want.” That is, they can get a particular breed at a particular age (i.e. a puppy). What these buyers don’t realize is that they are not only running financial risks, but they are also entering a moral minefield.

Despite warnings from animal welfare groups and media investigations exposing scams by online animal sellers, consumers continue to flock to these sites to find their perfect dog.

The result is a sadly familiar story that goes something like this: A family responds to an online ad for a puppy; a meeting is arranged with the seller, who delivers the dog, along with some paperwork about the dog’s health. The family soon discovers the dog is seriously ill, the paperwork is phoney and the seller is nowhere to be found. The dog was from a puppy mill and the family is left with huge veterinary bills or a puppy that has to be euthanized.

Many animal welfare organizations offer advice on how this scenario can be avoided, including tips on how to identify “reputable breeders” and what questions to ask before making a purchase.

While this might help avoid the worst scam artists and puppy mills, yet more risks face the consumer.

For one thing, there is no independent regulatory system to determine who qualifies as a reputable breeder. Breeders registered with the Canadian Kennel Club (CKC) only agree to a voluntary code of ethics and a code of practice that is not enforced with an inspection regime.

More importantly, if you think buying from a CKC registered breeder guarantees a healthy dog, think again. More than 500 genetic defects exist among today’s purebred dogs, with some individual breeds genetically predisposed to more than 90 diseases. This is directly attributable to the “closed studbook” system used by CKC-registered pedigree dog breeders, in which only descendants from a small “founding” group of animals can be bred. The resulting small gene pool increases the risk of inherited disorders.

Equally disturbing is the fact that the CKC’s “breed standards” require pedigree dogs to be bred for specific esthetic characteristics that can be detrimental to their welfare.

Perhaps the saddest example of pedigree dog breeding is the English bulldog. The CKC breed standard requires bulldogs to have a “massive short-faced head” which makes breathing difficult, thus risking overheating and limiting exercise. (One American veterinary surgeon has said that the human equivalent to breathing the way some bulldogs do “would be if we walked around with our mouth or nose closed and breathed through a straw.”)

Bulldog puppies must be delivered by caesarean section because their “massive” heads won’t fit through the mother’s birth canal. Bulldogs are also predisposed to hip dysplasia, heart defects and skin infections. For bulldog owners, it can mean endless and expensive trips to the vet. For the dog, it means endless discomfort and suffering.

This is where the moral question arises alongside the consumer protection issue. Does it make economic or ethical sense to buy an expensive purebred dog (with a significant risk of genetic disease) while hundreds of cheaper homeless mutts languish in shelters?

For those who insist on acquiring a particular dog breed, a Petfinder search will turn up local specific-breed rescue groups and identify purebreds available in nearby shelters. While choice may be somewhat limited, with a little patience the “right” dog can usually be found.

The public is becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of purchasing animals from pet stores and online advertising. People are starting to understand the problem of puppy mills. But they also need to know that this is just one part of a wider problem concerning the breeding and selling of dogs.

Buying into the world of pedigree dogs is buying into an unfolding genetic disaster that is causing millions of dogs needless pain and suffering. Adopting from a shelter or rescue group is an act of compassion. For once, the smart choice is also the kind-hearted one.