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Pedigree Dogs Exposed

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"Pedigree Dogs Exposed" - BBC 1, Tuesday 19th August, 2008

English BullldogOnce more this controversial subject hits the headlines as a BBC documentary has found that pedigree dogs are suffering from genetic diseases caused by years of inbreeding.

The BBC investigation says that looks are emphasised over health in pedigree show dogs.

The programme focuses on Cavalier King Charles Spaniels whose brains have grown too big for their skulls causing a debilitating condition called ‘Syringomyelia’, Boxers that suffer from Epilepsy, Greyhounds dependant on steroids, Pugs with breathing problems, Poodles with gender issues, Dalmatians and deafness, German Shepherds with hip dysplasia and Bulldogs that are unable to mate or give birth unassisted.

It is the United Kingdom Kennel Club that sets the breed standards for pedigree show dogs. Dogs that suffer from genetic diseases are not excluded from the show ring in fact some do go on to win ‘Best in Breed’ despite them having serious genetic illnesses.

Physical traits required to meet the breed standards such as short faces, screw tails, wrinkling and dwarfism can cause health problems. To win the coveted prize some breeders strive to exaggerate physical traits by inbreeding their stock.

One study carried out by scientists at the Imperial College in London has revealed that of the 10,000 pugs in the UK only 50 of them are true and distinct individuals.

Professor of Genetics at University College London, Steve Jones said:

"People are carrying out breeding which would be first of all entirely illegal in humans and secondly is absolutely insane from the point of view of the health of the animals."

"In some breeds they are paying a terrible price in genetic disease."

One of the people interviewed in the programme to be shown tonight is RSPCA chief vet Mark Evans who says:

"The welfare and quality of life of many pedigree dogs is seriously compromised by established breeding practices for appearance, driven primarily by the rules and requirements of competitive dog showing and pedigree dog registration."

The UK Kennel Club has responded in true style to this controversial issue. Caroline Kisko, spokeswoman for the club claims that they are all working tirelessly to improve the health of the pedigree dog. She said:

"Any dog may be shown but it is up to the judge to decide if it fits the breed standard... It is when characteristics become exaggerated that health problems can occur. This is something that the Kennel Club does not encourage and actively educates people, including judges, against doing as part of its 'Fit For Function, Fit For Life' campaign."

The aim of this latest study carried out be researchers at the Imperial College London was to look at the extent of inbreeding in pedigree dogs and as to how this reduces their genetic variation.

Genetic problems arise when pedigree dogs that have won competitions for exhibiting characteristics desirable for that breed are then used for breeding purposes. One stud show dog can father many litters which in turn, over generations, leads to dogs being paired with others that are in fact closely related to them.

On August 8th 2008 the UK Kennel Club released the following statement on their website:

"For more than two years now the Kennel Club and others have been co-operating with a TV production company called Passionate Productions who have been making a film on the subject of canine health. We agreed to take part entirely on the basis of that company’s written assurance that the programme’s ultimate message was “intended to be a hopeful one, showing how science and breeders can combine to preserve our purebreds for the future.”  That message fits precisely with the view of the Kennel Club, and so we set about giving information and interviews to the production company, and encouraging others to do so as well.

Sadly we soon discovered that the members of the production company seemed to have pre-conceived and extremely biased views on the subject.  Alarm bells rang when we found out the biassed nature of many of the questions being posed both to ourselves and to others. The vast majority covered negative issues – few if any were about the positive aspects of purebred dogs.

We now know that the BBC, which has bought the programme, will show it on BBC1 at 9pm on Tuesday 19th August.  From the beginning the Kennel Club has worked consistently to explain our point of view on canine health both to the production company and latterly to the BBC, describing the vast amount of time, effort and money the majority of breeders put into breeding healthy dogs. We have also ensured that other interested parties have made the same point to the BBC. In so doing we have of course acknowledged that there are problems in some breeds, many of which originally stem back to the Victorian era, but we have stressed that we are today in the forefront of using science to address these issues.

We have also explained the work done to eliminate from breed standards any exaggerations which might cause problems. We have described the work going on to ensure that show judges pay particular attention to issues which could be detrimental to the health or welfare of dogs. We have outlined the many DNA and other health screening programmes which exist, and have given details of the Accredited Breeders Scheme and our latest “Fit for function: fit for life” campaign.

Finally, we have been at pains to remind the BBC of the requirements in its Charter to be rigorously impartial and balanced in its reporting.

Despite all of this we still fear that, when broadcast, this programme may omit much of the positive information supplied, with the result that it will be damaging to the reputation of pedigree dogs, dog breeders and the Kennel Club. We hope that, in the process, it will not end up damaging the very dogs which, throughout, the programme makers have claimed they are so anxious to help.

This is of course looking at the worst case outcome.  It may be that our efforts have been understood and borne in mind as the programme has been put together and that we have done enough to balance the content and tone.   Whatever the eventual result you can be assured that the Kennel Club will go on working for the benefit of pedigree dogs and that we will continue to communicate the many positive messages which are there to be told.

Ronnie Irving, Chairman."

Young Puppy The programme will reveal some historical factors that have contributed to these genetically inherited diseases and goes on to explore what measures breeders can take to tackle the issue.

One thing is for sure, the programme, with its images of a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel writhing in agony because its brain is trying to burst out of its skull is bound to further heighten the controversy surrounding today’s pedigree dog breeding market.

Make no mistake….whilst undoubtedly some breeders implement good breeding practises and genuinely care for the welfare of their stock; others see dog breeding as a means to make a quick profit.

Pedigree dogs account for three quarters of Britain’s seven million pet dogs and while pet ownership continues to rise and fuel the demand for puppies, so breeders are churning out more and more litters with little thought as to the parent’s genetic relationships. Vets reap the rewards from the downside of the dog breeding industry to the tune of £10 Million being forked out by dog owners every week.

The BBC is now considering their close relationship with Crufts following this four year long scientific study. Mark Evans, RSPCA’s chief vet said:

"When I watch Crufts, what I see is a parade of mutants. It's some freakish garish beauty pageant that has nothing, frankly to do with health and welfare.... We've become completely and utterly desensitized to the fact that breeding these deformed, disabled, disease-prone animals is either shocking or abnormal."

While Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College of London also says:

"If dog breeders insist on going further down that road, I can say with confidence that there is a universe of suffering waiting for many of these breeds and many, if not most, will not survive."

We can no longer close our eyes to the suffering of pedigree dogs born with genetic defects. Solving the problem may require new legislation to increase controls over the breeding of pedigree dogs as despite Caroline Kisko’s assurances that the Kennel Club are striving to improve the breed standards so that extreme physical traits are omitted, there are still thousands of dogs born with serious genetic complaints.

Eamon Hardy. Executive producer for the programme said:

"In light of this programme, the BBC will request a meeting with the Kennel Club to discuss the implications and potential impact of the film."


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