Books

Here's Why Breeding Dogs Amounts to Animal Cruelty

When humans get involved with other species, things often get messed up.

Photo Credit: Zekobm/Shutterstock

The following essay, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, is from the new book Tamed and Untamed: Close Encounters of the Animal Kindby Sy Montgomery and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas (2017, Chelsea Green Publishing).

Why do cats live longer than dogs? And why are most cats free of the bone deformities, respiratory problems, and other serious deficiencies found in dogs? The answer is that cats choose their own mates. Or most of them did until it became important to spay or neuter cats, partly because the shelters became overcrowded with unwanted cats who had to be euthanized to make space for more unwanted cats, and partly because the feral cat populations were mostly successful, thus too many cats were outdoors killing birds.

Choosing one’s mate is the best way of breeding by far, and mostly it’s up to the females. Yes, males come sniffing around as interested suitors, but females choose whom to accept. We humans do this, dogs once did it, and cats still do it if they can, choosing strength, good health, and high status.

Dog breeders have different agendas, encouraged by the various kennel clubs and dog-show providers to produce animals who are grossly distorted and seldom live as long as dogs bred for other purposes. As for me, I had dogs who were not spayed or neutered, and two of them, both Siberian huskies, produced three puppies so fit and healthy that as young adults they won just about everything there was to win in the New Hampshire three-dog races. Other contenders hated to see them coming.

All my huskies were fabulous as racing dogs. We have an attic full of trophies to prove it. They lived in good health to old ages, and if they’d had to live in the woods, they’d have made it on their own without a problem.

I’m not saying that every dog should be physically capable of living in the wild, although that’s not a bad thing. I’m just saying they’re better off without respiratory problems or hip dysplasia. And why do they have such problems? As has been said, they’re bred to meet certain standards that allegedly include good behavior but overwhelmingly are for various forms of unnatural appearance as determined not by other dogs but by kennel clubs—here in the United States it’s the American Kennel Club (AKC)—that issue the standards to breeders. For all the lip service offered by these kennel clubs about behavior, we ignore the fact that for dog breeds, behavioral similarities are minimal and individual differences are great, and when we accept the kennel club standards we say good-bye to strong dogs with good health and high status.

I adopted a small dog from a shelter. Supposedly purebred, he had AKC papers. We knew he was born on a puppy farm and was sold to a chain store such as PetSmart, then sold again to someone in a city apartment, so he left his mother far too soon and didn’t know where to relieve himself or what grass was, or so it seemed, as he buried his nose in grass whenever he came upon it. He was looking for traces of other dogs, I later learned, but at the time I only knew that he was lonely and frightened. I was handed his AKC papers, but not wanting to be humiliated if anyone saw them, I tore them up and burned them in the woodstove as soon as I got home.

If not for what I had seen a few months earlier, I would merely have dropped his papers in the recycling bin when I got around to it. But before adopting this dog, I had watched an AKC dog show. One contender was a little Pekinese—a breed developed for fluffy fur and short faces—and as the poor little thing was paced around the ring in the supposedly triumphant final cycle, she was panting so fast and so hard in her desperate struggle for oxygen that she had to stop and walk. She would have liked to sit down to catch her breath, but she was forced to continue.

Dogs with flat faces have the same amount of respiratory tubing that dogs with normal faces do, but it’s so scrunched up in their distorted skulls that air can hardly pass through. But to the judges, her condition was no problem. Of all the dogs present, and there were plenty of them, thanks to her fluffy hair and flattened face, this poor little gasping creature won Best in Show.

When humans get involved with other species, especially if they try to manage another species, things often get messed up. Ever since a dog’s appearance made a difference, breeders have been manipulating what dogs look like no matter what this does to health and longevity.

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Sy Montgomery has written more than 20 books, including The Soul of an Octopus (a New York Times bestseller and National Book Award finalist), The Good Good Pig and Birdology. Find her online at symontgomery.com

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas' books include The Hidden Life of Dogs (a New York Times bestseller), The Social Lives of Dogs and The Tribe of Tiger. Find her online at elizabethmarshallthomas.net.