How can we stop puppies and kittens being bred for their looks?

TradeMe announced that it would ban the sale of pugs, French bulldogs, and British bulldogs from its website. Veterinarian and New Zealand Veterinary Association (NZVA) companion animal spokesperson Rochelle Ferguson looks at the state of cat and dog breeding welfare in New Zealand and what can be done to improve it.

The recent TradeMe ban on listing English bulldogs, French bulldogs and pugs highlights the welfare issues that arise when irresponsible breeders create dogs to meet the demand for fashionable breeds.

In veterinary practice, my colleagues and I see first-hand the consequences of poorly bred cats and dogs. The catalogue of animal misery from irresponsible matings is a long one, from the young French bulldog that has an airway so small it faints from lack of oxygen every time it vomits, (developing life threatening pneumonia from inhaling its stomach contents in the process) to the middle-aged pug that has lost its eyesight from the constant rubbing of a misshapen eyelid.

A fair amount of veterinary endeavour goes towards performing correctional surgeries to provide these dogs with the ability to breathe, blink, and move comfortably – and they are the lucky ones. Others, with their problems not recognised or dismissed as being “normal for a their breed,” are destined to spend their entire lives with breathing difficulties, painful eyes and sore joints.

Veterinarians around the world are highlighting the diseases caused by exaggerated features such as short snouts as major welfare issues. The difficulties faced by many flat faced dogs and cats to simply breathe comfortably have been highlighted in the British Veterinary Association’s “Breed to Breathe” and the Australian Veterinary Association’s “Love is Blind” campaigns. There are, however, many other breeds struggling with diseases caused by those who breed to create a certain “look”.

Exaggerated features, such as the elongated backs seen in Basset hounds, the short legs typical of sausage dogs, the excessive skin folds that characterise the Shar pei and owl-like appearance from the folded ears on Scottish fold cats put these animals at greater risk of experiencing diseases related to their appearances than the more traditionally shaped cats and dogs.

Exaggerated features also interfere with an animals ability to breed. Almost all flat faced dogs are incapable of mating naturally. With breathing issues, large heads and small hips, a natural birth is beyond their physical ability. In order to produce a litter for sale, the breeder must subject the mother to a risky caesarean section. Every. Single. Time.

Judges at cat and dog shows reward those animals that conform to the breed standard. An English bulldog standard that requires a head to be “as large as possible” and a face to be “extremely short” offers no welfare protection to puppies from diseases related to their looks. This is compounded by high levels of inbreeding, particularly in unusual breeds which have small gene pools.

It is not only the way cats and dogs are bred to look that compromise their welfare, but also the conditions in which they are kept and raised. Puppies and kittens are vulnerable to illnesses and infections. To safeguard their health, the environments they are kept in must be comfortable and clean. Breeders have to understand principles of infection control, parasite management and nutrition in order to ensure their animals good health and give them the best start in life.

The needs of puppies and kittens are not only physical. If breeders don’t also meet the psychological needs of the kittens and puppies, problems can be created that will continue for the life of the animal and affect its ability to integrate into a new home. Cats and dogs have a critical socialisation period between three and twelve weeks, when they should be exposed to different people and animals to allow them to develop into well-adjusted pets. Poor socialisation during this period is the cause of many behavioural problems that make life miserable not only for the pet, but for its owner and the wider family. Breeders who keep puppies in isolation or who have more animals that they can regularly interact with, contribute to many of the problems seen in later life with aggressive dogs.

Countries around the world are enacting legislation to protect vulnerable puppies and kittens from those that seek to exploit them for their own financial gain. Many already require breeders who sell dogs to obtain a license. This allows for their premises to be inspected and sets down minimum standards for their care. The sale of pets by third parties is also regulated by some overseas governments with licenses required.